Wind farm life cycle output even less than estimated poor results (part 1)

Every energy economist knows that, under present rules, the Renewables Obligation is a scandalous boondoggle — Gordon Hughes.

Boondoggle: Webster’s College Dictionary – the standard US dictionary – offers the following definitions of a boondoggle: “(1) work of little of no value done merely to keep or look busy; (2) a project funded by the federal government out of political favouritism that is of no real value to the community or the nation”.

Wind has one HUGE advantage, it is “Politically Correct” and favored by all the innumerate greenies and politicians. I.e., the ones who know nothing of what it takes to operate a national grid to deliver dependable, affordable energy to essential industries and consumers. But they love the “feel good” energy policies that use middle-lower-income taxes to subsidize investments by rich-taxpayers in  economically unproductive wind and solar projects. Meanwhile efficient base-load nuclear power is widely ignored. Actually that’s an overstatement for the UK – whose nuclear policy is looking more and more sane.

There is a new study by Prof Gordon Hughes, an economist at Edinburgh University: Why is wind power so expensive? An economic analysis [PDF, 42 pages]. The Hughes study documents the magnitude of economic burden imposed by subsidized wind projects. It will curl your hair.

For a gentle introduction I recommend the summary by Robert Mendick, Chief Reporter at The Telegraph. Mendick concentrates on one aspect of the wind boondoggle – the efficiency of the turbines turns out to be less than half what the promoters claim. Less than half what the government proposals and plans assume.

The analysis of almost 3,000 onshore wind turbines — the biggest study of its kind —warns that onshore wind farms will continue to generate electricity effectively for just 12 to 15 years. 

The wind energy industry and the Government base all their calculations on turbines enjoying a lifespan of 20 to 25 years. The study estimates that routine wear and tear will more than double the cost of electricity being produced by wind farms in the next decade.

Older turbines will need to be replaced more quickly than the industry estimates while many more will need to be built onshore if the Government is to meet renewable energy targets by 2020.
The extra cost is likely to be passed on to households, which already pay about £1 billion a year in a consumer subsidy that is added to electricity bills.

The report concludes that a wind turbine will typically generate more than twice as much electricity in its first year than when it is 15 years old.

The report’s author, Prof Gordon Hughes, an economist at Edinburgh University and a former energy adviser to the WorldBank, discovered that the “load factor” — the efficiency rating of a turbine based on the percentage of electricity it actually produces compared with its theoretical maximum — is reduced from 24 per cent in the first 12 months of operation to just 11 per cent after 15 years.

The decline in the output of offshore wind farms, based on a study of Danish wind farms, appears even more dramatic. The load factor for turbines built on platforms in the sea is reduced from 39 per cent to 15 per cent after 10 years.

Please see Part 2 for more on the data that explains the short economic life of wind turbines.

3 thoughts on “Wind farm life cycle output even less than estimated poor results (part 1)

  1. The article was inexcusably deficient.

    It may well be that the output of wind farms is greatly reduced with age, as the article asserts, but the article neglected to provide the reasons for that. I am inclined to ignore articles that do not adequately back up their conclusions.

    Is the problem that the permanent magnets lose strength as they age? Is it that the pitch control mechanism becomes arthritic through age and unable to maintain the optimal blade pitch? Is it that the exterior paint darkens through age thereby causing excessive solar heat gain requiring that the power output be reduced to prevent overheating? Is it because the tower becomes weaker because of corrosion thereby requiring that the blade pitch be reduced to reduce the wind load on the tower? It it because the surface of the blades becomes rough thereby reducing aerodynamic efficiency?

    EXACTLY why does the output drop as aging occurs? It it a problem that could be rectified? Why are we just now learning about it? Could the problem have been anticipated?

    Why did the article fail to offer adequate explanations?

    Will there be a subsequent article that does offer adequate explanations?

    • Hi Frank,

      The answers to your questions are in the 52-page Renewable Energy Foundation report “The Performance of Wind Farms in the United Kingdom and Denmark“. There’s a bit of math and statistics — the details are in Appendix: Data and Methods. It’s also worthwhile to study the full report I quoted Why is wind power so expensive? An economic analysis

      For the United Kingdom the raw data were extracted from the Renewables and CHP Register database compiled by Ofgem. This government data is used in the administration of the market in Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs, otherwise known as transfers from taxpayers to wind operators).

      The decline in operational performance is empirical fact. As I read the data the rate of degradation is not improving with newer generations. The technology is mature so I would expect initial performance to be worse as the best sites are populated first.

      The causes of degradation from initial power-on are likely a combination of industrial aging (vibration which increases rate of bearing wear, etc), blade performance degradation due to chips, dings and accumulated coatings of bird and bat bits, and downtime. Usually aging equipment needs more servicing so you observe increasing outages of longer duration. Vestas and GE probably have good data on the performance degradation, but it isn’t obvious why they would be motivated to publicize what they know. They get paid at both ends, initial sale, replacement turbines and other parts.

      I don’t know how much the operators care as the taxpayer subsidies are so high they make money no matter what. If the subsidies went away the whole “industry” would evaporate except special cases where the grid is distant from demand and the supply of high quality wind is close to site of demand. And there is nearby hydro for cheap storage.

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