What I See When I See A Wind Turbine

What I See When I See a Wind Turbine, by Vaclav Smil

From the March 2016 issue of Spectrum, the magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers

Wind turbines are the most visible symbols of the quest for renewable electricity generation. And yet, although they exploit the wind, which is as free and as green as energy can be, the machines themselves are pure embodiments of fossil fuels.

Large trucks bring steel and other raw materials to the site, earth-moving equipment beats a path to otherwise inaccessible high ground, large cranes erect the structures, and all these machines burn diesel fuel. So do the freight trains and cargo ships that convey the materials needed for the production of cement, steel, and plastics. For a 5-megawatt turbine, the steel alone averages 150 metric tons for the reinforced concrete foundations, 250 metric tons for the rotor hubs and nacelles (which house the gearbox and generator), and 500 metric tons for the towers.

If wind-generated electricity were to supply 25 percent of global demand by 2030 (forecast to reach about 30 petawatt-hours), then even with a high average capacity factor of 35 percent, the aggregate installed wind power of about 2.5 terawatts would require roughly 450 million metric tons of steel. And that’s without counting the metal for towers, wires, and transformers for the new high-voltage transmission links that would be needed to connect it all to the grid.

A lot of energy goes into making steel. Sintered or pelletized iron ore is smelted in blast furnaces, charged with coke made from coal, and receives infusions of powdered coal and natural gas. Pig iron is decarbonized in basic oxygen furnaces. Then steel goes through continuous casting processes (which turn molten steel directly into the rough shape of the final product). Steel used in turbine construction embodies typically about 35 gigajoules per metric ton. To make the steel required for wind turbines that might operate by 2030, you’d need fossil fuels equivalent to more than 600 million metric tons of coal.

A 5-MW turbine has three roughly 60-meter-long airfoils, each weighing about 15 metric tons. They have light balsa or foam cores and outer laminations made mostly from glass-fiber-reinforced epoxy or polyester resins. The glass is made by melting silicon dioxide and other mineral oxides in furnaces fired by natural gas. The resins begin with ethylene derived from light hydrocarbons, most commonly the products of naphtha cracking, liquefied petroleum gas, or the ethane in natural gas. The final fiber-reinforced composite embodies on the order of 170 GJ/t. Therefore, to get 2.5 TW of installed wind power by 2030, we would need an aggregate rotor mass of about 23 million metric tons, incorporating the equivalent of about 90 million metric tons of crude oil. And when all is in place, the entire structure must be waterproofed with resins whose synthesis starts with ethylene.

Another required oil product is lubricant, for the turbine gearboxes, which has to be changed periodically during the machine’s two-decade lifetime. Undoubtedly, a well-sited and well-built wind turbine would generate as much energy as it embodies in less than a year. However, all of it will be in the form of intermittent electricity—while its production, installation, and maintenance remain critically dependent on specific fossil energies.

Moreover, for most of these energies—coke for iron-ore smelting, coal and petroleum coke to fuel cement kilns, naphtha and natural gas as feedstock and fuel for the synthesis of plastics and the making of fiberglass, diesel fuel for ships, trucks, and construction machinery, lubricants for gearboxes—we have no nonfossil substitutes that would be readily available on the requisite large commercial scales. For a long time to come—until all energies used to produce wind turbines and photovoltaic cells come from renewable energy sources—modern civilization will remain fundamentally dependent on fossil fuels.

About the author: Vaclav Smil does interdisciplinary research in the fields of energy, environmental and population change, food production and nutrition, technical innovation, risk assessment, and public policy. He has published 40 books and nearly 500 papers on these topics. He is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (Science Academy). In 2010 he was named by Foreign Policy as one of the top 100 global thinkers and in 2013 he was appointed as a Member of the Order of Canada. He has worked as a consultant for many US, EU and international institutions, has been an invited speaker in more than 400 conferences and workshops in the USA, Canada, Europe, Asia and Africa, and has lectured at many universities in North America, Europe and East Asia. His wife Eva is a physician and his son David is an organic chemist.

Wind Turbine Under Construction

[Image not part of Vaclav Smil essay from IEEE Spectrum]

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12 Responses to What I See When I See A Wind Turbine

  1. Byron Betts PE says:

    Same for battery walls, solar panels, fuel cells and electric cars. Take care, Fred.

