Wind turbines are a whole farce. Has anyone actually calculated how much carbon is emitted throughout the full process, from component construction through land development (construction machinery emissions)? Mike M. is a freelance writer.
Thank you for making what appears to be an attempt at humor “I like the “gotcha” question because it allows me to respond with a loud yes! The quantity of carbon pollution emitted during the life of a wind turbine has been thoroughly researched.
In fact, this type of analysis is the basis of a whole field of study known as “It has its own handbooks, internationally agreed-upon standards, specialized software, and peer-reviewed journals, as well as its own handbooks, international agreed-upon standards, specialized software, and peer-reviewed journals.
Researchers start by diagramming each stage of a product’s life cycle, from manufacturing through end-of-life disposal, to undertake a life cycle evaluation of a wind turbine or any other product. They then keep track of the energy and raw materials used at each stage, such as the steel, fiberglass, and plastic used in wind turbine manufacturing, the diesel used by ships and trucks to transport turbine parts from the factory to the construction site, and the energy used during construction, operation, maintenance, and eventual deconstruction and recycling or disposal.
Researchers use this data to quantify the amount of carbon pollution created by a wind turbine over its lifetime, or its carbon footprint.
If you search the terms “life cycle evaluation” and “wind turbine” online, you’ll find dozens of articles on the subject. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of such studies published in the last five years:
The carbon footprint of wind turbines
This graph depicts how much carbon dioxide is emitted per kilowatt-hour of power generated by a wind turbine from cradle to death. If you’re wondering what “grams of carbon dioxide-equivalent,” or “CO2-eq,” means, it’s just a metric that contains carbon dioxide as well as other heat-trapping greenhouse gases like methane.
The results vary by country, turbine size, and onshore versus offshore arrangement, but they all lie within a five to 26 gram CO2-equivalent per kilowatt-hour range.
To put such figures in perspective, consider the two most common fossil-fuel sources of energy in the US: natural gas and coal. Natural gas-fired power plants emit 437 to 758 grams of CO2-equivalent per kilowatt-hour, significantly higher than the most carbon-intensive wind turbine described above. In comparison to wind, coal-fired power plants emit much more CO2, with estimates ranging from 675 to 1,689 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour, depending on the technology.
There is one more significant distinction between fossil fuels and wind turbines. Every time a coal or natural gas plant runs, it consumes fuel and emits carbon dioxide. The majority of carbon pollution produced during the life of a wind turbine, on the other hand, occurs during the manufacturing process. The turbine produces almost no pollution once it is up and running.
Furthermore, wind turbines frequently displace older, dirtier sources of electricity for the grid. For example, if a new wind farm is connected to the system, the grid operator may be able to supply energy demand without having to restart a decades-old, polluting coal plant. What’s the end result? A more environmentally friendly electrical grid.
In fact, a carbon footprint may be calculated “A wind turbine’s “payback” period is the amount of time it takes for the turbine to produce enough clean electricity to offset the carbon pollution produced during manufacturing. According to one study, the payback time is only seven months, which isn’t terrible considering a wind turbine’s usual lifespan of 20 to 25 years. In the end, wind turbines are far from a laughingstock. They’re a deal too good to pass up for the environment.
P.S. Many of you are curious about the carbon footprint of alternative electricity generation technologies like solar panels, nuclear power, and hydropower. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory provides a fantastic, if a little out-of-date, portal for evaluating the carbon footprints of different electricity producing systems.
1st of July, 2021: Bill R., a reader, writes: “One thing you didn’t mention, and it’s probably important, is that as the energy mix shifts toward renewables, the energy mix used to manufacture wind turbines (and PV cells and panels) will also see a reduction in carbon intensity, resulting in an even smaller carbon footprint. There will be outliers steel production will almost certainly continue to require carbon emissions for the foreseeable future but everything else in the manufacturing pipeline should see reductions.”
Tom Toro is a cartoonist and writer who has appeared in The New Yorker over 200 times since 2010.
Is it true that wind turbines are environmentally friendly?
