Wind farms dot the horizon in many states. The drive for renewable, “clean” energy has become a fetish and a lucrative investment in many areas thanks to generous federal and state government subsidies. Still a small proportion of the nation’s total energy needs, wind turbines are being thrown up at a dizzying pace on private and public lands, and thousands more will be built in the next few years.
The first wind farms began appearing in the ’80s, but the real boom came during the Obama years when the federal spigot was turned on, and that money continues to flow. Between 2016 and 2020, taxpayers will ante up an estimated $23.7 billion in subsidies to keep the otherwise noncompetitive turbines turning.
Local jurisdictions that must pass on permits for wind energy projects are beginning to wonder what happens when the towers reach the end of their useful lives. The industry estimates that the towers can operate for 25 or more years, and then companies building them will either rebuild and modernize or “decommission” them and haul them off to the scrap yard for recycling.
The American Wind Energy Association, representing wind power generators, assures the public that owners are contractually obligated to take them down at their own cost and that their salvage value will pay for the cost of doing so.
That sounds great, but turns out to be more hopeful than accurate. Wind farm operators have overestimated routinely the salvage value of their windmills and underestimated the costs of removal. Moreover, the windmills do not last a generation, so the cost comes sooner than expected. States like Texas, home to something like a quarter of all the nation’s wind farms, are beginning to pass laws requiring that the owners budget funds to decommission them when the time comes.
The problem is that wind farm operators have routinely overestimated the salvage value of their windmills and underestimated the costs involved in removing them to get permitted jurisdictions to lower how much they are required to put aside.
Many permit applications assume a decommissioning cost of less than $100,000 per turbine, but recent experience suggests the cost is more realistically something like $400,000-$500,000, and in many cases the funds for this simply aren’t likely to be available. There are roughly 60,000 wind turbines operating in this country today and that number may double in the next few years. Multiplying that number by half a million each over the next decade will add up to a huge expense.
Major operators like Duke Energy with deep pockets may still be able to meet the expense of decommissioning out-of-date windmills, but small operators that have persuaded permitting jurisdictions to lower how much they are required to put aside may be tempted to simply walk away leaving the landowners with a mess.
The main problem seems to be the blades which can be 300 feet long and unrecyclable. They have to be broken down, cut into sections and carted off at great expense to a landfill that will take them – if one can be found. Because of their bulk, many landfills are simply refusing to take them, a problem exacerbated by the fact that they can take hundreds of years to break down, creating a new and ongoing environmental problem.
The alternative is to simply abandon the outmoded turbines as several operators in Hawaii and California have already done, lay the costs on the so-far unsuspecting public, or find some way to use the unrecyclable materials in the blades for other purposes.
The cost of rushing to deploy what seemed a new and safe means of energy production may turn out to be a day of reckoning for an industry that apparently simply assumed there would be few if any costs down the road and America’s taxpayers, who may once again be stuck with the bill. That day is fast approaching as thousands of wind turbines are reaching the end of their useful lives. Sometimes those who grab onto what sounds like a good idea do so without realizing that the devil, as the saying goes, is in the details.
The problem will become far worse if the feds cut or begin to phase out the massive subsidies windfarm operators now enjoy. If that happens, thousands of wind turbines could face early decommissioning and the future of the wind-power boom could be a rural landscape dotted with gigantic wind turbines abandoned 300-foot behemoths that our children or grandchildren will have to live with or remove.
• David A. Keene is an editor at large for The Washington Times.
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