Retiring worn-out wind turbines could cost billions that nobody has | Energy Central | Source: Valley Morning Star
HARLINGEN – This is a story about death and resurrection, and as with all such stories, faith plays its part.
And here, as we confront the end days of a wind turbine, our story begins.
Deregulating the field
“It’s like prospecting: You can basically go stake your claim and build your project,” Sweetwater attorney Rod Wetsel, who co-wrote the book “Wind Law,” told MIT Technology Review last fall.
And then, of course, there are the federal subsidies which make wind energy financially possible.
Wind energy production tripled thanks to the tax credits.
The congressional Joint Committee on Taxation estimates the total cost to taxpayers of the wind production tax credit between 2016 and 2020 will be $23.7 billion.
One big question is how much money is being set aside for the inevitable decommissioning costs associated with removing aging, unprofitable and just plain worn out wind turbines now whirling across the horizons.
Wind turbine: The life and death
The life span of a wind turbine, power companies say, is between 20 and 25 years. But in Europe, with a much longer history of wind power generation, the life of a turbine appears to be somewhat less.
“We don’t know with certainty the life spans of current turbines,” said Lisa Linowes, executive director of WindAction Group, a nonprofit which studies landowner rights and the impact of the wind energy industry. Its funding, according to its website, comes from environmentalists, energy experts and public donations and not the fossil fuel industry.
Linowes said most of the wind turbines operating within the United States have been put in place within the past 10 years.
“So we’re coming in on 10 years of life and we’re seeing blades need to be replaced, cells need to be replaced, so it’s unlikely they’re going to get 20 years out of these turbines,” she said.
Estimates put the tear-down cost of a single modern wind turbine, which can rise from 250 to 500 feet above the ground, at $200,000.
With more than 50,000 wind turbines spinning in the United States, decommissioning costs are estimated at around $10 billion.
In Texas, there are approximately 12,000 turbines operational in the state. Decommissioning these turbines could cost as much as $2.3 billion.
Which means landowners and counties in Texas could be on the hook for tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars if officials determine non-functional wind turbines need to be removed.
Or if that proves to be too costly, as seems likely, some areas of the state could become post-apocalyptic wastelands steepled with teetering and fallen wind turbines, locked in a rigor mortis of obsolescence.
Recycling or resurrecting?
Companies will of course have the option of upgrading those aging wind turbines with new models, a resurrection of sorts. Yet the financial wherewithal to do so may depend on the continuation of federal wind subsidies, which is by no means assured.
Wind farm owners say the recycling value of turbines is significant and recovering valuable material like copper and steel will cover most of the cost of decommissioning.
“The problem is, wind companies have argued vehemently that the cost of money set aside should net out the salvage value of turbines,” Linowes said.
“If it costs $200,000 to take down a turbine, but once you take it down, you strip out the copper, the steel, the resellable components and sell them, then really you can make a profit,” she says of the industry’s pitch.
“So a company will say, ‘So as to cost, subtract that benefit, so rather than $200,000 for a turbine we should only set aside $60,000,’ so there’s a fight over how much money should be set aside,” she said.
Yet extracting valuable materials from the turbines is not as easy as it sounds. For example, the copper in the wires used to transmit power from the turbine to the grid will have to be stripped of its plastic insulation, a task which would entail serious labor costs.
Also, the sheer size of the steel casings which provide the base of the turbines would take specialized cutting tools to reduce the steel to manageable or transportable chunks.
And the blades themselves are a high-tech wonder of composite material, which most experts agree cannot be separated into its component materials and is thus worthless for recycling.
“The blades are composite, those are not recyclable, those can’t be sold,” Linowes said. “The landfills are going to be filled with blades in a matter of no time.”
Decommission or Re-power?
“What does happen a lot of times, and is happening now around the country, is sometimes instead of decommissioning they will ‘repower’ a site,” she said.
t it’s not worth maintaining a turbine?” she said. “We’re in something of an unknown or uncertain territory.”
As wind turbine manufacturing has improved, the length of warranties on these products has decreased dramatically and today the terms of most cover between five and 10 years.
It seems paradoxical that warranties would become shorter as products become better, but many wind turbine manufacturers have found a valuable revenue stream in selling extended warranties, similar to companies which sell appliances to consumers.
“It could be a very ugly situation in the next five years when we see turbines need work, and are no longer under warranty and not generating enough electricity to keep running them,” Linowes said.