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.
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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