As technology continues to improve and evolve, expectations are high for the continual rise of wind power as a major contributor to clean energy supply in the near future. As a non-carbon-emitting technology, wind power has a great environmental advantage over its leading fossil fuel competitors. According to the Energy Industry Review, never before have there been so many wind turbines installed around the world as there were in 2020. “In total,” the Review said, “the new equipment can produce around 114,000 megawatts (MW). Despite the pandemic, twice more wind farms have been installed compared to 2019. This corresponds to a wind farm of 13 MW installed every hour on the planet.”
In Europe, Denmark already draws 41% of its electricity from wind; followed by Ireland with 28% and Germany with 27%. The European Union (EU) secures 14% of its power from wind. As a percentage of its energy mix, the United States (US) lags well behind Europe, producing only 6.6% of its electricity from wind power. Nevertheless, measured in terms of net quantity, the US ranks second only to China in wind power electricity capacity. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA’s) world ranking, China has an installed wind capacity of 342 GW; the US has 139 GW; Germany has 64 GW; India 42 GW; Spain 29 GW; the UK 26 GW; Brazil 19.1 GW; France 18.7 GW; Canada 14.4 GW; and Italy 12.7 GW.
Wind Power’s Mounting Challenges
Yet, despite all this hope for wind power, several problems persist with wind as an energy source. Broadly speaking, these problems divide into two concerns: the environmental impact, and questions concerning its profitability. A recent Bloomberg report revealed that turbine makers were “reeling from soaring costs” amid a change in subsidies. The report suggested that turbine makers are still struggling to translate soaring demand into profit. Ben Backwell, chief executive officer of the trade group Global Wind Energy Council, was quoted in the report as saying, “What I’m seeing is a colossal market failure. The risk is we’re not on track for net zero [emissions]—and the other risk is the supply chain is contracting, instead of expanding.”
Troubles started back in the mid-2010s when governments started to pull back on generous subsidies. According to Credit Suisse analyst Mark Freshney, that pull-back fueled pressures to reduce turbine prices, squeezing the manufacturers’ bottom lines.
A major problem with wind power is its intermittent nature, and researchers within industry and academia are now looking at better storage methods to avoid having to fall back up on fossil fuel power generation.
A major problem with wind power, as indeed with solar power, is its intermittent nature. Researchers within industry and academia are now looking at better storage methods to avoid having to fall back up on fossil fuel power generation. This year, a team from the Technical University of Dresden (TU Dresden) announced the development of an experimental flywheel energy storage system (FESS) with a capacity of 500 kilowatt hours (kWh) and an output of 500 kilowatts (kW).
The varying, cumbersome, sometimes redundant planning systems around the world for new projects are also at fault. Those dynamics have pressured profit margins just as turbine makers have invested heavily to roll out bigger turbines that can capture more wind. The average wind turbine today is nearly three times taller than turbines built in the early 1990s and produces more power, ranging between 2.5 and 3 MW. This compares to less than 1 MW for turbines built in the early 1990s.
These more powerful machines have helped drive down the cost of electricity from wind; however, they have been costly for manufacturers to introduce. “The risk is that we will not have suppliers ramping up, and we will then have a shortage, in terms of supply, for meeting global demand,” Martin Neubert, chief commercial officer at Ørsted A/S, the world’s largest developer of offshore wind farms, said in the Bloomberg report.
The environmental obstacles to ramping up wind power, meanwhile, remain considerable. Although estimates vary, in the US alone, hundreds of thousands of birds per year are thought to be killed by wind turbines. These numbers are expected to rise as the use of wind power expands globally.
There are also problems with “wind noise.” This noise is mainly due to the blade tips that cut through the air at speeds of up to 250 km/h. Then there are the effects of visual pollution—of potentially hundreds of masts blighting the landscape. In some French villages, the European Industry Review report noted that some inhabitants confessed to feeling “surrounded by wind turbines, sometimes with up to 200 masts visible around a single village.”
