Just how low carbon are wind turbines?

Building any kind of energy infrastructure creates carbon emissions. But the emissions produced in building wind turbines is offset in a matter of months by the clean power the turbines produce.

Tackling climate change means tackling carbon emissions. So, one of the big benefits of renewable energy is that it’s low carbon. In fact, when producing energy, its zero carbon. But all energy generation has some kind of carbon footprint as a result of production, maintenance and decommissioning, and onshore wind is no exception.

Onshore wind turbines require a hefty chunk of materials in construction and development. There’s steel for the soaring towers, aluminium for the powerful blades, transport along winding rural roads and concrete to plug them into the ground. It all adds up.

Concrete and steel especially are renowned for their high carbon footprint, but new options are out there. Cemfree is a low carbon alternative to cement offering 95% lower carbon footprint and more durability. Both BMW and Mercedes have now launched electric lorries, tackling emissions from transport. Whilst in Iceland, they’re using their natural resources to smelt aluminium with geothermal power.

It’s important to be aware of life cycle costs of our energy infrastructure to make sure we really are building towards a low carbon future. Something can’t be low carbon if it takes its 25 year lifespan to pay back its carbon costs. US researchers assessed the lifetime cycle of 2MW turbines in the US and found that, with a 20 year lifespan, a wind turbine should pay back its costs in just five months of coming online.

Though turbines have a carbon footprint, they pay their carbon debt off in a matter of months. Everything after that will be clean, carbon free power. Nice! Unlike the more conventional energy sources such as coal and gas. They’ll never be able to pay off their debts. So next time someone says ‘yeah but how low carbon are turbines?’ You can say, very!


Banner image: Grouse Mountain, creative commons