Retiring worn-out wind turbines could cost billions that nobody has
We can expect the
But the question is, what will this mean to the landscape and future of the
And here, as we confront the end days of a wind turbine, our story begins.
Deregulating the field
Deregulation also was a major factor in the rise of wind farms in
"It's like prospecting: You can basically go stake your claim and build your project,"
And then, of course, there are the federal subsidies which make wind energy financially possible.
Wind energy production tripled thanks to the Obama administration's aggressive green energy agenda, going from 8,883 megawatts in 2005 to around 82,183 megawatts today, which is about 5.5 percent of the nation's total power generation.
Whether those subsidies will continue under the Trump administration remains to be seen.
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 of
Wind turbine: The life and death
The life span of a wind turbine, power companies say, is between 20 and 25 years. But in
"We don't know with certainty the life spans of current turbines," said
Linowes said most of the wind turbines operating within
"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
With more than 50,000 wind turbines spinning in
Which means landowners and counties in
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
"So a company will say, 'So as to cost, subtract that benefit, so rather than
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."
Faith in doing the right thing
At a cost of
"At each of our wind sites, for example, built into the construction and operational costs is also a plan for decommissioning," said
She said although Duke hasn't been around long enough to decommission turbines, plans are in place to "repower" aging wind site locations by upgrading - resurrecting - the equipment.
"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.
"That involves replacing the turbines on top of the towers with new technology," McGee added. "In the atowers, too, and put up new and more modern towers."
If a site is properly located, the winds will still be there, making repowering an attractive financial option since the costs of site selection and development have already been covered.
Most wind farms, which pay landowners on average around
If Duke decides to shutter a power plant, including its wind farms, the company is committed to restoring the site to its previous state, she said.
"Regardless of fuel type, whether its gas or coal or wind or solar, once a power plant is no longer in service we restore the land to how it was before we got there," McGee said.
Calls seeking comment from two other wind energy companies operating in
Linowes believes such moves may begin occurring even before wind turbines outlive their useful life as manufacturing warranties on the big turbines expire.
"At what point does the cost of maintenance tip over to the point 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.