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Swept Under the Rug

April 3, 2012

What happens at the end of a wind turbine’s useful life?

This question shouldn’t be overlooked, because someone is going to be responsible for their removal.

Will it be the operator of the wind farm? The farmer or land owner? Or the city or town in which they are located?

The potential size of the problem can be demonstrated by comparing the number of wind turbines required to replace one 1,000 MW coal-fired power plant. The coal-fired power plant will be in operation for at least 40 years.

It requires 1,900 1.5 MW wind turbines to generate the same amount of electricity during a year as the single 1,000 MW coal-fired power plant. A 1.5 MW wind turbine is typical of those built until now.

If the life of a wind turbine is 20 years and that of the coal-fired power plant is 40 years, it means that 3,800 wind turbines will have to be removed (i.e., torn down) when they come to the end of their lives vs. one coal-fired power plant.

By one estimate, there are over 14,000 abandoned wind turbines in the United States that require removal. Most of these are old units in California.

The picture shows a few of 37 abandoned wind turbines in Hawaii. They were put in operation in 1987 and the final one was shut down in 2006. Note missing blades and rusting structures.

Abandoned Hawaii Wind Turbines

Abandoned Hawaii Wind Turbines

It’s only recently that people have started to focus on the maintenance of units when they are no longer in warranty, where warranties are typically for five years. Because of this lack of experience, little is known about the costs that will be incurred when the units are out of warranty.

Aside from the fact that wind turbines are uneconomic without subsidies, there are the important issues of wind turbines killing birds and bats, the noise they generate, the fact that they produce electricity intermittently and at night when it isn’t needed and the question of what will happen to them when they are no longer in use.

It’s the last concern that hasn’t received very much attention.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. jameshrust permalink
    April 3, 2012 1:41 pm

    Good point about shutdown that has been totally ignored. In 1987 I drove I-10 into Palm Springs, CA heading East. I was stunned by the thousands of windmills on both sides of the road, none with blades turning. This is 25 years later, are they still there?

    I have not picked up definitive lifetimes for solar or wind power plants. I think both are from 20 to 25 years. The abandoning of solar plants that occupy square miles is the same problem with wind turbines. I suspect both of these types of power plants contain toxic metals that will cause problems. It is ironic, the EPA that is so vigourously trying to stop use off all fossil fuels, in particular coal that it is being successful, is pushing solar, wind, and biofuels as energy sources that may be far greater environmental threats than the energy sources they replace.

    You may ask why biofuels? Ethanol from corn is our number one biofuels. Farmers know corn depletes the soil worse than most crops and requires lots of fertilizers to restore the soil for raising future crops. These fertilizers are susceptible to runoff that pollutes rivers.

    There is no renewable energy source with today’s technology that is economical or reliable. Some philosopher said it is all right to make mistakes; but it is stupid to repeat them. Solar, wind, and ethanol from corn originated during the Carter administration and were impractical and uneconomical. It is stupid to repeat this folly.

    James Rust, Professor

  2. April 3, 2012 2:35 pm

    Good observations.

  3. April 3, 2012 2:35 pm

    You may call me cynical but it seems to me some, perhaps many proponents of alternative energy are as callous to the impact their devices make on the environment as they claim their traditional energy counterparts have no concern. .

    Can you imagine that if a nuclear power plant, or a coal surface mine, or a coal generated power plant, or a hydroelectric plant that killed scores (up to 70 to be exact) of golden eagles annually would be allowed to operate by the EPA?

    The wind farm located in the Altamont Pass, CA kills not only scores of golden eagles, but red tailed hawks, and other raptors each year. I hear no outcry from the green citizenry in San Francisco the city which benefits from this “clean” energy source.

    I believe this kind of double standard is proof that the ends justify the means among many renewable energy proponents and they are willing to sacrifice anything to get their way, including the truth.

  4. April 3, 2012 2:41 pm

    Thanks Keith.
    The Greens have an objective which has little to do with the environmental issues that concern you and me, pollution, etc.
    Their objective is to cut CO2 emissions 80% by 2050, and wind, solar and biofuels are their means for achieving this objective.
    This can best be illustrated by the EPA’s war on coal.

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