Wind Energy: Boon or Boondoggle?

Wind TurbinesI’ve been driving back and forth across the Midwest several times in the past year. I’ve noticed that HAWT (Horizontal Axis Wind Turbine) farms are cropping up all over the place. I remember hearing Jan Mickelson on WHO Radio call them a “boondoggle” several years ago, and I’ve kind of held that opinion ever since. I found three definitions for boondoggle, and all of them apply: Merriam Webster’s Dictionary says it is “an expensive and wasteful project usually paid for with public money.” Google says it is “work or activity that is wasteful or pointless but gives the appearance of having value.” And Wikipedia says it is “a project that is considered a useless waste of both time and money, yet is often continued due to extraneous policy or political motivations.”

So I commented to my family that these wind turbines were a boondoggle, and my wife challenged me to explain why. I stated that I believed they cost more money to build than the energy they produced. She asked me if I had proof. I did not. So I went looking.

Do you know how confusing energy is? The first obstacle is finding out how much one of these things actually costs. As I searched through Google, I kept coming up dry, because every website was pro-HAWT, and wouldn’t reveal the actual cost in dollars, but only in MWh (megawatt hours). This is kind of like when you go to the car dealership and say “How much for this Mustang?” And the used car salesman says “This Mustang costs $200 per month.” Yeah, but for how many months? I want the cash-on-the-barrel price.

Finally I found one website that told me that these turbines cost about half a million dollars to install, and cost about 1 million dollars per megawatt the turbine can produce. So a 1.5 megawatt wind turbine will cost about 1.5 million dollars, plus the 500K for installation, so 2 million dollars. I also read that most of the new wind turbines are 3 MWh HAWTs so that’s $3.5 million each for start-up costs.

Then I looked at my energy bill. I don’t know the energy source of my electricity (probably coal), but I pay 10 cents per KWh (kilowatt hour). That means I pay $100 per MWh. Another website I found states that a 1.5 MWh wind turbine (costing 2 million to build and install, remember) actually produces about 3285 MWh per year. At my current cost of energy consumption, that is $328,500 worth of energy per year produced by this wind turbine. That means that if we installed the wind turbine and left it to run with no maintenance costs or upkeep, it would take six years before the wind turbine generated enough power to pay off its own installation. I’m guessing it probably costs about 100K in upkeep per year, so when we subtract that from the $328K, that makes nine years.

My next question was: how long do wind turbines last? And the average answer I got was “about twenty years.” So for the first nine years these things are operating at a loss. Then for 11 years they make $230K per year profit. That’s 2.5 million dollars of profit at the end of 20 years. Just enough money to build another one. When you take the profit and divide it by the total number of years in operation, these things only produce $125,000 worth of energy per year. So they DO produce more energy than they consume.

My conclusion: I don’t know. I am all for renewable energy sources, but I have all kinds of questions that I think I would have to go back to college to figure out (and that’s not happening). For instance: how much fossil fuel had to be used to make each of these wind turbines? In other words, are they really “green”? If we ran out of fossil fuels, would we be able to manufacture one of these things? Does the amount of energy expended to produce one HAWT exceed the amount of energy it produces in its 20 year service life? How much tax money in incentives is being used to pay for these wind turbines?  In other words, how much of OUR money is being used to build these things?

Is it worth it? I’m still not sure.

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About Steve Picray

I have been many things, but right now I am a registered nurse attempting to pay off my debt so that, God willing, I can be a pastor again someday. I have a wife and three kids. I am a conservative Christian (of the Baptist variety). This blog is about me: the things that happen to me, the things that interest me, and the things that bother me. If you have a question, just e-mail me at spicray AT gmail DOT com. God Bless!
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3 Responses to Wind Energy: Boon or Boondoggle?

  1. You’re trusting biased sources again. Did they tell you that the windmills only generate electricity under certain conditions? Like if the wind isn’t blowing at a minimum speed – no juice for you! Or if they are blowing too fast… oops. Better feather them props!

    I’d guess that about the only way you could figure out the cost-effectiveness of these ugly monstrocities would be to see if you can find out how much juice they generate in a year’s time, (NOT maximum POTENTIAL electricity – but ACTUAL generated eletricity. HUGE difference!) how much it costs to put one up (including manufacture, transportation, errection, & connection, to say nothing of the new high tension power lines that have to be installed, or the costs of the “right away”.they have to pay for to run the new lines, or the land costs for the easements to access the windmill sites, or the lease/rent/purchase price of the land the windmill actually sits on), and then you can figure if they are cost effective.

    Our R.E.C. has an agreement with some of these wind farms – but the board was smart enough to only agree to pay a pre-specified rate to the farm for electricity they actually received. If the wind farm doesn’t generate and transmit to customers in a given month, they don’t get a dime.

    I priced out a small single house unit… I was thinking about becoming my own electric company with one customer. I priced the generator unit, figured I could and would install it myself and link to the grid to sell surplus electricity to, and the cost of back-up batteries for when the power company’s s system shut down (If you are connected to the grid, if a storm takes it down, your unit has to shut down – or you could electrocute grid workers) and then looked at the expected lifespan of the unit. I’d have ended up losing a BUNCH of money on the deal!!!

    Wind energy is very expensive when figured per KWH. I believe solar is also lots more expensive than either coal or oil generated juice. Hydro is cheap, but the govt is trying to get as many hydro units as possible to shut down. (Why?)

  2. Steve Picray says:

    All sources are biased. But to address your point: the sites I looked at said that the wind turbines run at about 35% most of the time (on average). They recognized that those things are not always running.

    And actual energy produced? I’m fairly certain that if the amount produced were a good number, they would broadcast it, but since they aren’t, I would think it isn’t very high.

    I saw the single house units were going for several thousand dollars (between 10 and 25K) and they gave the same figure I reached of 9 years before your investment pays off. I’d rather do geothermal heat. Actually, I’d rather use renewable energy, but I wish they were cheaper to install and purchase. I mean, if one of the home wind turbines would pay itself off in less than a year then I think a lot more people would install them, and we’d have a real solution to the energy dependency problem. But then again, maybe that’s the point?

  3. Mike says:

    these things are constantly needing serviced. seldom will you go past a wind farm and not see at least one usually more not functioning. our field has only been here maybe three years and i saw one where they had to bring in a crane and dismantle the head to fix it. they are ugly, noisy, and some would only half jokingly say they influence the weather. they kill birds of prey and bats. They require man hours of training for local fire departments should one catch fire or a worker get injured they have to know how to respond. and believe it or not there are days the wind doesn’t blow. Which is one key problem you didn’t mention. you always have to have a fully operating power plant sitting ready. When they come to the end of their life what will they do with them. how much will it cost to tear them down. when they tear them down there is a massive block of concrete left in the farmers field.

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