Wind turbines are expensive. Very expensive. But while the initial costs are high, they are built to recoup their initial investment over the long term, as they continuously generate electricity with no inputs, unlike fossil fuels. But the wind power industry is still in the learning phase. Costs are high because wind power is new. Mass wind turbine production is less than a decade old. Engineers are still learning what materials achieve the best cost-benefit ratio, and how best to maintain and prolong the life of their turbines. The current price of raw materials such as steel and copper has an effect on the initial cost, which can fluctuate over the course of a year. Costs are also affected by location, as the price of labor and the availability of materials can drastically affect the cost of building a wind farm. Even more so when you factor in taxes, government incentives, and tariffs.
Industrial Wind Turbines
Large wind turbines built for onshore and offshore wind farms can generate about 2 to 3 MW, while the largest offshore turbines can generate up to 12 MW of electricity. Needless to say, they’re expensive. While costs can vary, they generally hover around $1 million per MW. The total cost of an average turbine can range from $2.5 million to $4 million, though large offshore turbines can cost tens of millions. The most powerful 12 MW wind turbine costs up to $400 million to manufacture and install. Costs for utility-scale wind turbines can be broken down into three categories: manufacturing, transport and installation, and operations and maintenance.
Researchers are constantly working to drive down the costs. New materials can lower manufacturing costs while increasing durability as well as decreasing the weight, which will lead to lower transportation costs. Costs for utility-scale wind power have decreased dramatically over the past decade, but over the past few years, a rise in the price of precious metals have caused the cost of wind turbines to slightly increase. Many are still sceptical as to whether the high initial investment in wind turbines is worth it. While wind power has only recently become profitable, government grants and tax breaks are still required to incentivize investment. Despite the economic complexities, it’s important to remember that renewable energy sources like wind power aren’t about profit, it’s about having a more sustainable future.
Manufacturing the wind turbine makes up the vast majority, about 70%, of the total cost. The costs depend on the size, materials used, and country of origin. The components of the wind turbine are manufactured separately, and may even be done at different locations. This is because each component requires specialized engineers, like the blades and the gearbox. The tower is the simplest piece to build, though still makes up a significant portion of the costs. The manufacturing costs primarily consist of labor and raw materials.
Rotor & Blades
Blades make up approximately 20% of the total cost of the turbine. The cost varies based on the size and materials used. Blades are manufactured either with glass fiber or a hybrid of glass and carbon fiber. While glass fiber blades have lower material costs, hybrid blades require less labor. The price difference between the two ends up being negligible.
The size of the blades have a larger effect on price. For the average wind turbine, a single blade can cost about $150,000. Blades for larger turbines can cost over $500,000 each. The material costs alone represent around half of the total cost of each blade. Considering most wind turbines have three blades, we can say that the entire rotor costs anywhere from $500,000 for average turbines to well over $1 million on larger models.
Generator & Gearbox
The nacelle houses the generator, gearbox, and speed brakes. The transmission, axles, and driveshaft are also housed inside. This is where the electricity is generated. The generator components make up about 35% of the turbine’s total cost, and over 50% of the manufacturing costs. The gearbox is the most important piece of the turbine, and must be durable, reliable, and made with precision engineering.
Though wind turbines are relatively minimalistic, the internal gearbox is a complex system. They are made to last around 25 years, but they require the most attention due to the number of moving parts. The gearbox might crack and fracture due to temperature fluctuations and load changes. Several parts may have to be replaced over the course of its lifetime, and the entire gearbox might even fail. The gearbox constitutes a large part of the service and maintenance cost of the wind turbine.
The tower and yaw mechanism compose around 15% of the total cost of a wind turbine. Taller towers cost more to manufacture in material and labor costs, but lead to lower costs per kW as they can take advantage of the high altitude wind speeds. The current goal is to lower the costs of raising the tower height, which depends on the innovation of new materials. Rolled tubular steel is currently the most common material. New designs incorporating taller concrete tower bases and lattice steel, as well as space frame designs, are in the works.
The typical 1.5 MW turbine is about 80 m tall, though some can reach as high as 140 to 160 m. Doubling the tower height requires doubling the diameter and quadrupling the amount of material in the tower. The cost of the tower is around $200/kW. Costs for a 1.5 MW turbine can land around $300,000, while towers for larger turbines can cost over $1 million.
Transportation & Installation
Transportation accounts for about 3% to 8% of the costs associated with wind power in the US. Costs increase as turbine size increases, and when the installation area is remote, costs increase even further, as access roads and infrastructure must be built. Wind turbines might be transported by rail, ship, or truck, sometimes a mix of all three. Costs include fuel, labor, storage, port fees, and tariffs, and may vary widely depending on the country of origin, destination, mode of transport, and political climate. Keep in mind that different components of the turbine might be manufactured separately, which adds to transport costs as some parts are manufactured further from the destination than others.
It takes about a year of serious logistical planning and 10 separate loads to transport a single wind turbine. Blades are the most difficult to transport, especially for larger turbines. They are considered oversized loads and require special attention when being transported by truck. Inattentive drivers are prone to drive directly under them if they’re hanging over the back of a cargo truck, increasing the possibility of an accident. The cost of transporting a single wind turbine for a short-haul is between $30,000 and $40,000. Long haul transportation can exceed $100,000 per turbine.
Installation costs revolve around the assembly and construction of the turbine. Crane rentals can costs upwards of $80,000 per day, totaling $100,000 to $150,000 per MW. But first, the foundation must be built. The cost of the foundation depends on the height of the tower, the weight of the generator and rotor, and the soil conditions at the site. Turbine foundations may require between 8 and 20 truckloads of concrete, which can total up to $250,000 per turbine when you include digging and engineering design. Access roads can cost up to $25,000 per quarter-mile. The more remote the location, the higher the cost to build roads.
