Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise has been watching the climate world since 2009. What she sees isn't pretty.

Wind Turbines: Lots of Problems, No Free Energy

In the dying days of 2016, three serious wind turbine malfunctions occurred in a small corner of Europe.

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screengrab from video of December 2016 German turbine collapse (click)

The Bureau of Land Management, a US government agency, declares on its website that “Wind energy is free…” In the next paragraph it proves this is nonsense by admitting that while costs have decreased, wind power still “requires a higher initial investment than fossil-fueled generators.”

If wind is free, so are coal and oil. They’re just sitting there in the ground, waiting for us to find them. Any energy source that requires multi-million-dollar, industrial-scale investment before it can be used by ordinary people isn’t free. Why do governments tell these kinds of lies?

Serious journalism has traditionally been about keeping government honest. But over at the website of National Geographic we read that

since the wind is free, operational costs are nearly zero once a turbine is erected.

If only. As Pierre Gosselin reports on his NoTricksZone blog, in the dying days of 2016 three serious wind turbine malfunctions occurred in a small corner of Europe, The UK’s Manchester Evening News tells us that, on December 23, all three blades were ripped off a wind turbine during a storm at an installation a 40-minute drive north of Manchester. A man walking his dog in the vicinity was justifiably concerned for his safety.

On December 26, a Danish wind turbine lost one of its blades. A 38-second video here, from a Danish television station, shows the wreckage on the ground and provides a crucial sense of scale. These structures are monstrous.

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screen grab from Danish television video (click)

And on December 27, in neighbouring Germany, a third turbine collapsed completely. After one of its blades failed, the nearly 100-meter (330-foot) structure buckled about 15 meters up. At roughly the height of a 30-storey apartment building, it came crashing to the ground with such force that its gear box was embedded nearly 2 meters (6 feet) deep.

Robert Tunna has uploaded a stunning YouTube video of the spectacular mess (taken with a camera-equipped drone).

We’re told that a June maintenance check on this particular turbine found no issues. Which means that National Geographic’s  claim of “nearly zero” operational costs is mistaken. Wind turbines, like other expensive machinery, require ongoing maintenance. Without regular cleaning, dust accumulates and poses a fire hazard. Minus adequate lubrication, mechanical systems overheat, posing a different kind of fire hazard.

Since wind turbines are usually erected in sparsely populated areas, large amounts of fossil-fueled driving from one installation to the next is part of the maintenance picture. Repairs sometimes involve the rental of expensive cranes. In Germany alone, 26,000 individual turbines now require routine servicing. Hauling away tons of unwieldy wreckage isn’t free, either. The economic damage of last week’s incident in Germany is estimated to be half a million euros.

These events aren’t unprecedented. Head over to YouTube, type ‘wind turbine’ into the search box, and you’ll be presented with a list of suggestions:

One video compilation begins with a turbine belching black smoke, bursting into flames, and then keeling over. It’s followed by a clip of a turbine rotating vigorously and then exploding into pieces. A 2014 research paper points out that turbines are comprised of “large amounts of highly flammable materials,” including hundreds of litres of oil. Whenever a turbine catches fire, there’s a 90% chance it will be a complete write-off.

Because they’re so tall, and are located so remotely, the chances of successfully fighting a wind turbine fire are slim. All firefighters can do is block roads and extinguish fires started by the falling debris. In 2006, a $3-million turbine blaze ignited grass in Australia during a heatwave. The 46-turbine installation had shut down automatically when the temperature exceeded 40 C (104 F), leaving 63,000 homes without electricity. (European-designed turbines can’t always withstand Australian conditions.)

Wind power isn’t free. Nor is there anything small or cuddly about the wind industry. This is an industrial undertaking, prone to malfunction and human error.

If we had an honest chance to weigh the pros and cons of wind power against the pros and cons of other forms of energy, we might decide that wind power made sense under certain circumstances.

But we’re drowning in a sea of misinformation. First, there’s an army of well-funded green activists who exaggerate the shortcomings of fossil fuels while ignoring those of wind power. Second, there’s another army of wind developer lobbyists who get paid to promulgate only one part of the picture.

Third, there are the information sources that are supposed to be reliable and neutral – governments and magazines. But they too are busy taking sides, foolishly declaring that wind power is free.

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Speaking of erroneous information, the 2014 research paper about wind turbine fires has its own problems. It mistakenly blames the installation-wide shutdown on the turbine fire and conflates that small fire with a massive bush fire elsewhere. This is why quality journalism is so time-consuming. It’s unwise to take anything at face value, even accounts of events that get published in academic papers :-)

At the bottom of page 986 (p. 4 of the PDF), regarding the Lake Bonney Wind Farm, the research paper says:

On January 22nd, 2006 one of the turbines caught fire during a heat wave. The incident led to the shutdown of the farm, leaving some 63,000 homes without electricity [24]. The Border Watch newspaper reported that some 80,000 ha of national park were destroyed by a wildfire ignited by the turbine debris. Dozens of fire-fighters rushed to the scene to contain the fire, backed by the efforts of two water bomber aircrafts [25].

Investigation into the cause of the fire found that the cause was an electrical failure within the turbine nacelle [26]. [bold added]

Footnote #24 takes us to WindAction.org, an anti-wind advocacy organization. There we find a news story that states clearly the turbines shut down due to the high heat. The 22 January turbine fire did not trigger the shutdown. (The news story may also be seen here.)

Border Watch apparently claimed that 80,000 hectares of national park were destroyed by a fire started by a turbine. But we are provided with no Border Watch citation. Instead, footnote #25 takes us to a news story from a different media outlet about a 2010 bush fire – four years later.

As far as I can determine, the research paper conflates the Lake Bonney incident with a massive fire that occurred elsewhere in Australia around the same time. Started by lightning on 19 January, after a change of wind this fire became severe on 22 January and eventually affected a significant portion of the Grampians National Park (see here and here).

Footnote #26 takes us to a news story that contains speculation the fire was probably caused by an electrical fault. A subsequent investigation may have have come to this conclusion, but the citation provided doesn’t establish that fact.

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This entry was posted on January 3, 2017 by in ethical & philosophical, media and tagged , , .
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