Wind turbines pay back energy-costs in one to six months; most U.S. wind turbines are made in the U.S., Denmark and Spain

CLAIM
Wind turbines in the US are made of toxic materials that pollute the environment, are mostly built in Germany, and will not pay off their manufacturing costs within their lifetimes.
DETAILS
Inaccurate: Wind turbines only take one to six months of operation to produce more energy than needed to manufacture and dismantle them. The majority of U.S. turbines are built by companies based in the U.S., Denmark, and Spain—not Germany—each with manufacturing facilities in the U.S.
Misleading: Wind turbines leak 1000 times less oil than oil rigs. Although fiberglass-composite wind turbine blades are made of a toxic resin, it isn’t released into the environment when the blade is buried in a landfill.
KEY TAKE AWAY
The manufacturing costs of wind turbines are recouped within one to six months of operation. While wind turbines are made of materials that can potentially harm the environment, their environmental impact is relatively small compared to fossil fuel facilities. Wind turbines leak 1000 times less oil than oil rigs, on average. The lubricant used by wind turbines can also be recaptured by secondary-containment methods if it leaks. The fiberglass-composite in turbine blades is not biodegradable, so its toxic resin is not released into landfills. Moreover, U.S. turbines are manufactured in many countries around the world, with a significant fraction built in the U.S.

FULL CLAIM: most of the parts for a wind turbine are built in Germany, it requires 60 gallons of oil to lubricate the turbine; that oil leaks when a seal busts on the ground or into the water. The blades are made of a toxic fiberglass combination and are buried in landfills. The turbine has to spin continuously for 7 plus years just to replace the energy it took to manufacture the turbine. It has to run continually for 50 years just to pay for the cost to manufacture and install the turbine

Dozens of Facebook posts (such as this one or this one posted in March 2021) made multiple misleading claims about the construction, productivity, and impact of wind turbines on the environment, as we describe below. Each of these posts was shared more than 1,000 times on Facebook.

The Manufacturing Costs of Wind Turbines are recouped within one to six Months of Operation

The post claims that a turbine “has to run continually for 50 years just to pay for the cost to manufacture and install the turbine”, pointing out that the lifespan of a turbine is about 25 years. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that the expected lifespan of a wind turbine is between 20 and 25 years, as claimed in the post[1]. However, according to reliable assessments of wind farm efficiency, turbines will recoup their manufacturing, installation, dismantling, and disposal energy-costs after between one and six months of operation, resulting in up to 24 years of beneficial energy production[2,3,4]. Previous claims about the energy production of wind turbines were evaluated in this Climate Feedback review.

The Oil Lubricant in a Turbine is a Comparatively Minor Environmental Concern

The amount of oil used to lubricate moving parts in a wind turbine depends on the design, but typically ranges from 20 gallons to 200 gallons[5,6]. The post suggests that if a seal breaks, the lubricant leaks out of the turbine and into the ground or water, implying that this can cause environmental harm. These two aspects of the claim are inaccurate and misleading.

Firstly, the oil lubricating the wind turbine is unlikely to leak into the environment because most of the oil is contained in the turbine’s gearbox[5,7,8]. Although these  gearboxes can fail, the vast majority of these failures don’t cause oil leaks or only cause minor leaks[5,7,8]. In fact, only about 2% of gearbox failures are related to the lubrication and filtration systems directly[7]. Even when the turbine’s performance is halted due to a large oil leak, reports find that not all of the gearbox oil leaks out into the ground or water[5]. In fact, because turbines stop functioning correctly when the amount of oil lubricant drops below a certain level, engineers can detect the problem and intervene[5].

More importantly, focusing on potential oil leakages from a single wind turbine might mislead readers regarding the overall environmental impacts of wind farms relative to other energy-production facilities. Since wind turbines use oil, there is always a chance the oil can leak and harm the environment. However, wind farms contribute far less pollution than fossil fuel competitors, including pollution inherent to manufacturing and disposal[2,3,9]. As the technology matures, wind farms can become even cleaner[2,3].

Wind power is often advertised as a “green” energy in comparison to fossil fuels. To understand its benefit over fossil fuels, one could compare how much oil is likely to leak from a typical wind farm and from a typical oil rig. At minimum, an oil well is expected to leak more than a thousand times as much oil on average than a wind farm (about 1,500,000 gallons vs 1,000 gallons over a 30 year period)[6,9][Footnote-1].

Based on the above numbers, the wind farm is much less harmful to the environment than an oil rig in terms of oil leaks, but wind farms also have other advantages. In a wind farm containing 130 turbines and an electrical service platform (containing four transformers), there is an estimated 68,000 gallons of oil. The odds of all this oil spilling due to a catastrophic failure is less than one in a million over a 30 year period[6]. By contrast, an oil well can spill millions of gallons of oil in a day during a “blowout” event[9]. A blowout event is almost five thousand times more likely than the catastrophic failure of the wind farm (slightly less than a one in two-hundred chance over a 30 year period)[9]. The large concentration of oil leaked by a single blowout event at an oil well is much more damaging to the environment than the same amount of oil leaked over a larger period of time, according to assessments[9]. Consequently, even in the worst-case scenario, the wind farm is far less harmful to the environment in terms of the amount of oil leaked.

