Environmentalists and wind energy opportunists (entrepreneurs who take advantage of generous tax credits and multiple other subsidies) want you to believe wind energy is as pure “green” as newly driven snow is white, and as cheap as food from Taco Bell’s dollar menu.
They never tell you about the costs – or the environmental destruction – they have hidden from you for decades. But neither do most governments, news media or social media.
Generous Government Support, Limited Power Delivery
Ars Technica science editor John Timmer says wind hardware prices are dropping, even as new turbine designs are increasing the typical power generated by each turbine. Timmer, however, admitted “wind is even cheaper at the moment because of a tax credit given to renewable energy generation” [emphasis added]. He cautioned phasing out the many existing incentives could create uncertainties regarding wind’s future cost and dominance. But that’s about it.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s 2018 Wind Technologies Market Report glowingly stated: “With the support of federal tax incentives, both wind and solar power purchase agreement (PPA) prices are now below the projected cost of burning natural gas in existing gas-fired combined cycle units.”
This is despite the fact that the DOE’s own data show wind’s “capacity factor,” the percent of time actually generating electricity at full capability, is only 35 percent, compared to 57 percent for natural gas plants and 92 percent for nuclear. In many locations, huge industrial wind facilities actually generate power considerably less than 30 percent the time annually. On the hottest and coldest days, power from industrial wind facilities is often close to zero.
By comparison, nuclear power plants produced 20 percent of U.S. electricity in 2019, despite having only 9 percent of the nation’s generation capacity.
Huge Land Impact
In addition to being weather-dependent, intermittent, and unreliable, wind turbines cover vast areas of land, affecting scenic views and local moistures, temperature, and wind flow, killing bats and birds of prey—for which, in contrast to other industries, they suffer no penalties under migratory bird or endangered species laws.
And, compared to traditional fossil fuel, hydroelectric, and nuclear power plants, wind turbines have relatively short life spans. Tragically but predictably, because of the massive amounts of raw materials including rare earth elements they require, the growth of wind power has been accompanied by an enormous increase in air and water pollution in faraway countries relatively poor countries where a lot of the mining, processing and manufacturing are done, before turbine parts are shipped to America.
What About the Waste?
These environmentally harmful impacts of wind power are just ignored in DOE’s report.
Similarly, you might also be surprised to learn that not a single page of the massive DOE report mentions the term “wind turbine waste.” Nor does the DOE’s Fact Sheet, “Advancing the Growth of the U.S. Wind Industry: Federal Incentives, Funding and Partnership Opportunities.” The DOE fact sheet provides information on four tax credit programs, three loan and grant programs, four sources for R&D grants and cooperative agreements, and five sources for technology deployment grants – plus a number of partnership opportunities with DOE national laboratories. It’s as if wind turbines never die and never leave anything behind.
Typically, when turbines reach end-of-life, the project owner replaces the old turbines and blades with newer models; only a few companies have chosen total decommissioning and removal. Some states (most recently Texas and North Carolina) and localities have their own standards. But only federal standards (overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management) apply to facilities on federal lands.
DOE’s fact sheet is silent on wind turbine waste, including the huge concrete and rebar foundations, and blades that are up to 107 meters (351 feet) long. So are most politicians, wind advocates, and publications touting wind energy. In fact, turbine foundations and blades are generally not recyclable, economically or otherwise.
The volume of wind turbine waste is projected to soar in years to come, with mining and manufacturing waste, service waste, and end-of-life waste the major sources. It is estimated there will be 43 million metric tons just of blade waste worldwide by 2050. China is projected to be responsible for generating 40 percent of the waste, followed by Europe (25 percent) and the USA (19 percent).
London-based Principia Scientific International calls turbine blades “a toxic amalgam of unique composites, fiberglass, epoxy, polyvinyl chloride foam, polyethylene terephthalate foam, balsa wood, and polyurethane coatings. Basically, there is just too much plastic-composite-epoxy crapola that isn’t worth recycling.” Until better methods are found, landfills are among the few options available for decommissioned turbines.
In the European Union, used blades are cut up and burned in kilns or power plants, releasing air toxins and carbon dioxide, but not in the United States.
A separate tractor-trailer is needed to haul each blade to a landfill, and cutting them up requires powerful specialized equipment. With some 8,000 blades a year already being removed from service just in the United States, equalling 32,000 truckloads over the next four years; in a few years, the numbers will be five times higher.
Some wind energy companies cut the huge blades into short sections before sending them to landfills, because most landfills lack cutting tools. Today’s turbine blades are 20 percent longer and their towers up to 200 feet taller than most of those currently being landfilled.
High Disposal Costs, Shrinking Landfill Acceptance
Turbine disposal costs are upwards of $400,000 apiece, amounting to $24 billion to dispose of the 60,000 turbines currently in use in the U.S. The cost and the toll on existing landfills will rise as more, longer, heavier blades reach their end of life. And that’s if landfills will take them. Because of the potentially toxic elements in them and the huge amount of space they require, only certified landfills accept decommissioned wind turbine parts. Yet, municipalities running certified landfills are increasingly rejecting wind turbine blades, even when they can charge double the amount per ton for accepting turbines, because they take up tremendous amounts of space, must be crushed at considerable expense, and take hundreds of years to break down.
Over the next 20 years, the U.S. alone could have to dispose of 720,000 tons of waste blade material, even as a 2018 report predicted a 15 percent decline in U.S. landfill capacity by 2021, with potentially only 15 years’ capacity remaining. We will have to permit entirely new landfills simply to handle wind turbine waste—on top of mountains of solar panel and battery waste.
Turbines Create Flight Hazards
Also unaccounted for in DOE’s report is the fact that industrial wind facilities are becoming flight hazards, with and increasing number regions rejecting them because of this.
The Locke Foundation cites University of Kansas studies confirming wind farms create unsafe flying conditions. The rotational force of wind turbines can create extreme turbulence that makes flying dangerous and landing close by nearly impossible. Indeed, a Michigan county bars air ambulances from rescuing citizens living near wind farms, due to safety concerns.
What About Warming?
Generating just today’s U.S. electricity output with wind power could warm continental U.S.A. surface temperatures by 0.24o C (0.43o F), with the warming effect strongest at night. This is only a tenth of the warming generated by solar photovoltaic systems, but not insignificant – and the larger the wind farm, the greater the localized warming.
Back in 2013, when turbines were smaller than today, Lafarge North America said it took about 750 cubic yards (2,500,000 pounds) of concrete (plus rebar) to anchor just one wind turbine; Nextera wind admitted to using over 800 metric tons of concrete per smaller turbine. (These figures do not include the significant concrete and asphalt needed to upgrade rural roads to handle heavy turbine components.)
Furthermore, manufacturing concrete is already the third largest emitter of (shudder!) carbon dioxide – after burning coal, natural gas, and oil. It also requires nearly a tenth of the world’s industrial water use.
To sum up, wind farms require a lot of carbon dioxide-emitting aluminum, concrete, plastics, rare earths, steel, and other materials. They disturb natural air flows. They decimate bird and bat populations, and cause infrasound and light-flicker that impairs human health, while generating relatively little electricity at low capacity and high cost. Dead turbine blades overwhelm landfills.
Yet, advocates would have you believe wind is cheap, clean, green, renewable, and sustainable. The push for additional wind power contained in the Democratic party’s Green New Deal would be funny, if it weren’t so economically and ecologically expensive.
Duggan Flanakin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is director of policy research for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (www.CFACT.org).