There are also issues with regards to the carbon footprint of wind turbines. Although CO2 emissions from wind turbines are lower than from nuclear power, wind power emissions are nonetheless higher than some other forms of renewable energy, such as hydropower.
Although CO2 emissions from wind turbines are lower than from nuclear power, wind power emissions are nonetheless higher than some other forms of renewable energy, such as hydropower.
Much of the impact of wind power on the environment, says the Review, is “frontloaded” and related to the actual construction of wind turbines, including the extraction of all the raw materials needed. That assembly requires concrete, copper, aluminum, and other composite materials, but also electronic components (for the rotor) and, in less than 10% of the cases, rare metals for certain types of magnets. According to combined estimates from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Vestas, Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy, and Bernstein estimates, quoted by Forbes, wind turbines average 11 grams of CO2 emission per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated.
At the end of its life, after twenty to thirty years of use, a wind turbine is then dismantled. Although promising, the processes of recycling the composite materials that make up the blades, and the recovery of the metals from the rotor, are still in their infancy. These problems have sparked a debate within Europe about the future viability of wind power, particularly onshore wind power.
Overhanging all of these considerations, though, is the overriding question of profitability. According to the consultancy Wood Mackenzie, Western turbine manufacturers are now retrenching to shore up their bottom lines. In the future, they will compete for fewer projects in fewer markets, raise prices, streamline their product lineups, and cut manufacturing costs. “You absolutely need to see some of these profit pictures turn around for the decarbonization goals to be achievable,” said Aaron Barr, global head of onshore wind turbines at Wood Mackenzie.
When in the mid-2010s governments started to pull back on generous subsidies to make tenders for renewable energy developers more competitive, Western turbine makers began to feel the pinch. This enabled Chinese manufacturers to take advantage of opportunities in the wind market, with companies like Xinjiang Goldwind Science & Technology Co., Envision Group, and Ming Yang Smart Energy Group Ltd. stepping into the breach. In August 2021, the manufacturer Ming Yang overtook Vestas, previously the producer of the world’s biggest turbine at 15-megawatt, when Ming Yang unveiled a 16-megawatt machine. Scott Strazik, who will lead GE’s energy-related businesses as they prepare for a 2024 spinoff, said the quick influx of bigger, more powerful machines has strained turbine manufacturers and the supply chain.
Offshore Wind — the Solution?
Despite some of the difficulties facing onshore wind power, offshore wind is already advancing in several European nations, and is likely to be the next global frontier. In May, at a European offshore wind summit, Mads Nipper, CEO of Ørsted told delegates: “Offshore wind will be a cornerstone in securing European energy independence and in fighting climate change. … With an EU ambition of 300 GW offshore wind turbines in operation by 2050, the future challenges aren’t cost but rather how to integrate large-scale variable energy into the power systems, and how to ensure that the build-out happens in harmony with nature.”
In the US, there is also renewed hope, with numerous federal leases opening up large expanses of ocean acreage for offshore wind. Technological advances, including floating turbines, now make possible the placement of wind farms in deeper waters, farther away from populated coastal areas. Much lower project costs also now make offshore wind power a realistic competitor with other sources of power generation. This improved cost profile should result in more wind power, albeit the offshore variant, finally allowing wind power to fulfil its own higher proportional potential in the energy mix.
Challenges of Offshore Wind Turbines
A potential problem with offshore wind farms is that they can interfere with the navigational radar used by ships and smaller vessels to avoid collisions. This would pose a challenge for safe maritime navigation. According to a new report from the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the maritime community has already expressed its concern about these issues. The report recommends that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and other relevant agencies pursue practicable options to mitigate the interference of wind farms, such as by implementing enhanced training and using reference buoys, among other options.
*Nnamdi Anyadike is an industry journalist specializing in metals, oil, gas, and renewable energy for over thirty-five years.