Furthermore, the wind farm has “secondary containment” methods to catch oil that leaks from its electrical service platform. The effect of secondary containment was not included in the above estimates, so the wind farm is expected to perform even better than quoted. Finally, the lubrication oil in the wind turbine can potentially be replaced by biodegradable and nontoxic lubricants, which are in development[10]. The same cannot happen for an oil rig, which extracts oil from the ground.

The Toxic Resins in the Turbine Blades aren’t released into the ground when they’re buried in landfills

The majority of the wind turbine blades in the U.S. are buried in landfills[11], however, the toxic resin used to create the fiberglass-composite blades is not released into the ground. The resin is used for its durability, therefore  it is not biodegradable. Contrary to the post’s claim, the most environmentally harmful effect of burying blades in a landfill is the methane (a nontoxic greenhouse gas) released as the balsa wood frame of the blade biodegrades over hundreds of years. This slow release of methane from the wood is not nearly as harmful to the environment as the use of fossil fuels. In addition, methane recapture methods can be implemented in landfills to mitigate damage to the atmosphere.

Instead of the environmental harm of burying blades in landfills, governments and companies are more concerned with the space the blades occupy in landfills[11]. Due to their durability, turbine blades are difficult to compress into a smaller volume, but disposing of them in landfills is cheap.

To combat space issues in landfills, scientists and engineers are developing and improving methods to recycle blades[12]. The European wind turbine company Vestas already recycles 44% of blades and aims to recycle 55% by 2030[13]. On December 8 2020, GE Renewables, the division of General Electric responsible for U.S. wind turbine production, signed an agreement with Veolia to recycle more than 90% of its onshore wind turbine blades[14]. This process will also prevent methane from being released into landfills.

U.S. Turbines are Built in Many Countries, Including the U.S.

Wind turbines aren’t typically manufactured in Germany. In 2019, three companies were responsible for more than 75% of the wind energy capacity currently available in the U.S.:  GE Renewables (based in the U.S.), Vestas (based in Denmark), and Siemens Gamesa (based in Spain)[15,16][Footnote-2]. Each company has manufacturing locations in the U.S. to produce U.S. turbines[17-19]. At least the majority of turbines in the U.S. are produced within the country, providing jobs and economic benefits.

 

FOOTNOTES

  • 1: According to a credible review text, the chance of a blowout in an oil well is about 0.15% per well per year[9]. The average volume of oil leaked during a blowout event depends on the safety measures that were successfully implemented on the rig. For 84% of blowouts, “natural bridging” reduces the average oil leakage to 5.7 million gallons. Natural bridging occurs when naturally occurring solid products in the oil build up and block the site of the oil leak. The process can be encouraged as a safety measure. For 6% of blowouts, “capping and containment” keeps the average oil leakage to about 36 million gallons. Capping and contaminants methods are those that use man-made structures to encapsulate the site of the oil leak. When the aforementioned measures fail in the remaining 10% of blowouts, “relief well drilling” stops the leakage after an average of almost 280 million gallons of oil leaks. A relief well is a separate well that can be dug to intersect the one that is leaking at a location upstream from the leak site. Specialized liquids can then be injected into the relief well to block the flow of oil before the leakage site. Combining estimates for leaks due to these three blowout outcomes, the average amount of oil leaked due to blowout events from a single rig is about 1,500,000 gallons over a 30 year period. Notably, this estimate is only for blowout events. Smaller spills are expected to occur, which pushes the amount of total oil leaked higher. Furthermore, there are other oil-spill events related to oil wells, such as spills on crude oil transport ships. Based on projective modeling, 1,263 gallons of oil are expected to spill over a 30 year period due to failures of the wind farm facility[6]. These failures are due to natural disasters and well as structural issues. The wind farm contains 130 turbines and an electrical service platform. Notably, the electrical service platform has secondary containment to capture oil that spills, so the predicted number is likely an overestimate.
  • 2: One can calculate how many U.S. turbines (operational and retired) are created by each company each year, using the raw data publicly available through the U.S. Energy Information Administration[16]. Based on this data, three companies installed about 77% of the turbines in operation in the U.S. as of 2019. These turbines produce almost 80% of the wind energy used in the states[16]. GE is responsible for about 42% of the turbines, Vestas is responsible for about 25% of the turbines, and Siemens is responsible for about 11% of the turbines.

 

REFERENCES

 

Published on: 08 Apr 2021 | Editor:

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