The location of a wind farm can have a profound effect on cost. While a wind turbine in Europe or the United States can cost about $1 million per MW, turbines installed in countries like Brazil can be as cheap as $500,000 per MW.
Once the turbines are erected, they must be wired to the electrical grid. The infrastructure for electrical distribution includes the transformer at the turbine base, underground wiring, power substations, and electric power poles. Transformers cost between $15,000 and $50,000 per turbine, and the wires that run down the interior of the turbine cost about $20,000. The costs may run between $40,000 to $200,000 or more, depending on the location and size of the wind farm.
Operations & Maintenance
Once manufactured and installed, wind turbines are rather cheap to maintain. Though it is an ongoing expense, the revenue from the electricity generated far exceeds the yearly costs. Maintenance can be broken down into several categories:
-Service & Repair
-Administrative & Legal
-Power (They require a small amount of energy to run)
Altogether, O&M adds up to about 1 to 2 cents per kWh produced, or around $42,000 to $48,000 per year for the first ten years. Insurance alone is around $8,000 to $15,000 per year per turbine. Administrative and legal costs, including accounting and taxes, add up to around $6,000 to $10,000 per year. Maintenance costs increase as the turbines age, but it’s important to remember that these are new technologies. The average age of wind turbines around the world is only six years. As engineers learn more about the operation and durability of wind turbines, they learn new and better ways to maintain them. The costs are expected to gradually decrease in the near future, but the overall cost of O&M is going to increase substantially as wind turbines age and more turbines are installed.
Maintenance for offshore wind turbines are higher. Transporting the workers to the worksite and the time-consuming labor make them more costly, and workers must be provided protection from seaside hazards and lightning. Offshore turbines also tend to be larger, meaning higher costs for spare parts and labor.
Residential Wind Turbines
Residential wind turbines are becoming more popular. Though they don’t produce much energy, a small wind turbine can still significantly lower your energy bill. Small wind systems are those rated less than 100kW. They come in two types; roof-mounted systems and free-standing systems. Roof-mounted turbines cost less, but produce less energy, while free-standing systems are much more expensive, but can potentially power your home.
Like solar panels, residential turbines require professional installation and equipment such as inverters and battery storage. This can significantly add to the initial cost of the turbine. Although, you can save money if you have the know-how to install it yourself. You may also get tax credits and grants for installing small wind systems depending on your jurisdiction. A 30% renewable energy tax credit is available for homeowners in the US. Several states also offer financial incentives for installing wind power.
Roof Mounted Wind Turbines
If your roof is high enough to take advantage of high-altitude winds, then you may want to think about installing a roof-mounted turbine. Roof-mounted turbines are usually rated between 0.5 kW and 2.5 kW. On average, they tend to cost about $3,000, with prices going up or down depending on the nameplate capacity and quality. Roof-mounted systems are only meant to supplement your energy needs, you cannot power your entire home with one. Don’t expect to reap any of the benefits from net metering either. A 1.5 kW turbine can produce about 2,600 kW per year, or about 25% of your home energy needs.
Free-Standing Wind Turbines
Free-standing turbines provide much more energy, though they come at higher prices. Free-standing turbines may be as small as 2 or 3 kW, or as large as 100 kW. A 10 kW system can cost between $50,000 to $80,000 and put out around 10,000 kW per year, which is enough to power a home. A larger 15 kW system can cost over $100,000 and can produce about 36,000 kW per year.
The largest free-standing wind systems can produce up to 100 kW, and are usually used for commercial use. Turbines of this size can power a school or small building. The cost for a 50 kW to 100 kW wind turbine can range from $500,000 to $1 million.
Residential wind turbines are built to last about 20 years, but they still require maintenance. The turbines still need to be cleaned and periodically require spare parts. The annual maintenance cost of a small roof-mounted turbine is only a few hundred dollars, while large free-standing systems cost several thousand a year to maintain.
Wind power costs a pretty penny, but costs are decreasing as researchers and engineers learn more about the dynamics and operations of wind turbines. They have a high initial cost, but it pays off over time. Fossil fuels may be cheaper economically, but what we don’t pay in dollars we pay for with the environment. Wind power lacks the externalities that come with fossil fuels, like the costs associated with pollution, habitat destruction, CO2 emissions, and a decrease in public health. And unlike other energy sources, the land used for wind farms can still be useful for other purposes, like agriculture. The cost of wind power has decreased astronomically over the past ten years, but wind farms still struggle to turn a profit. Public pressure has forced governments to give tax breaks and incentives to make the investment. Though some people in the energy industry bash wind power for its high initial cost, many realize that our planet should come before making a profit. Some of the large power players in the industry have made the realization that investing in renewable energy is no longer a choice, but a necessity.
Frequently Asked Questions
On average, wind turbines cost about $1 million per MW, or around $2 million to $4 million each. Larger offshore wind turbines can cost tens of millions of dollars. The largest wind turbine to date, which has a capacity of 12 MW, costs $400 million to manufacture and install.
The cost of a wind turbine can be broken down into manufacturing, transportation, installation, and operations and maintenance. Manufacturing makes up the majority of the total costs. The cost of a wind turbine is affected by the price of raw materials, country of origin, and the size of the turbine.
Residential wind systems are rated anywhere between 0.5 kW up to 100 kW. Small roof-mounted systems cost about $3,000, while free-standing installations can cost up to $100,000, and produce enough energy to power a large home.
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