Wind is a renewable source of electricity. In general, using wind to generate energy has less environmental consequences than many other energy sources. With few exceptions, wind turbines do not emit pollutants into the air or water, and they do not require water for cooling. Wind turbines may help lessen total air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions by reducing the quantity of power generated from fossil fuels.
The physical footprint of a single wind turbine is relatively tiny. Wind farms, or clusters of wind turbines, can be found on open land, on mountain ridges, or offshore in lakes or the ocean.
How much electricity does a wind turbine generate in a day?
For thousands of years, people have harnessed the power of the wind. Wind has pushed boats down the Nile River, pumped water and milled grain, and aided food production, among other things. Today, the kinetic energy and strength of natural air movements known as wind are harnessed to generate electricity on a vast scale. A single modern offshore wind turbine can produce more than 8 megawatts (MW), which is enough to power roughly six households for a year. Wind energy is one of the most cost-effective, clean, and widely available energy sources on the world, with onshore wind farms generating hundreds of megawatts.
Wind power is the cheapest large-scale renewable energy source and the most common renewable energy source in the United States today. Nearly 60,000 wind turbines with a total capacity of 105,583 megawatts are installed (MW). That’s enough to supply electricity to almost 32 million homes!
Wind energy solutions enable commercial enterprises meet renewable objectives and standards for dependable, clean energy in addition to playing an important role in our energy supply.
The Advantages of Wind Energy:
- Wind turbines often pay for their lifetime carbon emissions in less than a year before giving up to 30 years of essentially carbon-free power output.
- Wind energy helps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, with 201 million metric tons averted in 2018.
- Wind energy installations provide tax money for the towns that host them. Texas, for example, received $237 million in state and local tax revenue from wind farms.
- The wind sector encourages job development, particularly during the construction phase. In 2018, the industry supported 114,000 jobs in the United States.
- Wind energy is a reliable, additional cash source: each year, wind farms pay over $1 billion to state and local governments as well as individual landowners.
What Does a Wind Power Project Look Like?
A wind project, also known as a wind farm, is a collection of wind turbines that are clustered together and act similarly to a power plant, providing electricity to the grid.
The Frontier Windpower I project, which has been operational since 2016, is being expanded by the Frontier Windpower II project in Kay County, Oklahoma. Frontier I and II, when completed, will produce a total of 550 megawatts of wind energy, enough to power 193,000 homes.
How many wind turbines are required to replace a coal-fired power plant?
As coal plants have been shut down, their capacity factor has decreased, and they now have an average capacity factor of less than 50%. In the case of coal, we’ll use a capacity factor of 50%.
In 2016, 381 coal plants with little under 800 generating units were operational. The average coal plant had a capacity of roughly 720 MW. As a starting point, we’ll use 720 MW of coal capacity.
With a capacity factor of 50%, 720 MW of capacity working 24/7/365 would generate about 3.15 TWh of power per year.
In the United States, the average capacity factor for modern wind turbines is 41.9 percent. The average capacity of new wind turbines in the United States is 2.43 MW.
The first question concerns the number of wind turbines needed to create 3.15 TWh of electricity.
3.15 TWh divided by 2.43 MW capacity divided by 24 hours divided by 365 days divided by 41.9 percent capacity factor equals 353 wind turbines.
As a result, the first response is that little over 350 wind turbines are required to replace a coal-fired power station with two to three producing units. To replace a single producing unit, approximately 120175 wind turbines are required.
So far, everything has gone well. Coal plants, on the other hand, do more than generate power. What other services do they give, and can wind turbines do the same?
Let’s start with CO2, which is the most common greenhouse gas. Coal-fired power plants emit around a ton of CO2 every MWh of output. That means the 3.15 TWh of coal-fired energy created more than 3 megatons of CO2.
Although wind energy does not emit CO2, the entire lifespan of materials, production, distribution, building, operations, and decommissioning now has a CO2 debt that must be divided by the amount of power generated. Wind turbines emit 58.2 kg of CO2e per MWh, according to lifecycle cost analyses. This equates to 0.5 to 0.82 percent of CO2 emissions per MWh of coal.
That means we’d need between 43,000 and 71,000 wind turbines to produce the same amount of CO2.
