Gone with the wind

Wisconsin wind farm decommissioned after just 20 years.

Many people were surprised when an industrial wind facility in Kewaunee County, Wisconsin was decommissioned after just 20 years of service because maintaining and operating its 14 turbines was no longer cost effective. What’s really surprising is the decommissioning surprised people. Most people have no idea the useful life of a wind turbine is only 20 years, maybe 25 years, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

In contrast, coal, natural gas, and nuclear plants can run 50 to 60 years with updates and retrofitting. This has profound implications for the cost of electricity on a per megawatt hour basis. When the federal government projects costs for energy, it uses the Levelized Cost of Energy, or LCOE. These numbers are supposed to help policymakers determine which energy sources will best serve their needs—but these numbers are inaccurate because they assume all power plants, whether they are wind, coal, natural gas, or nuclear, will have a 30-year payback period.

This assumption artificially underestimates the cost of wind and inflates the cost of coal, natural gas, and nuclear by not calculating the cost over the entirety of their lifetimes.

Wind turbines only become theoretically competitive with other generation sources after significant number manipulation, but what about the local economic contributions of wind power? Kewaunee farmers counting on lease payments for 10 more years will no longer receive them, nor will the town government receive an $8,000 annual impact fee. Also, the Town of Lincoln and Kewaunee County will lose a utility aid payment of $39,920.

Minnesotans should be wary of viewing the wind industry as a panacea of local tax revenue. These payments can go away with very little notice.