Abandoned turbines: Another Madigan wind energy myth debunked

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The latest quotable claim by anti-wind lobbyists is that 1 in 20 wind turbines worldwide are permanently inactive. It’s wrong, as usual.

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There’s an anti-wind energy myth floating around that refuses to die. The most recent citing was in the official policy of an Australian political party, the Democratic Labour Party of Australia. What is the myth?

That there are 14,000 permanently inactive wind turbines out there somewhere.

That last word, ‘somewhere,’ is used advisedly. The 14,000 number has been applied to the entire world, the continental United States and the confines of the state of California. It’s a pretty flexible number and a pretty flexible and well-traveled myth. That last version, that there are 14,000 inactive wind turbines in California alone, was the one that the above Australian political party enshrined in their policy on wind energy.

Tory Aardvark, the climate-change denying bastion of disinformation likes the US-only version, although their blog entry quotes the origination of the myth which talks about the world-wide number, so Aardvark manages to get it wrong twice in one post. This level of inaccuracy is fairly typical of that anonymous blog, so it isn’t surprising.

The myth started with Andrew Walden, a Hawaiian anti-wind activist in early 2010. He wrote an article starting with the Kamaoa Wind Farm in Hawaii, that was heading for decommissioning and repowering and pulled the number of 14,000 permanently inactive wind turbines out of … somewhere.

In the best wind spots on earth, over 14,000 turbines were simply abandoned.

He doesn’t make any effort to show how he arrived at this magical number. He doesn’t list sources. He doesn’t show calculations. He just comes up with 14,000 for the world through some magical process. You would think that the lack of any supporting evidence would prevent people from quoting and then exaggerating even his already wildly exaggerated claim. However, the quality of evidence doesn’t matter in the global warming denialist and anti-renewables crowd, what matters is the quotable claim.

So, what is an accurate number or methodology for determining the current number of permanently inactive wind turbines?

Short Answer:

A more realistic maximum number is at most 1 per cent of installed wind turbines – perhaps 2,000 wind turbines – and perhaps 0.1 per cent of generation capacity. And the number of permanently inactive wind turbines is diminishing as they are replaced with working modern turbines.

Long Answer:

The sensible methodology to arrive at a very conservative — aka unreasonably large but defensible — number of permanently inactive wind turbine has a few steps.

  1. Calculate the worst-case ratio of inactive wind turbines
  2. Determine the total number of wind turbines
  3. Calculate the worst-case scenario using the ratio
  4. Assess generating capacity implications

What is a good way to calculate the worst-case ratio of inactive wind turbines?

There are about 5,000 wind turbines installed at Tehachapi Pass Wind Farm and of these, approximately 100 are inactive. This ratio is 2 per cent, and is at one of the oldest operational wind farms in the United States, where massive tax breaks combined with immature technology have created one of the highest ratios of inactive to active wind turbines in any location. The majority of the permanently inactive wind turbines were built in the 1970′s and are very old technology. Of course, the inactive wind turbines are being replaced with new generation capacity as part of the Tehachapi Pass Renewable Transmission Project, so the number of dead turbines is going to drop substantially.

How many wind turbines are there?

According to the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC), there are just under 240,000 working wind turbines as of Q1 2013. 14,000 wind turbines permanently inactive would represent about 6% of the total installed base being inactive today.

What does this imply for the possible number of inactive wind turbines?

The number of 2 per cent is likely much higher than the world-wide reality, but if true would represent roughly 4,800 permanently inactive wind turbines.

A more reasonable but still very conservative upper limit of 1 per cent would bring that down to a maximum of 2,400 permanently inactive wind turbines.

What percentage of generating capacity would these represent?

The inactive wind turbines would be much smaller than the typically 1.5 MW to 4.5 MW turbines currently installed, as typically it is older wind turbines that are out of production. The average wind turbine size in 1990, about 20 years ago or the lifespan of a wind turbine, was 200 KW. A little simple math says that conservatively these inactive wind turbines might represent 0.1 per cent of total wind generation capacity.

wind turbine size
Average wind turbine size in KW sold in different countries, source BTM Consult

Are all wind turbines that aren’t spinning permanently inactive?

One thing sources who inflate the number of inactive wind turbines do is mistake temporarily inactive wind turbines for permanently inactive ones.  There are many reasons why a wind turbine might not be spinning despite the presence of wind, and the majority of these are in keeping with good grid management techniques.

So, 14,000 permanently inactive wind turbines world-wide is gross hyperbole at roughly four times the worst case scenario, and becomes close to an order of magnitude of inflation when compared to a likely scenario. 14,000 wind turbines in the USA is laughably unrealistic; the US has about 20 per cent of installed wind generation, so a more likely maximum number is 400 small, old wind turbines around the US. California is just funny, as there are about 14,000 wind turbines in total in that state, so 100 per cent of them would have to be rusting in place for that claim to be true.

What’s the verdict?

14,000 is a number that has been conjured from thin air by an anti-wind advocate for rhetorical purposes. This type of shoddy and sensationalistic tactic is unfortunately typical.

In the meantime, Hawaii, where Walden saw an inactive wind farm and created his fantasy figure, is putting up more wind farms because they continue to make economic and environmental sense. Most jurisdictions are seeing replacements of older and inactive wind turbines with modern technologies.

Mike Barnard has been a deeply interested observer of energy systems for three decades. Following a lengthy discussion with Margaret Atwood and others related to siting of wind turbines in a major birding area on her blog, he became a blogger on energy concerns, focusing on debunking myths about wind energy. As a day job, Mike has had the good fortune to work on Smart Grid projects for IBM’s clients, in addition to many other interesting initiatives that IBM is uniquely positioned to undertake.