    • fgmarks says:

      According to Vaclav Smil, commenting in his book Energy Myths and Realities (2010), expectations for a long time were high that the diffusion of cars and buses powered by fuel cells was imminent. However, these machines have remained limited to a smallish number of demonstration units built at extravagant cost. The intervening ten years has not invalidated this assessment.

      Regarding solar panels, a fundamental consideration is that the Sun does not shine constantly, and not at all at night. There is a lot less solar energy early in the morning and late in the afternoon than at mid-day. At present, there is no available battery storage technology to carry more than a modicum of excess electricity from daytime for nighttime use. No new battery technology is in sight that would remedy this problem.

      For most people, solar panels would be a prohibitively costly way of generating electricity, taking into account the cost of photovoltaic (PV) collectors, battery storage to retain a modicum of daytime electric energy for nighttime use, and diesel fueled generators to provide electricity when battery storage ran out. For a typical American home located in a city or suburban area, the cost of installation would be around $25,000. That is extravagant compared to the cost of paying for electricity provided by an electric utility company—generally a few hundred dollars a month at most. There would be also ongoing costs for diesel fuel, and the noise problem of operating diesel generators every night.

      To provide the whole of humanity with electricity from solar panels would be far too costly, taking into account all costs including mining, smelting, processing, manufacturing and shipping of the panels and associated hardware and the cost of new large-scale, high voltage transmission lines that would have to be built to move the electric power from the deserts where it would best be generated to cities and suburban communities.

      In 2015, Elon Musk’s Tesla company introduced a product known as Powerwall, a battery that hangs on the wall of a garage. Musk claimed the Powerwall and solar panels could provide electric power to the U.S. and to the world. However, it appears the public is not buying Tesla’s Powerwalls in any great quantity, because of the cost. As of 2020 the cost of buying and installing the Tesla Powerwall was more than $10,000, plus another $10,000 to $30,000 for installing solar panels.

  2. Jeffrey P Lieb says:

    Dear Fred-
    I agree with everything Vaclav Smil says. Even Michael Moore agrees with this (and has made a film about the failure of “green” energy sources). The problem is that climate change appears to be both real and anthropogenic. We seem to be in a real fix here, and no one knows what to do about it. Things are made worse when people politicize this. This is a question of energy technology. The same holds true with corona virus therapeutics and vaccines.

    • fgmarks says:

      Hi Jeff:
      I appreciate your concern that climate change appears to be both real and anthropogenic. The blog portion of the CTLR website contains several posts on this subject. Two are by Richard Lindzen, a renowned Professor of meteorology and climate, Emeritus from MIT. In the most recent essay by Lindzen, on this website, he asserts that the idea of human-caused global warming is an implausible conjecture, backed by false evidence, and repeated incessantly that has become politically correct “knowledge” that is leading to the overturn of industrial civilization.

      Dr. Lindzen states further that the so-called evidence for human-caused global warming consists of misrepresentation, exaggeration,cherry picking, and outright lying. He provides examples.

      He concludes that what we shall be leaving our children is not an environment degraded by industrial progress but rather a record of unfathomable silliness and a landscape marred by rusting wind towers and decaying solar arrays.

      This is not an exact quote of Dr. Lindzen, but it is close.

      Dr. Lindzen has been a close student of this AGW issue since it became an issue in the late 1980s. He has written analyses of how the atmospheric systems work, and has addressed the contentions of those scientists who claim that carbon dioxide emissions must lead inexorably to much higher average global temperatures. He explains why he disagrees.

      I am quite sure he is very tired of the issue and of the politicization involved but continues to speak out even though he is nearing eighty years of age.

      Personally, I regard Richard Lindzen as one of my heroes, for his intellectual attainments, his courage, and his ability to explain phenomena about climate that are recondite for most people, and not easy to understand.

  3. Susan J Millis says:

    Facts are a beautiful thing. Free market innovation thrives on facts, facts that risk-takers need to determine when forging new paths of innovative trade-offs.

    • fgmarks says:

      Eventually, and little by little, experience will inform the American public about the realities of energy production and climate. Thomas Paine said in his essay Common Sense (third edition) that time makes more converts than reason.

