“Green Energy” Ain’t That Green
By: David Deschesne & Paul Philbrick
Fort Fairfield Journal
November 3, 2021
Wind energy, whether it be land-based, or in the ocean on coastal regions, is considered to be one of the cheapest and least impacting on the environment due to the non-emission of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) – which happens to be a primary source of food for all green plants, who convert that greenhouse gas back into oxygen. Wind generators come in two styles: horizontal shaft (the most popular) and vertical shaft (rarely used in commercial or grid-scale applications). However, while wind turbines do create clean, renewable electricity they are not necessarily as “green” as proponets would like us all to believe.
According to a August, 2013 fact sheet from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)1 A wind generator, or wind turbine, is a device that converts mechanical energy to electricity. “The generator is equipped with fan blades and placed at the top of a tall tower. The tower is tall so that high wind velocities can be easily harnessed without being affected by turbulence caused by obstacles on the ground, such as trees, hills, and buildings. Individual wind turbines are typically grouped together to give rise to a wind farm. A single wind turbine can range in size from a few kilowatts (kW) for residential applications to more than 5 Megawatts (MW). Many wind farms are producing energy on a megawatt (MW) scale, ranging from a few MW to tens of MW.”
The pro-wind EPA Fact sheet then suggests wind turbines can completely replace fossil fuels by stating, “Wind turbine power is an infinitely sustainable form of energy that does not require any fuel for operation and generates no harmful air or water pollution produces no green house gases and toxic or radioactive waste,”
But what that government “fact sheet” leaves out is the enormous amount of fossil fuels required to mine the raw materials to create the steel, copper, concrete, glass and plastic resins that all go into the manufacture and installation of these so-called “green energy” devices, the ongoing fossil fuels needed for lubricants in the maintenance process over the lifetime of the turbines and the fossil fuels that will need to be burned in dismantling the turbines and their towers at the end of their life cycle.
Building Wind Farms Takes a Lot of Fossil Fuels… Huh?
While electricity produced by wind does not use fossil fuels in and of itself, and produces no emissions, a lot of fossil fuels are used in the production, installation and maintenance of wind turbines. If it weren’t for fossil fuels, wind turbines would not exist.
A Manhatten Institute (MI) study2 published in July, 2020 found that for enough wind turbines to be built to provide just half of the world’s electricity needs, 2 billion tons of coal would be needed to produce the concrete and steel; and 1 billion barrels of crude oil would be needed to make the plastics and resins for the composite blades. In examining the amount of materials needed to create a 1 Terawatt power plant, the MI found it takes around ten times more steel, glass, concrete and other materials to create a wind farm with grid-scale wind turbines when compared to a similarly sized natural gas-burning electrical generating facility. Since wind is intermittent (doesn’t blow all the time), MI also estimated it would take 10,000 tons of Tesla class batteries for a utility scale electric storage system. The types and amounts of exotic raw materials to mine, refine and manufacture those specialized batteries will be discussed in an upcoming section of this editorial series.
According to research at spectrum. iee.org3, “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.”
The article states that, “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.”
And then, there are the blades. “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.”
Getting Them Rotors Spinning
Wind turbines look majestic and for most people it’s intuitive that when the wind blows, the blades turn. However, that is not the case with commercial wind turbines. The three blades and hub assembly approach 100,000 pounds in weight for a typical 5 MW wind turbine. To get the blades spinning at low wind levels, usually early morning or late afternoon (or any time of the day the wind dies off and comes back) electricity from the grid needs to be used to initially get them moving. The amount of this electricity needs to be subtracted from their output because it is net energy used from the grid—usually supplied by fossil fuel-burning generation plants.
Furthermore, the blades need to be stopped, usually with an electric braking system, when wind speeds get too fast in order to prevent the blades from turning too fast, generating too much torque and disintegrating from the increased stress. There’s more energy used from the grid to keep these wind turbines ‘happy.’