This article was originally published on Barnard on Wind. Reproduced with permission

Twitter @mbarnardca

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11 Comments
  1. greg cooper 6 years ago

    Isn’t it amazing, these climate change sceptics are quick to trash professional scientific analysis perceived errors, yet they can go and make arbitrary claims of this nature with no basis of proof!

  2. jacklacton 6 years ago

    Is there a more immoral form of power generation than wind? The hype is great – use natural wind resources. The reality is that it results in significantly increased power prices that hurt those least able to afford it the most.

    • Rollin Shultz 4 years ago

      See my above comment about “Individual Power”. The reality we figured out way back in the 60s and 70s was for most sites a person would have to combine two or more alternative energy technologies to make enough power. Hence the term I used above “Hybrid” where your solar produces on sunny days and your wind produces on cloudy, usually windy days, and if you can situate your site near a stream you could add small scale hydroelectric to your options. We knew no one technology would stand on its own, and like smart people we did not favor putting all our eggs in one big energy farm basket.
      Corporations however survive on making their basket the only basket in town.

    • Harry 3 years ago

      It’s also unreliable. When wind gusts above 30 mph occur they must be shutdown. When not enough wind they won’t function. To rely on wind alone would have rolling blackout issues. I think it’s okay as a small part of an overall energy strategy, but not as a sole source.

  3. Bootswana 6 years ago

    The Democratic Labour Party of Australia is hardly a force in the Australian Government. They only have 1 of 76 senators and 0 of 150 in the house of representatives

  4. dittoheadadt 4 years ago

    So your “science” and “math” to debunk the 14,000 number is nothing but conjecture? No hard facts, no inventory counts, nothing but “worst-case” speculation, “perhaps” this, and “perhaps” that. Nice.

    Now, how about all the birds, bats, eagles, etc. these useless, inefficient, space-hogging eyesores kill every year? You gonna dismiss that, too?

    I guess being an “environmentalist” means what you folks say it means, and nothing more or less. You’re no different from Humpty Dumpty.

    • Mike Kear 4 years ago

      WInd turbines dont whiz around like the fan you have in your office. They rotate at a speed around 20rpm or so that any flying creature could avoid. If they can’t avoid that, they are easy prey and wont last long anyway. Wind turbines dont kill many creatures. They have THOUSANDS of wind turbines in New Zealand, where their native fauna is predominantly birdlife, and they are totally unconcerned about wind farms killing birds. It just doesnt happen.

      • dittoheadadt 4 years ago

        You apparently know little about the carnage they cause worldwide to our flying friends.

        The claim that New Zealanders are unconcerned about whether the turbines kill birds has ZERO bearing on whether the turbines actually do kill birds. To say “it just doesn’t happen” on the grounds that “they are totally unconcerned about wind farms killing birds” is a logical fallacy of the first order.

        “A 2013 study found that 573,000 birds and 888,000 bats are killed every year in America by wind turbines — a figure 30 percent higher than the federal government estimated in 2009. These deaths have likely increased as wind power capacity increases across the country.”

        “In 2012, breaking the European omerta on wind farm mortality, the Spanish Ornithological Society (SEO/Birdlife) reviewed actual carcass counts from 136 monitoring studies. They concluded that Spain’s 18,000 wind turbines are killing 6-18 million birds and bats yearly.”

        You may want to do more reading on the subject. These would be a few good places to start.

        http://bit.ly/1UDshb7
        http://bit.ly/1UDskn6
        http://bit.ly/1UDsnzt
        http://bit.ly/1UDsOJT

        (Also, 20rpm = 1 full rotation every 3 seconds. That’s pretty damn fast for something that massive, and something as massive as a turbine blade can do some serious damage at that speed.)

      • Harry 3 years ago

        Why did President Obama seem to think the Wind farms needed protection from laws that protected birds? He gives the wind farms a free pass when Eagles are killed.

  5. Rollin Shultz 4 years ago

    I began my study and participation in the alternative energy “Game” in 1973 fresh out of High School. I studied the available science papers and tomes such as Rodale’s “Passive Solar Home” which I still have and “The Mother Earth News”. ALL alternative energy technologies were meant to be individual, small scale hybrid set-ups. It was a movement of radical, idealists, like myself who wanted everyone to be able to produce their own power needs, which when coupled with conservative measures would be much less than you might believe possible.
    So why did I use the term “Game” above. The power companies could see we were making progress with our many DIY projects and because of the OPEC scare, we were growing as a group of concerned citizens who only desired all Americans to be free of energy bills. They lobbied the government to get the bulk of the grant money for research given to them, and to squash the idea of individual power with huge wasteful energy farms, paid for largely with tax money, but after construction, the monthly bill profits goes to the corporations.
    Had the DIYers gotten the bulk of the research money, individual power provided on a per home basis would have been realized by now. I challenge any scientist or engineer to prove that energy farms are not wasteful. I challenge them to prove individual power plants are NOT realistic and an admirable path to take.
    I caution said challengers, I have quite a lot of knowledge in booth small scale and large scale power generation, so don’t bother if all you have is talking corporation points.

    • Anteaus 2 years ago

      +100. Self sufficiency is empowering to the individual. Giant corporate wind farms are the antithesis of self sufficiency. They are actually worse than ‘big oil’ because at least I can choose who to buy my oil from. Not so with subsidized turbines.

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