      We live in an industrialized civilization presently based on fossil fuels for many things that Americans have become accustomed to enjoying–readily available electricity for air conditioning, refrigeration of perishable food, powering elevators in multi-story buildings, clean water pumped to h9omes and business establishments by electricity, sanitation facilities powered by electricity, powering personal computers, recharging batteries in mobile phones, fueling motor vehicles, trucks, trains, airplanes, ships, and more. Americans attitudes will be shaped by the realization that wind and solar power are unreliable and expensive and do not eliminate fossil fuels that are required to back up power generation

  4. Kevin A Maldonado says:

    I assume a similar analysis would apply to electronic vehicles. The shipping, production and even the final disposal of the vehicle is not Green. But alas, where there are tax dollars to enrich the believers, they will work to maximize.

    • fgmarks says:

      Vaclav Smil wrote an entire chapter of thirteen pages on electric cars in his book Energy Myths and Realities: Bringing Science to the Energy Policy Debate (2010). As usual with Professor Smil his analysis is thorough and realistic. In this book he says “The myth that the future belongs to electric vehicles is one of the original misconceptions of the modern energy era, going back to the very introduction of the first practical passenger cars . . .

      “Electric cars have never been a replacement for America’s family sedans, nor will they now replace vans and SUVs; they are a niche product whose small market share has always translated into small profits and, hence, into no more than very reluctant embrace by major car companies.”

      Smil observes that mass construction of charging stations must precede mass ownership of pure electric vehicles outside the suburbs. That is because in large cities, 30 to 60 percent of cars are parked curbside when not being driven.

      If despite these factors the electric cars become prevalent they will strain the electric generation capacity of the U.S. An all-electric fleet of passenger cars in the U.S. could require 25 percent of the U.S. electricity generation capacity.

      Electricity in the U.S. is still generated to a large extent by fossil fuels, a situation that will not change rapidly. Therefore, a mass switch to electric cars would not reduce CO2 emissions.

      There has been no proof that better batteries and better electric car performance would make electric cars much better performers than the best-performing gasoline-fueled vehicles now in use.

      Smil states that it is delusionary to believe that better batteries and better performing electric cars will reduce America’s dependence on domestic and imported petroleum.

      I summarize Smil’s views on this subject because there is no better informed or more knowledgeable authority on energy in general, and electric cars in particular.

  5. Heather M says:

    Hi Fred, always great to hear what you have been digging up. I would have liked a short sum up at the end to show the exact cost to make and the length of time needed to gain that cost (in emissions) back. I have been saying for years to friends that just because something is electric it isn’t necessarily getting rid of the fossil fuels, it is just pushing it further away from their comfortable bubble. It reminds of me a “not in my backyard” mentality.

    • fgmarks says:

      Hi Heather:

      The electricity that could be produced if a generating facility is running full blast is called capacity. No generating facility operates at full capacity 100% of the time. They must all be shut down for maintenance and repairs from time to time. Wind turbines cannot operate when there is no wind, and they cannot operate when the wind is so strong that it would damage the turbine.

      The term “load” describes the percentage of time a generating station can actually operate to produce electricity. The load factor for wind is only 25% according to Vaclav Smil. In comparison, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. a nuclear power plant produces electricity 93.5% of the time. Thus, its load factor is 93.5% For natural gas electric power plants, the load factor is 56.8% of the time.

      Because of wind turbines’ low load factor, it would take longer to earn their construction cost through sale of electricity they generate. The time to gain back their construction cost in emissions is affected by another factor that is not mentioned as often as it should be. That is the cost of replacing a wind turbine’s electricity when it does not produce any.

      Consumers of electricity expect that electric power will be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year. That is feasible, and is the way the electricity business should operate and by and large has operated.

      What this means for wind turbines is that there must be a standby, backup source of electricity that comes on line immediately when the wind turbine stops generating electricity. The most reliable source for standby, backup power is a natural gas power station. Such backup stations can’t be turned on at a moment’s notice. They must be kept operating constantly, at a low level, like an automobile standing still with its engine idling.

      The cost of standby, backup power for wind turbines can be measured in money and in emissions of CO2. That cost is high, because the wind turbine load factor is only 25%. That means 75% of the time the backup source is operating, burning natural gas, and is even operating on an “idling” basis when the wind turbine is productive.

      At present I cannot put a number on the cost to make up for construction costs of a wind turbine as well as the costs of the backup power source. I can’t put a number on the time it would take in operation to make up for the emissions of CO2 during construction and maintenance.

      I received a comment from a man I know who for many years worked for an electric utility in the middle of the United States. Here is what he wrote me:

      “My understanding from colleagues at my company is that it takes about 75 years for one wind unit to pay for itself including the depreciation. That is from the time the turbine goes into operation it takes 75 years to produce a profit.”

