Wind turbines pay back total environmental ‘debt’ in under six months

Last update: October 28, 2013

One of the B movie unkillable wind energy myths — it just keeps coming back even after it’s been run over by truckloads of facts, disembowelled by logic and burnt to a crisp by the light of reason — is that wind turbines consume so much material and carbon in mining, manufacturing and construction that they never pay back the environmental debt of building them in the first place.

It’s a bizarre myth, as the same people putting this myth forward often seem blind to the massive environmental destruction of coal generation and seem to have bought into the PR about ‘natural gas’, which has 50 times the full-lifecycle CO2e emissions per MWh as wind energy.

The reality is that modern wind turbines of typical utility wind farm scale — 1.5 MW and up — pay back energy used in their full-lifecycle — materials, manufacturing, construction, use and decommissioning — in less than six months.

Wind turbine manufacturers have a vested interest in accurate full lifecycle cost assessments (LCA) and publish these.   To maintain ISO certification — a necessity for any manufacturer to sell to more than backyard hobbyists — LCAs are required to be published and available.  They must follow manufacturing standard ISO 14040-14043 approaches to costing.  They must be independently reviewed.  What is relevant from these LCAs is that every step of manufacturing, transport, construction, operation, maintenance and dis-assembly is captured and quantified.  Literally everything of any significance is measured and included in the calculations.

Screen Shot 2013-03-02 at 1.05.05 PM

LCA simplified process courtesy of

This example shows typical full-lifecycle accounting results for all aspects of a modern 2 MW GE wind turbine.  Note that it shows 146 days for payback.

In this comparison, you’ll see that the two generation technologies with the highest energy payback ratio are wind and wind with pumped-hydro storage.  A high ratio is good in this case.

GE provides nuclear power plants, photovoltaics, natural gas generators and coal plant technology.  They have full-lifecycle analyses of all forms of generation using apples-to-apples, ISO methodologies to make the comparisons above.

The following chart is relevant to discussion of modern wind energy, as opposed to historical wind energy.  The chart shows that the larger the wind turbine, the greater the energy and environmental payback.  At present, GE and other are working at the 4.5 MW and 6 MW scale.  The largest turbine in the comparison is 800 KW, much smaller than current scale, so we will expect that even larger wind turbines will have even better ratios.

LCAs for all wind turbines are published. [2]  This one was selected as an example, but all show roughly the same results.  Wind energy is very competitive with other forms of energy on all fronts. [3]


[2] ACLCA – Home
[3] How effective are wind turbines compared to other sources of energy?

One comment

  1. Ellin Beltz · · Reply

    A wind company wanted to build near where I live in a very remote, mountainous area without roads. They planned to ship their turbines to a nearby harbor which has no facilities to unload things that large. They planned to move the pieces over roads which aren’t big enough nor rated for the weight. They ignored the physical constraints of the area until after $5 million U.S. dollars had been spent on studies. Then they found out that the freeway bridges were too low, the harbor facilities non-existent, and the project was physically impossible.

    However, the developers accused local people who knew these limitations and said “you can’t build that” meaning “it’s not physically possible to get giant equipment up to that hill” – they accused these good people of being NIMBYs and deniers and haters and whatever else bad names could be applied to good people.

    The community was split by all the name-calling. In the end they did not build their project because there is no place to unload their ships, the freeway bridges are too low, and the roads are too small and weak. No surprise to anyone who lives here, but apparently huge news to some engineers from Texas.

    Perhaps wind builders and wind boosters could actually listen to people who live in the areas about good places to put things and not good places to put things, rather than to tar brush anyone with a question a “NIMBY” or an opponent. Many of us would love to have even more renewable energy here, but we know it’s simply not possible with the 400 foot tall units they said were the only economic ones to build.

Be nice, be respectful, be relevant.

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