A Free-Market Energy Blog

Sustainability: Ideology versus Reality (Part II: Wind Turbines)

By -- August 27, 2019

Editor Note: This post is part of the three-part series with Part I yesterday on Biofuels and Solar and Part III tomorrow on The Big Picture.

“Environmentalists are focused on banning plastic straws! Their inability to differentiate between imaginary, wildly inflated ecological problems and not the here-and-now issues of renewable energies is what the UN powers should address–but will not.”

Mandated, subsidized wind energy requires millions of acres for turbines and ultra-long transmission lines, plus billions of tons of concrete, steel, copper, rare earth metals and fiberglass. The turbines produce intermittent, unreliable electricity that (absent subsidies) costs much more than coal or gas-fueled electricity – and must be backed by fossil fuel generators that must go from standby to full-power many times a day, very inefficiently, every time the wind stops blowing.

Wind turbines kill numerous raptors, other birds and bats every year. Their light flicker and subsonic noise impair human health.

Modern coal and gas-fired power plants generate 600 megawatts some 95% of the time from less than 300 acres. Indiana’s Fowler Ridge wind farm also generates 600 megawatts, perhaps 40% of the year in that generally windy area, from a land area of more than 50,000 acres.  

Thus another educational UN exercise would be to run land use numbers for generating 3.5 billion megawatt-hours of US electricity with wind turbines – especially as they get sited in lower and lower quality wind areas, as the best locations are utilized and others are declared “unsuitable” or “unavailable” due to health or environmental concerns or local opposition.

Let us next suppose the entire world is going to use wind power to replace the more than 25 billion megawatt-hours of electricity it consumed in 2018 – for electricity only, not to replace total worldwide fossil fuel consumption, such as coal for factories and fuel for vehicles. A further essential assumption is that those turbines will also generate enough extra electricity every windy day to charge batteries, to provide non-fossil fuel backup electrical power for just seven straight windless days.

Again that will require a lot of wind turbines, especially as they are erected in steadily lower quality wind locations. That means, instead of generating full nameplate power perhaps 33% of the time on average, they will do so only 16% of the time.  

The world would need some 100 million wind turbines, each one 400 feet tall, each one capable of generating 1.8 megawatts at full capacity, when the wind is blowing at the proper speed. Assuming just 15 acres apiece, those monster turbines would require some 1.5 billion acres!

That’s 80% of the entire Lower 48 United States – without including access roads and feeder lines to main transmission lines! That gauntlet of whirling blades would likely send multiple raptor, other bird and bat species into extinction, at least across broad regions.

Wind’s Raw Materials

Manufacturing those turbines would require something on the order of –

  • 30 billion tons of steel, copper and alloys for the towers and turbines;
  • 55 billion tons of steel and concrete for the foundations;
  • 10 million tons of neodymium for turbine magnets;
  • 5 billion tons of complex composite petroleum-based (or biofuel-based) materials for the nacelle covers and turbine blades; and
  • massive quantities of rock and gravel for millions of miles of access roads to the turbines.

All these materials must be mined, smelted, processed, manufactured into finished products … and shipped all over the world. Extracting them would require removing trillions of tons of overburden earth and rock – and crushing and processing tens of billions of tons of ore. Building those ultra-long, high-voltage transmission lines would require still more raw materials – and more millions of acres.

That entire process would also require massive amounts of fossil fuels, because wind turbines and solar panels cannot operate earth moving and mining equipment – or produce consistently high enough heat to melt silica, iron, copper, rare earth or other materials.

The wind turbines’ intermittent, unreliable, unpredictable, weather-dependent electricity output means cement kilns, smelters, foundries, refineries and factories would be inoperable. In fact, it is virtually impossible for wind turbines and solar panels even to generate enough energy over their operational lifetimes just to process the metals, make the concrete, and run the factories to manufacture just the wind turbines, solar panels and transmission lines – much less power civilization.

Science journalist, businessman and parliamentarian Matt Ridley notes that wind turbines need some 200 times more raw materials per megawatt than modern combined-cycle gas turbines. He points out that world energy demand has been growing at about 2% per year for nearly 40 years.

Ridley calculates that, if global energy demand keeps growing at just under 2,000 terawatt-hours every year – and 2-megawatt wind turbines were to supply all that growth – the world would have to build and install 350,000 new 2-megawatt turbines every year! That’s one-and-a-half times more turbines than have been built worldwide in the last twenty-plus years.

In 50 years, we would need 17 million new turbines – just to meet new energy demand – not to replace the massive energy we already get from fossil fuels, which currently supply over 80% of global energy needs.

Using his data – Ridley says 50 acres per 2-megawatt turbine plus access roads – in 50 years humanity would cover a land area the size of Russia, again just to meet new energy demand. That means any accurate sustainability analysis must include the steel, concrete, fiberglass, rare earth metals, copper and other materials needed for all those turbines.

Of course, the calculation would also have to include the cement, steel, copper and other materials for the ultra-long transmission lines required to carry electricity from windy locations to cities, most of which would be hundreds of miles from the big wind turbine industrial sites.

Renewable Trash Disposal

Another looming problem for any wind and solar future is what to do with all the broken-down turbines and panels. According to Mark Mills and the International Renewable Energy Agency, disposing just the worn out solar panels erected by 2050 under the Paris Climate Treaty’s solar energy goals would result in two times the tonnage of the world’s total plastic waste in 2018! Just removing Tesla’s fire-prone solar panels from 240 Walmart stores will result in thousands of tons of non-recyclable plastic and toxic waste.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, are focused on banning plastic straws! Their inability to differentiate between imaginary, wildly inflated ecological problems and not the here-and-now issues of renewable energies is what the UN powers should address–but will not.


Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT) and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green Power – Black Death, and many reports and articles on energy, climate change, sustainable development and human rights. This article is based on the talk he gave at the Heartland Institute alternative sustainability conference yesterday in Salt Lake City.


  1. Denis Rushworth  

    It gets worse. Land-based wind turbine gears last about 10 years and the rest of the machine about 20 to 30 years. Thus by 2050, all existing wind turbines will have their gears replaced 3 times and the rest of the machine replace at least once and for many, twice. Gear replacement is not a trivial job. They are bigger and heavier than the electric generator itself so replacing them is a challenge. So add a few more billions to Ridley’s material estimates

    Sea-based wind turbine lifetime is even less because of the corrosive nature of salt air. As any maritime engineer can attest, salt eats the —- out of everything. That is why sea-going merchant ships rarely last more that 25 years despite frequent maintenance.


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