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Limited Lifespans of Wind Turbines Result in Higher Costs of Energy

Have you ever read that wind energy “is the cheapest energy source available?”

These claims are based on cost-estimates that assume the lifespan of wind turbines to be 30 years. However, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the lifespan of wind turbines is about 20 to 25 years.

In Iowa, wind turbines are reaching the end of their lives even faster as MidAmerican Energy plans to repower turbines constructed in 2004, merely 14 years after they were installed.

To make matters worse, these cost-estimates attribute 30-year lifespans to every power plant – not just wind turbines – even though coal, nuclear, natural gas, and hydroelectric plants can generate electricity for more than 50 years.

Because these reports only look at a 30-year window, they fail to account for the additional spending necessary to repower a wind turbine and extend its life. According to a report conducted last year, investments in repowering these turbines will exceed $25 billion by 2030 in the United States.

By not factoring in this additional spending, these reports not only underestimate the true cost of wind energy, but overestimate the cost of power plants capable of generating electricity for more than 30 years.

In other words, these cost-estimates tell us is that wind energy would be the cheapest source of energy if all power sources produced electricity for a similar period of time… but they don’t.

Additionally, because wind turbines can only produce energy when the wind is blowing, they generate electricity less frequently than other generation sources. In Minnesota, wind farms produced electricity only 34.67 percent of the time in 2016.

This is far lower than coal at 56.9 percent, hydropower at 64 percent, and nuclear at 84.6 percent. Natural gas plants are utilized at a lower rate of 17.6 percent in Minnesota, but this is because natural gas is used often used as a “backup” source of electricity when the wind isn’t blowing.

As wind turbines grow older, their utilization rates become even worse, dropping at a rate of 1.6 percent each year – which eventually requires the turbine to be repowered.

This means that we get less bang for our buck from wind turbines as time goes on. Although other power plants become less efficient over time as well, upgrades to improve the efficiencies of these facilities happen much later in their lives. Repowering wind turbines increases efficiency, but only for another 20 to 25 years until they need to be repowered once again.

Minnesota has invested more than $15 billion on wind energy, and the limited lifespan of wind turbines means the state will soon have to spend even more money just to update the wind turbines we already have.

This is exactly what Xcel Energy has planned to do, recently requesting for another Power Purchase Agreement that will cover repowering wind farms in northwest Minnesota. This is part of Xcel Energy’s plan to spend an additional $7 billion by 2022 implementing renewable energy sources in the state.

The short lifespan of wind turbines is rarely discussed, yet it has a massive impact on the cost of electricity for Minnesota families and businesses. Worse yet, wind energy investments were and still are completely unnecessary to meet our energy needs because energy consumption in Minnesota has been essentially flat since 2006, and existing energy sources were capable of meeting the entirety of those demands.

Wind energy is indeed very costly; even without fuel expenses. This is because wind facilities require more frequent upgrades than other power plants and produce energy at far lower rates.

If cost-estimates are going to be calculated correctly, accurate lifespans and capacity factors of different power plants need to be accounted for.

Mitchell Rolling (marolling20@gmail.com) is an intern for Center of the American Experiment. 

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