Using the same generating computation, wind turbines would generate 385631 TWh to produce the same amount of CO2 as coal.
That really stinks, doesn’t it? So many wind turbines to produce the same amount of energy as coal! There’s more, though.
Coal generating also creates 84 kilogram of coal ash per MWh, resulting in a total of 265,000 tons of coal ash each year. Because wind energy does not produce coal ash or anything similar, an endless number of wind turbines would be needed.
Sulphur dioxide, a terrible air pollutant, is produced by coal power at a rate of roughly 2.4 kg per MWh, equating to about 7,540 kg per year. Because wind energy does not emit sulphur dioxide, an endless number of wind turbines would be necessary.
Coal-fired power plants also emit just under a kilogram of nitrous oxide per megawatt-hour (MWh), or around 3,000 tons per year. A limitless number of wind turbines are necessary.
Coal-fired power plants additionally emit around 0.1 kg of particulate matter per MWh, resulting in an additional 315 tons of PM2.5 and PM10 particles clogging lungs. An unlimited number of wind turbines are required once more.
Oh, but there’s still more! Coal produces roughly 13 micrograms of mercury per megawatt-hour (MWh), a hazardous heavy metal and bioaccumulator that causes insanity and organ failure. That means that every year, that coal plant releases around 41 kilogram of mercury into the atmosphere! Unfortunately, yet another example where wind turbines do not emit mercury, necessitating the installation of an infinite number of them. Coal-fired power plants emit 50% of all mercury emissions each year, which is a significant loss.
Last but not least, there’s background radiation. The majority of human-caused radiation that the ordinary person is exposed to comes from coal emissions, which are created when carbon-rich dirt containing trace radioactive components is burned. Because wind turbines emit no radiation, an endless number is necessary.
All of this adds up to around 78 deaths per year from air pollution and accidents at that one coal plant, based on a rate of 24.6 deaths per TWh. Wind energy, on the other hand, has roughly 0.04 deaths per TWh, which is 615 times lower. By this metric, coal is once again the clear leader. To kill the same number of people each year, it would need around 217,000 wind turbines.
When you consider how many wind turbines are required to replace the things we get for free from coal, it’s truly remarkable that anyone can imagine replacing coal with wind energy.
How long does a wind turbine take to become carbon neutral?
It’s a popular misconception that manufacturing and constructing a wind turbine consumes more energy than the turbine produces. In actuality, a typical wind turbine will pay for itself in less than six months, and it will continue to create pollution-free electricity for the rest of its 20 to 30 year lifespan.
What is the CO2 output of solar panels?
When the quantity of CO2 created during solar panel production is taken into account, solar panels produce roughly 50g of CO2 per kilowatt hour during their first years of operation. This is roughly 20 times lower than the carbon production of coal-fired power plants. It will take around three years for your panels to pay off their carbon debt and become carbon neutral.
However, as previously stated, your system’s effective carbon debt is 20 times lower than coal-fired power plants. This implies that simply by installing, you will lower your carbon footprint instantly. The panels will lower that footprint even more after their first three years of use, with the system remaining carbon neutral for the rest of its life. Solar panels often last more than two decades, which means a significant amount of carbon is kept out of the environment.
How long does it take for a wind turbine to pay for itself?
Environmental lifespan assessments of 2-megawatt wind turbines proposed for a big wind farm in the US Pacific Northwest were conducted by US academics. They conclude in the International Journal of Sustainable Manufacturing that a wind turbine with a 20-year working life will provide a net benefit within five to eight months of being put online in terms of cumulative energy payback, or the time it takes to produce the amount of energy required for production and installation.
Is it possible for a wind turbine to pay for itself?
A wind turbine will normally pay for itself in a few years, but it will be expensive up front. Find out about federal energy subsidies and other financial incentives for those who want to invest in wind energy.
What will a wind turbine cost in 2020?
Wind turbine prices have dropped dramatically from a decade ago, from $1,800 per kilowatt (kW) in 2008 to $770$850 per kilowatt (kW) now. The value of the health and climate advantages of wind energy built in 2020 was estimated to be $76 per MWh, significantly more than the cost of wind energy.