Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Straight Dope: Is wind power cost-effective?

As I drive through the fruited plains I see more and more windmills twisting in the breeze. These behemoths got me to thinking: taking into account the carbon cost of production, transport and assembly, when does the windmill become both financially and carbon-footprint cost-effective? I’ve asked several energy experts, including one manufacturer, and they had no clue.
Cecil replies:
No clue? Where did you find these so-called experts? The carbon cost of wind power is well known — low carbon emissions is one of wind’s main advantages. (Renewability, naturally, is the other.) Wind’s cost-effectiveness from a financial standpoint is likewise no mystery, but frankly the story is less upbeat, particularly in light of the natural gas boom due to fracking. I don’t say it’s game over for wind power; all fossil fuels including gas will run out eventually. But wind has a steep hill to climb.
To gauge the carbon cost of a power-generation source, engineers perform what’s known as a life-cycle analysis. This takes into account everything from construction and transportation of components to the site, pouring of foundations, and stringing of transmission lines to eventual decommissioning costs when the generating device has reached the end of its useful life.
For wind power, these costs aren’t trivial. Some wind turbines are so massive that a single blade is nearly as long as a football field. Wind turbines contain iron, zinc, aluminum, lead, and other metals that must be mined and refined. The cost of transmission lines and transformers can also be sizable, since turbine fields are often in remote locations.

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