Another thing to consider is when those turbines are not turning—either due to maintenance schedules or malfunction, they’re not producing any electricity at all…even if the wind is blowing.
“Green Energy” Needs Taxpayer Subsidies
The promised pittance of local tax revenue very quickly vanishes with the implementation of the taxpayer-financed TIF package which will inevitably be introduced by the wind developers and their cohorts. This means you will subsidize wind locally with your property tax dollars as well. The wind developers would flee, if forced to pay property taxes at the same rate as a conventional electric power plant. The benefits of wind power are a tremendous lie, paid for by the tax credits (political bribery) that our politicians have collected from all of their crony wind capitalist friends, and paid for by local property tax payers. Not to mention the loss of individual property values, to every property owner that finds himself in the company of a new neighbor: an industrial wind turbine, or several.
Industrial wind development thrives only because of huge taxpayer subsidies, Maine’s fast track exemption from a full environmental permitting review by the state, and an ill-advised plan that is ultimately going to double the cost of electricity for local ratepayers in a very short time. Maine is least able to bear the burden of wind generated electricity rates. Maine people and businesses already pay the highest electricity rates in the nation bar none. There are much better environmentally friendly, economically viable and without taxpayer subsidy, alternative energy solutions available, and the taxpayers should not have to subsidize any of them, most certainly not the worst of them: wind.
Wind turbines do not last forever. In fact, they have an extremely short usable lifetime of around 20 years before they must be decommissioned, taken down and either recycled, disposed of, or sold to third-world countries with lower safety standards. With the proposed amount of wind turbines for both land and coastal farms, there is going to be an enormous amount of waste material that will need to either be discarded or use up more fossil fuels in the recycling/repurposing of these wind turbine systems in the next 20 to 30 years as the current crop of turbines reach the end of their life cycles.
The Institute for Energy Research recently published a report4 which estimates the United States will have more than 720,000 tons of blade material to dispose of over the next 20 years, a figure that does not include newer, taller higher-capacity wind turbines.
“Wind turbine blades are made of a tough but pliable mix of resin and fiberglass—similar to what spaceship parts are made from. Decommissioned blades are difficult and expensive to transport. They can be anywhere from 100 to 300 feet long and must be cut up on-site before getting trucked away on specialized equipment to a landfill that may not have the capacity for the blades. Landfills that do have the capacity may not have equipment large enough to crush them. One such landfill cuts the blades into three pieces and stuffs the two smaller sections into the third, which is cheaper than renting stronger crushing machines.”
The Manhattan Institute reports that if current IEA forecasts are met, there will be 3 million tons of unrecyclable plastic turbine blades per year by 2050. While there are some novel recycling processes being developed for the wind turbine blades, fossil fuels are still required to dismantle, chop up, transport to the recycling facility and ultimately reprocess the blades into another product. Without fossil fuels, recycling wind turbines would be nearly impossible. In some cases, it takes more energy and fossil fuels to recycle some of these exotic materials than it takes to mine them from the earth to begin with.
You Still Need Conventional Power Plants
A completed and operating industrial wind farm is just step 1 in this whole ill-advised scheme, as explained above. Conventional power plants (coal, wood, oil, natural gas fired) still have to be built, to supply electrical power to the grid whenever the wind isn’t blowing, or the sun isn’t shining (photovoltaic power). These power plants still have to run at near full capacity since they are less efficient, and produce more greenhouse gasses, when cycling their outputs up and down, not to mention the cycling times are not instantaneous since they must wait for steam pressure to the turbines to increase when it’s needed. So, to have “green energy”, you still need to keep a conventional plant burning fossil fuels (or nuclear energy) in the background to back up those intermittent sources of energy.
The electricity ratepayers are still going to pay the costs of building conventional fossil fueled power plants, because as we all know, the sun doesn’t always shine, nor does the wind always blow.
©2021 David Deschesne