Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Tilting at Windmills


As I travel to all points of the country I am always surprised at just how many wind turbines have been set up in more places than one can imagine. Some wind farms stretch for as far as the eye can see to the horizon and beyond with hundreds if not thousands of modern spinning windmills... well, not always... more often than not most wind turbines that I have observed seem to be at a standstill, not generating any electricity at all. One cannot help but wonder if they generate anything more than a small percentage of our electrical needs and if they indeed generate a profit for those who invest in them.

So I started asking questions? Just how big is a wind turbine? The most commonly used General Electric 1.5-megawatt model consists of 116-ft blades atop a 212-ft tower for a total height of 328 feet, with the blades sweeping a vertical airspace of just under an acre. Some models can range up to 50% larger and nearly 600 feet in height. For the GE 1.5-megawatt model, the nacelle alone weighs more than 56 tons, the blade assembly weighs more than 36 tons, and the tower weighs about 71 tons – for a total weight of 164 tons. It is always impressive to see just how big these are when you see their long blades being transported on the interstates by semis.

How much electricity does an average wind turbine generate? How much do they cost? How much does owning a wind turbine earn you? When will it pay for itself? I decided to calculate profit and break-even points to see how quickly or if ever there is a return on investment for those who fund their installation?

According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) the capital cost of a 1.5 megawatt model of wind turbine is about $1.5 million dollars with an installation cost of about a half million dollars, so call it two million dollars to capitalize one of these babies.

These turbines are expected to last 25 years, so the average capitalization cost per year is $80,000, ignoring inflation. On average each unit produces 5,124,600 kWh per year according to the AWEA with a net average annualized profit of about $87,118 after operation and maintenance. As a percentage of the original cost, that's about 4.35% per annum with an ROI of about 23 years.

Terrible investment. No realized profit until the capitalized equipment is just about worn out and needs replaced. The only way this works in the U.S. today is with government subsidies – ie. taxpaper money – you and me are paying for a generally bad investment. And there are 57,636 wind turbines in the United States alone as of 2018 with more under development.

Wind generators accounted for 8% of the operating electric generating capacity in the United States in 2016. More than half of our wind capacity is located in five states: Texas, Iowa, Oklahoma, California, and Kansas. In three states - Iowa, Kansas, and Oklahoma - wind makes up at least 25% of in-state utility-scale generating capacity. While all of that appears productive and encouraging, when you factor in the harmful impact upon wildlife, environmental pollution, human health impact, noise and aesthetic factors, radar interference, along with their general inefficiency in providing “clean” energy at a ridiculously expensive cost, wind turbine technology at large seem to be what we call “a stretch”. Lest one think wind turbines are completely “clean”, consider that they still generate between 0.02 and 0.04 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour, which is still 50 to 100 tons of carbon-dioxide emissions for the average wind turbine per year. Times 57,636 and counting... well, you get the idea.

New products with new technologies are needed in the market to replace these conventional wind turbines. With the advent of recent free energy patents by the U.S. Navy, let us hope that the days of subsidization of inefficient technologies to provide our energy needs will soon be drawing to a close.

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