I’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.