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Memewatch: Are we about to be menaced by 1,000 foot wind turbines?

  • 20 Mar 2012, 10:45
  • Christian Hunt

Alternative _energy _revolution

(Image from xkcd.org)

Some people aren't keen on wind turbines. The Daily Mail are amongst them, and they've turned to the US for what is presented as a salutary tale of where over-subsidising renewables can get you. They contend that many wind farms in the US were 'abandoned' after the 80s, when subsidies were scaled back, leaving the fledgling wind industry uneconomic.

The piece is a little vague about the numbers of turbines which have been 'abandoned', and the US after the oil shocks is presumably quite a different scenario to the present day UK, where onshore wind power is around cost-comparable to gas-powered electricity generation and probably remaining so in the future, and offshore wind costs are projected to fall.

However, the article finishes off with a warning about what it calls the 'next generation' of wind turbines:

"Who in their right mind would want any of the new generation of turbines - under EU plans, the turbines will be nearly 1,000ft tall (that's six times the height of Nelson's column) - rusting away in their backyard?"

1,000 feet sounds pretty tall. As far as we're aware there are no 1,000 feet tall wind turbines, and even the biggest in common use are substantially smaller. According to RenewableUK, the average height of an onshore wind turbine in the UK - the kind that might theoretically be "in your backyard" - is 75m, or 246 feet. The tallest onshore turbine in the UK is 125m (or 410 feet).

Offshore turbines get a bit bigger - the 3.6MW turbines at the newly-opened Walney wind farm are about 150m (492 feet) high, for example. But even if you read "backyard" as "the middle of the North sea", the Mail's number for 'new generation' turbines is more than twice as big as it should be.

Where does the number come from? As you may have guessed, it's based on some heroic extrapolation of future trends. But is it a reasonable guide to where we're going as wind power gets bigger and more technologically sophisticated?

It turns out that the 1,000 foot figure is taken from a "blue sky" EU-funded research project called UpWind, which examined the possibility of building dramatically bigger wind turbines - up to 20MW of power generating capacity - which would tower 1,000 feet high.  

But it looks unlikely that they are going to be built any time soon, and they aren't the "new generation" of turbines. The UpWind programme concluded:

This extrapolated virtual 20 MW design was unanimously assessed as almost impossible to manufacture, and uneconomic... The support structures able to carry such mass placed at 153 m height are not possible to mass manufacture today.

They suggested some technological developments that might make bigger turbines work, but we're probably decades away from turbines on this scale. And, crucially, the UpWind project seems to have been examining the potential for bigger offshore wind turbines, presumably for the fairly obvious reason that 1,000 feet high wind turbines are likely to be fairly unpopular with (amongst others) certain sections of the Great British public.

So: 1,000 foot wind turbines? Maybe in twenty years, somewhere over towards Norway. But not in your backyard!

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