A study commissioned by the Renewable Energy Foundation has found that the economic life of onshore wind turbines could be far less than that predicted by the industry. The research was carried out by academics at Edinburgh University in Scotland, a haven for wind power, and saw them look at years of windfarm performance data from the UK and Denmark.
The results appear to show that the output from windfarms — allowing for variations in wind speed and site characteristics — declines substantially as they get older. After a decade from commissioning the report found that the contribution of an average UK windfarm towards meeting electricity demand had declined by a third. That reduction in performance led the study team to believe that it will be uneconomic to operate windfarms for more than 12 to 15 years. This appears to be at odds with industry predictions of a 20- to 25-year lifespan. If they have to be replaced with new turbines then the foundation believes has profound consequences for investors and the British Government alike.
However members of the renewables industry have attacked the findings, questioning the Edinburgh University research and describing them as “misleading”. Looking at empirical evidence, Scottish Renewables said that its oldest commercial windfarms in Scotland were around 16 years old and that none of them have needed to be decommissioned or repowered.
And guess who has seized upon these dubious finding? The anti-windpower lobby of course! Anti-windfarm campaigners believe that the evidence should be enough to halt the pace of development and force the Scottish Government to rethink its backing of the energy source.
Conservative MSP (Member of the Scottish Parliament) Murdo Fraser said that parts of the USA, where the industry is further advanced, were already home to what amounted to windfarm graveyards. He said the difficulties associated with the decommissioning of such machinery could blight the Scottish landscape for years. He said:
“If the average lifespan of a wind turbine is only 10 years then the Scottish Government must seriously question wind energy’s role in displacing carbon emissions. However, the rapid wear and tear of wind turbines comes as no surprise. We need only cast our eye across the Atlantic to see 12,000 turbines rotting in the Californian desert. I have particular concerns surrounding the environmental costs of decommissioning and exactly who bears these burdens. With question marks raised over intermittency, noise, cost, efficiency, placement and now lifespan, when will the Scottish Government see sense and pull at the reins of wind energy?”
The Renewable Energy Foundation is a registered charity promoting sustainable development for the benefit of the public by means of energy conservation and the use of renewable energy and it claims to have “no political affiliation or corporate membership” and believes its findings have worrying implications for the investment being made in the UK in wind power.
Does the research look at how regular maintenance and refurbishment can prolong the life of turbines? How new nascelles and blades can be placed on existing towers? How the second-hand wind turbine market is flourishing, because tried, tested and proven turbines when refurbished can match some of the expensive new turbines? How adventurous and innovative schemes in some European countries are finding new uses for old wind turbines including recycling?
The research may be sound but the focus seems to have been too narrow and the conclusions drawn questionable.