Wind Turbine Lifespans Surpass Expectations

Last week a report published by the Imperial College revealed that the operational lifespan of wind turbines may be longer than had been previously believed.

The new study demonstrates that wind turbines remain productive in generating electricity for at least 25 years. Previously it had been claimed by some that it would be necessary to upgrade installed wind turbines to allow them to continue generating power for a quarter century. This belief formed the basis of the argument that wind turbines had a limited lifespan of use compared to other forms of renewable energy generation technology.

The United Kingdom currently has over 500 wind farms installed across the country as well as a significant number of smaller scale turbine developments. This capacity base is already meeting a minimum of 7.5% of the country’s energy demand. From this installed base the Imperial College’s Business School analyzed data from 4,246 turbines across the country. Analyzing this information together with wind speed data provided by NASA (collected over a twenty year period) demonstrated that wind turbines are more than capable of lasting their full 25 year lifespan without requiring any upgrade work.

The study also revealed that the oldest operational wind turbines in the United Kingdom, installed in the mid-1990’s, are still producing  three quarters of their original output despite having been in use for that last nineteen years. The three quarter figure is almost twice the level of output which these turbines had previously been assumed to be capable of at this point in time. These 19 year old wind turbines are fully expected to continue generating power for at least the next six years, meeting the promise of a twenty-five year lifespan and making such already outdated wind turbine models comparable in lifespan to the gas turbines found in conventional power plants.

Given that more modern wind turbines inevitably make use of improvements in both design and technology, and as such perform better in age, the report argues that modern wind turbines can be expected to have an operational lifespan beyond twenty-five years without requiring any upgrade work. The researchers and scientists who produced the report emphasised that their findings strengthened the case of wind turbines being a strong long term investment.

Dr Iain Staffell,  research fellow at the Imperial College’s Business School and co-author of the report commented:

“Wind farms are an important source of renewable energy. In contrast, our dwindling supply of fossil fuels leaves the UK vulnerable to price fluctuations and with a costly import bill.

“However, in the past it has been difficult for investors to work out whether wind farms are an attractive investment.

“Our study provides some certainty, helping investors to see that wind farms are an effective long-term investment and a viable way to help the UK tackle future energy challenges.”

Professor Richard Green, head of the Business School’s Department of Management and co-author of the report stated:

“There have been concerns about the costs of maintaining ageing wind farms and whether they are worth investing in. This study gives a ‘thumbs up’ to the technology and shows that renewable energy is an asset for the long term.”

Whilst other studies have been published in this area previously the Business School report made use of far more accurate and specific data than any previous attempt. The wind speed data provided by NASA was gathered over a twenty year period and allowed researchers to calculate precise wind speeds at individual wind farm sites. Previous studies were limited by their use of average estimated national wind speeds and as such have now been superseded.

In news this week it has been revealed that a proposed wind farm in Perthshire will bring significant ecological and conservationist benefits if it is successful in gaining planning permission.

Developers behind the proposed Bandirran Wind Firm have laid out a series of ecological improvement measures which will be carried out in the event of gaining planning consent. Firstly a series of ‘nectar margins’ around the site. These flower rich areas provide an ideal habitat and breeding ground for a variety of insect species including bees and butterflies. Secondly wooded areas near to the wind farm development would be enhanced and enlarged according to Forestry Commission guidelines. Thirdly 260 meters of new hedgerows would be created through the planting of species such as hawthorn, hazel, dog rose and blackthorn. Hedgerows are a vital habitat for a diverse range of species but one that is becoming increasingly reduced in modern times. Fourthly, the restoration of heather to the development sites surrounding moorland. And lastly the creation of a dedicated area for curlew; a species of wading bird which has been granted conservation status. This area would be an ideal habitat as well as breeding area and developers have pledged to monitor breeding numbers for a period of at least five years.

Mark Bates, director of Ecology at Heritage Environment Ltd. led an extensive survey of the development site who determine the best course of action to take to enhance the area’s plant and animal life remarked:

“The measures we have identified will actually improve, diversify and add to the habitats currently on the site and provide direct and indirect benefits to a wide range of wildlife. They will also help in achieving both local and national biodiversity targets.”

Colin Anderson, development director at Banks Renewables, made the following statement:

“We have worked closely with groups, businesses and residents in the area to ensure our wind farm would deliver real financial and social benefits, supporting good causes and creating jobs and training opportunities.

“On top of that, it is fantastic to know that if our plans are given the go-ahead then we’ll be doing a massive amount of work to restore some of the most precious aspects of the countryside.

“Most people know that wind energy will help give Scotland a clean, green, secure and sustainable source of energy that we rely on in every aspect of our lives, which is hugely important to our future.

“But they probably don’t realise how we will actually be making huge inroads to protect and enhance very fragile habitats which are under threat right now.”

These two pieces demonstrate not just the value that wind turbines can bring to investors but also the environmental benefits which they can also bring. Just as studies of offshore wind farms have revealed that large numbers of marine and bird species use them as habitat. The benefits of wind turbines are many.

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