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Aging Wind Turbines Pose Environmental And Economic Costs

The Chisholm View wind farm near Hunter, Okla.
Joe Wertz
StateImpact Oklahoma
The Chisholm View wind farm near Hunter, Okla.

On the latest Business Intelligence Report, Journal Record editor Russell Ray discusses what happens when wind turbines reach the end of their lifespan and the potential economic and environmental challenges associated with decommissioning them.

Full Transcript:

Richard Bassett: This is the Business Intelligence Report, a weekly conversation about business news in Oklahoma. I'm Richard Bassett. Joining me is Russell Ray, editor of The Journal Record. Thanks for joining me, Russell.

Russell Ray: Good to be here, Richard. Thanks for having me.

Bassett: I'd like to discuss Daisy Creager's recent articleregarding the lifespan of wind turbines. Daisy writes that next year almost 30 percent of wind turbines in Europe will approach the end of their service life, and that turbines in Oklahoma aren't far behind.

Ray: Well, that's right. On average wind turbines have a lifespan of 20 to 25 years. A large share of active wind turbines in Europe are nearing that age right now. In fact, the decommissioning of windfarms is a very big topic of discussion at power generation conferences around the world right now. Another option calls for refurbishing these old wind turbines so they can keep running for many more years.

Bassett: So one option you mentioned is decommissioning, or retiring, old wind turbines. But that could have significant economic implications here in Oklahoma.

Ray: Yes. By any definition the decommissioning or rehabilitation of old wind turbines will be costly. And that cost will be borne primarily by the owner operator. The cost of decommissioning a single wind turbine can be as high as $200,000. At just half that price, the cost to decommission every wind turbine in Oklahoma would be around $380 million. With more than 50,000 wind turbines in the U.S., decommissioning costs have been estimated at about $10 billion nationwide.

Bassett: How would that be paid for?

Ray: Well, in Oklahoma the developers of those wind farms are accountable for the cost of removing the turbines and restoring the land to the way it was. The state and its taxpayers are not liable for any of those costs. Now when the life of a wind farm in Oklahoma comes to an end the developer has 12 months to properly decommission all of the towers and turbines.

Bassett: Cost isn't the only concern when it comes to decommissioning the wind turbines. In fact, Daisy writes that opponents of wind power have said the disposal of turbine parts actually diminishes the positive environmental impact of wind power development. She also writes that some people fear that wind farms across western Oklahoma will become nothing but partial junkyards for broken down wind towers and equipment.

Ray: Well, that is a valid concern. Although the lifespan of a wind turbine is 20 to 25 years, it is common for blades and other wind power equipment to be replaced after just 10 years. Wind power proponents say the decommissioning rules for wind farms here in Oklahoma are more advanced than those in other states, though.

Bassett: So according to the American Wind Energy Association, as of 2017 86% of U.S. turbines were only less than 10 years old. And that gives the industry time to consider another option you mentioned earlier, which is refurbishing them.

Ray: Yes, that's right. Wind power proponents say advances in technology have made repowering or restoring wind turbines a much more viable option for owner-operators.

Bassett: And that could also lead to savings for Oklahomans, right? Because as turbine parts are replaced with newer technology the average energy capacity of the turbines increases, while the price associated with wind power drops, correct?

Ray: Well, that's right. Better technology, better design and better forecasting methods have made wind power much more efficient and affordable over the years. But you have to keep in mind that federal subsidies for wind power are being phased out. Most experts will tell you wind farm construction will continue but perhaps not at the rate before Congress decided to phase out industry tax breaks. Right now Oklahoma ranks third for installed wind power capacity with wind power accounting for 32% of the state's power production.

Bassett: KGOU and the Journal Record collaborate each week on the Business Intelligence Report. Follow us both on social media. We're on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter: @journalrecord and @kgounews. For KGOU and the Business Intelligence Report, I'm Richard Basset.

As a community-supported news organization, KGOU relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online, or by contacting our Membership department.

The Journal Record is a multi-faceted media company specializing in business, legislative and legal news. Print and online content is available via subscription.

Music provided by Midday Static

Richard is a graduate of The Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences in Arizona. He spent three years working for Studiomedia Recording Company in Chicago, where he furthered his audio engineering education. After one too many battles with the snow and the cold, Richard returned home and enrolled in The University of Oklahoma. He has a bachelor's degree in anthropology and graduate study in Professional Writing.
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