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How sustainable can wind power be?

How sustainable can wind power be?

Wind surfers glide across the sea

Wind power, along with solar power will be the main pillar of the global renewable 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, like the sun, is so abundant that it could supply the entire global energy need a few times. This is 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 steel towers and concrete foundations.

According to the German Environment Agency (Umweltbundesamt UBA), it takes wind power plants between 2.5 and 11 months for them to produce the energy required for their construction.

Wind turbines can be operated for approximately 25 years on average. They generate 40 times as much energy during this time than the energy required to produce, operate, and dispose of wind power plants.

The total carbon balance of a windturbine’s lifecycle includes so-called upstream emissions. These are mostly from the production carbon-intensive steel and cement.

According to the UBA, an onshore wind turbine is currently being built and produces nine grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour (kWh). A new offshore wind plant in the ocean emits seven grams per kWh.

Wind power emits less carbon than other technologies. Solar power plants, on the other hand, emit 33 grams CO2 per kWh. For comparison, power from natural gas produces 442g CO2 per kWh, while power from hard coal 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 about 112 grams of 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?

In the past 30 years, wind power has grown exponentially. Germany had 50 wind turbines that could generate 100 kilowatts of power in 1991. 2001 saw the addition 2000 more turbines with a power output of 1300 kilowatts to the grid.

These small-scale plants can be maintained well and can last more than 30 years. They can now be found all over the world.

Only a few old plants have been taken down or deconstructed due to their long lifespan. 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 into road blocks. The precious steel can also be recycled to make new steel. Other valuable metals, such as copper and aluminum, can also be recycled.

Infografik Emmissionsbilanz Energietrger 2020 EN

Recycling rotor blades made out of plastic composites is difficult. In the US, there are no old rotorblades. 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 only sell recyclable blades from 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

The foundations for offshore winds plants were also built on the seabed, causing disturbances to fish, whales, and seals.

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

Even offshore wind plants can have a positive impact on sea animals, since the area is no longer used for trawl fishing. This allows 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?

Although warm summers are often dry and windless, there are many stormy places in the colder months or during winter.

But this doesn’t mean that wind power will be affected by climate change. Research shows that rising temperatures will not affect wind power in any significant way. Global wind power is lower.

Global warming slows down the jet stream that is located eight to twelve km above sea level. However, this does little to affect the year-round energy yield from wind power plants.

The wind capacity will eventually be balanced by rising temperatures. Future winters are expected to be more windy, but summers will be cooler.

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