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How sustainable can wind power be?
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How sustainable can wind power be?

Wind surfers glide across the sea

Together with solar energy, wind power will become the core pillar of renewable global energy supply.

Wind power is not only carbon-neutral but can also be used to make hydrogen and other synthetic fuels in a climate-friendly manner.

Wind is so abundant because it is powered by the sun that it can supply all of the world’s energy needs a few times. This will be crucial for the energy transformation.

But what about the negatives of wind turbines? How much wind turbines can be recycled? What about the impact on wildlife, especially birds? What is the lifetime carbon impact of wind power?

Wind’s footprint – It’s all relative

Wind turbine construction is an energy-intensive task, especially for the production of the steel towers as well as the concrete foundations.

According to the German Environment Agency, Umweltbundesamt (UBA), wind power plants can take between 2.5 to 11 months to generate the required amount of energy for their construction.

Wind turbines last on average 25 years. They produce 40 times more energy than the energy required to operate, maintain, and dispose of a wind power station.

These upstream emissions are mainly from the production of carbon-intensive steel or cement and are included in the overall carbon balance for a wind turbine’s lifetime.

According to the UBA, an offshore wind turbine that has just been built today produces approximately nine grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour (kWh). A new offshore plant emits seven grams CO2 per kWh.

Wind power is a more efficient technology in terms of carbon emission than other technologies. Solar power plants, on the other hand, emit 33 grams CO2 per kWh. For comparison, power generated from natural gases emits 442g CO2 per kWh, while power from hard coke emits 864g and power from brown coal emits 1034g.

According to A studyWISE, a global anti-nuclear group, commissioned this study. Nuclear energy accounts for approximately 117 grams CO2 per kWh. This is despite the fact that uranium mining, construction, and operation of nuclear reactors, are both major sources of emissions.

What can be reused?

Wind power has seen an exponential growth over the past three decades. Germany had 50 wind turbines that could generate 100 kilowatts of power in 1991. 2001 saw the addition of 2000 more turbines to the grid, each with a 1300 kilowatt capacity.

These small-scale plants can last for over 30 years if they are well maintained and can be found in many countries.

Because of their long life span, very few plants have been deconstructed or shut down. However, wind power technology will be replacing up to 50,000 plants by 2050.

This will involve the removal of large amounts of concrete, steel in tower and gear box, and a mixture of plastic with glass-or carbon fiber used for the rotor blades.

Concrete can be crushed and used for road construction. Recycled precious steel can be made into new steel. You can also reuse other valuable metals such as aluminum and copper.

Infografik Emmissionsbilanz Energietrger 2020 EN

Recycling rotor blades made out of plastic composites is more difficult. The US has so far not accepted old rotor blades. End up in disposal sites. They have been used mainly in Europe as an alternate fuel in cement incinerators and cement kilns.

Denmark is currently producing the first recyclable rotorblades for large offshore plants. Siemens Gamesa, the plant builder, plans to sell only recycled rotorblades starting in 2030. The company’s wind power plants will also be completely carbon neutral by 2040.

Is wind power a good option for species protection?

A rapid expansion of wind power will reduce CO2 emissions and help to slow global warming.

However, environmentalists insist that wind power plants should not be placed in natural reserves or at migratory bird stopover locations in order to not endanger wildlife.

An increasing number of large-scale wind energy plants are equipped with software and cameras that can detect birds and switch off turbines to reduce the risk of collisions.

Infografik what kills birds EN

When foundations for offshore wind farms are being built, noises on the seabed have also caused havoc with fish, seals, and whales.

This problem was solved technicaly by a ring of small air bubbles, which are used during construction activities to dampen noise by around 90%. 

Offshore wind plants can also have a positive effect upon sea animals because the area cannot be used for trawlfishery. This allows for fish stocks to recover. Additionally, sea crea colonizes the plants’ foundations.

Infografik Emmissionsbilanz Energietrger 2020 EN

Moussels are another example of tures.

Global warming causing less wind?

While summers can be windy, many places are windy during winter and colder months.

But this doesn’t mean that wind power will be affected by climate change. Researchers believe that rising temperatures won’t cause significant changes in wind power. Global wind power is decreasing.

Global warming slows down the jet stream eight to twelve kilometers above the sea level, but this does not affect the year round energy yield of wind power stations.

In the end, wind capacity will be offset by rising temperatures. Summers will be more breezy, while future winters will be windier.

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