Wind power has a cost… in human life

Feb 29th, 2016 | By | Category: Green Tech, Lead Article, Technology

This is the next chapter of our series on energy production. We take a look at wind power, it’s history, application and challenges.

The first time wind power was put to use was in the sails of boats and for more than two millennia wind-powered machines have been a cheap source of power for food production and moving water. It was widely available, was not confined to the banks of fast-flowing streams, and required no fuel. The Netherlands used wind-powered pumps to push back the sea and wind pumps provided water for livestock and steam engines for over a century.

With the development of electric power, wind power found new applications in lighting buildings remotely from centrally generated power, birthing the concept of distributive power systems. Starting in the 20th century saw wind plants for farms or residences and larger utility-scale wind generators that could be connected to electricity grids for remote use of power.

By 2014, over 240,000 commercial-sized wind turbines were operating in the world, producing 4% of the world’s electricity. Today we hear news about wind turbines delivering almost all the energy needs for countries like the Netherlands and Germany… for one or two days a year.

What they don’t report as often is the failure rate of those turbines and the loss of life associated with them.

Approximately 120 wind turbines catch fire every year in the UK alone, according to a joint 2014 engineering study at Imperial College London and the University of Edinburgh. Beyond fire there are multiple accidents that don’t result in system failure but do result in the death of engineers servicing the systems. In England, there were 163 wind turbine accidents that killed 14 people in 2011. Wind produced about 15 billion kWhrs that year, so using a capacity factor of 25%, that translates to about 1,000 deaths per trillion kWhrs produced (the world produces 15 trillion kWhrs per year from all sources). Even using the worst-case scenarios from Chernobyl and Fukushima brings nuclear up to 90 deaths per trillion kWhrs produced, still the lowest of any energy source.

The United States appears to be the country that is most concerned with windgen safety, as it boasts the lowest number for deaths, injuries and catastrophic mechanical failures of wind turbines in the world. Even so, there are annual protests regarding the relative safety.

So why do countries continue to invest? Possibly for the relatively low cost. Each industrial turbine costs $3 million and can generate up to $500,000 in energy revenue, so they can pay for themselves in 6-10 years and they generate power more consistently than solar. However, it has been shown the effective lifespan of a turbine is less than 15 years, which flies in the face of conventional wisdom that they will last 20 years. The annual cost of maintenance for modern turbines is 2 per cent of the cost, or $30,000 and the cost of replacement parts can be as much as $500,000 over a 10-year period, so the total cost of a typical windmill over 15 years is about $4 million. That comes out to about $2.40 per watt per year for a typical onshore windmill if absolutely nothing goes wrong.

Wind power will continue to be a source of energy for years to come, but only as long as we are willing to pay the premium financially and in human life.