      That comment made me think that one could never make up the cost because the useful life of a wind turbine is only about twenty years.

      Wind farms require large areas of land, as much as 450 times as much as a thermal electric generating facility (natural gas, coal) or a nuclear-powered generating facility. Therefore, wind farms are located in windy areas where there is an abundance of land not otherwise in use for human activities, for example in the U.S. in the Great Plains, or forested mountain ridges. High voltage (HV) transmission lines are necessary to deliver electric power from a Wind Turbine farm to consumers in densely populated cities and suburbs, where most of the residential customers live and most businesses and industries are located.

      To build and maintain HV transmission lines requires fossil fuel energy for trucks, cranes, and other construction equipment, as is also required to build, erect, and maintain wind turbines.

      From the foregoing, it seems to me that wind turbines may well be useless or even counterproductive in terms of reducing emissions of CO2 because of the expenditure of fossil fuel energy to build them, place them in service, and maintain them, and the need for standby backup by a more reliable power source, which at present probably will be a natural gas power station which itself emits CO2 as it operates.

      It makes me wonder why bother building and operating wind turbines if the goal is to reduce CO2 emissions.

  6. Ken Eagleson says:

    Fred: thank you for continuing to provide information and facts that are thought provoking and absent from today’s mainstream discourse.

    • fgmarks says:

      The mainstream discourse on climate and the environment has become intolerant of dissenting opinions. Capitalism: The Liberal Revolution (CTLR), the book in the website of which this blog is a part, is about our lives and the goal of enabling people to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness without interfering with anyone else’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

      The intolerance of the mainstream narrative–that humans are causing dangerous global warming–is evidenced by the treatment of people in academia who question the narrative. If they don’t have tenure, they risk losing their jobs and their careers. If they do have tenure, they find they cannot get grants for research, and can be harassed by continual criticism, often in the form of ad hominem attacks.

      Vaclav Smil’s essay sheds light on the subject of generating electricity via wind turbines. In the mainstream narrative wind turbines are held up as an epitome of clean energy, that is energy that is generated without combustion of fossil fuels and the consequent emission of carbon dioxide.

      Vaclav Smil’s essay shows that the construction of a wind turbine and its ongoing maintenance require the combustion of large amounts of fossil fuels.

      What Professor Smil does not say in this essay, but has written elsewhere, is that the operation of wind turbines requires continual combustion of fossil fuels by backup generators fueled by coal or natural gas. The backup generators must start generating electricity immediately when the wind turbine is not generating energy due to lack of wind, or is turned off because the wind is so strong it would damage the turbine. These back up generators must be kept running even when their power is not needed. That is because they must start generating electricity immediately when the wind turbine stops generation of electricity. The backup thermal generators cannot start immediately if they have been turned off. In order to start generating electricity immediately when this is needed, they must be kept running on a low level, similarly to an automobile that is parked with its engine idling.

      The need for backup generators is significant because wind turbines only operate 25% to 35% of the time. The rest of the time they do not provide electricity due to winds being insufficient or too strong. Therefore, the backup generators must operate constantly, at full power when the wind is absent or too strong, and at lower power when functioning on standby basis.

      Wind turbines must be located where there is the most wind. Some places are naturally windier than others. These locations often are remote from the population centers where most people live. Therefore, long distance, high voltage (HV) transmission lines must be built to carry electricity from the location of the wind turbines to a place where they can feed into the electric grid that serves the population centers. Construction and maintenance of HV transmission lines also causes combustion of significant amounts of fossil fuels.

      There are other reasons why wind turbines are undesirable. Their construction causes the destruction of habitats of wildlife. Many people can’t stand to live near a wind turbine because of their low frequency noise and vibration and the flickering sunlight they cause during the day as their rotors turn. Electricity costs are much higher for wind turbine generated electricity.

      Given all these considerations it seems to me that eventually the public will come to regard wind turbines as ineffective and counterproductive in reducing use of fossil fuels, and as environmentally and financially undesirable.

      This is already happening. There is a video entitled Planet of the Humans. It was created and produced by three environmentalists, Jeff Gibb, Ozzie Zehner, and Michael Moore. The video came out in April 2020 and has already been watched by many people.

      Whenever a new wind turbine farm (an array of a multitude of wind turbines) is proposed to be constructed near residential communities, there is sure to be strong local opposition to the building of the turbines.

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