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Wind Farm Lifetime Extensions and Repowering: Managing the Death Spiral

May 15, 2018

By Paul Homewood


From GWPF:



New academic research on whether to repower or extend the lifetime of an obsolescent wind farm in Europe reveals that without new subsidies for repowered sites, low cost lifetime extensions focused on maximising return before decommissioning are more probable, with a potential to affect about half the wind turbine fleet in Germany, Spain and Denmark. In the absence of new subsidies, we could be looking at the beginning of the end for the wind industry in Europe.

In March this year the renewables policy cheerleaders, the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), which is predominantly funded by the European Climate Foundation and the Grantham Foundation, published a study, Repower to the People, claiming that the UK could and should repower some sixty onshore wind farms over the next five years and so gain a net increase in capacity of more than 1.3 GW. The paper did not examine the underlying economics and policy context of decisions to repower, and relied simply on the reader’s naïve enthusiasm for technological progress when confronted with the fact that, for example, contemporary turbines are two to three times the capacity (2–3 MW) of the previous generation (< 1 MW), with the latest models approaching 4 MW. Bigger must  surely be better, especially given the obvious economies:

As well as offering simplicities and potentially lower costs compared with developing a new site, repowering is also logical given that many of the earliest wind farms are in locations that have the best wind resource. (Repower to the People, p. 4.)

Sympathetic MPs were produced to provide quotations in the press suggesting that it was simply a question of government removing the obstacles to this commonsense development, with Mr Simon Clarke, the Conservative Party’s MP for Middlesborough South and East Cleveland, being reported as observing that:

For those worried about the 1 per cent of UK gas imports that come from Mr Putin, these upgrades would also reduce our reliance on imported fuel by the equivalent of two gas-fired power stations; and if we don’t allow developers to repower them, we may lose them for good. (Utility Week, 27.03.18)

There is of course nothing to stop developers repowering such sites, except that: 1 there are no subsidies available, and without such subsidies the low market prices probable over the next decade are insufficient to motivate re-investment.

Furthermore, the owners seeking to repower would have to apply for a new planning consent, which would be problematic now that the unneighbourliness of large wind turbines is notorious. Indeed, as the authors of a new and important academic survey of repowering and lifetime extension, report, the state of Bavaria has even “introduced in 2014 a regulation that sets a new minimum distance of ten times the tip-height between a wind turbine and the closest residential areas” (L. Ziegler et al. “Lifetime extension of onshore wind turbines: a review covering Germany Spain, Denmark, and the UK, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews82 (2018), 1261–1271). A modern machine can be upwards of 120 metres (nearly 400 feet) to tip, so this implies a separation of over three quarters of a mile, and would rule out many existing onshore wind farms in the UK, particularly in England, where at present there is no formally required separation distance.

Indeed, contrary to the “simplicities” urged on us by the ECIU, the work published by Ziegler and her colleagues, who write from a position of fundamental sympathy for the wind industry, makes it clear that the decision facing owners of ageing wind farms is extremely difficult, except to decommission. Repowering is by no means a simple matter:

Sites with existing wind farms are often impossible to repower due to lack of availability of the site, legal consent, changes in subsidies, environmental protection, public acceptance, or insufficient wind conditions. (p. 1265)

The landowner may no longer want a wind farm; and even if they are willing, new legal permission may not be easy to obtain; subsidies are insufficient or non-existent; the larger wind turbines may breach environmental regulations; the neighbours may not welcome bigger or any wind turbines; and, interestingly, the wind conditions may now be known to be unsuitable or have become so due to the adjacent location of other wind farms (see See Ziegler et al. Table 4, p. 1269).

In fact, these authors report that the principal “favourable legal and economic conditions for repowering” are “profitable subsidy schemes” and a “scarcity of sites”. In the UK there are no subsidies available, and so long as the Scottish government is prepared to continue granting planning consents against vigorous protests, there will be no shortage of alternative sites in the United Kingdom. The ECIU’s proposed major repowering over the UK as a whole is a complete non-starter. Moreover, this is no parochial matter. As Ziegler et al. show, repowering is an unattractive option throughout Europe, since “no political repowering subsidies exist in Germany, Spain, Denmark, and the UK”.

Instead, wind farm owners will be looking at the possibility of extending the lifetimes of their existing wind farms. But this is itself by no means an easy option, and requires careful assessment of the condition and performance of the existing asset to determine the Remaining Useful Lifetime (RUL) of the major components, and, crucially, “whether operational costs are balanced by revenues for the produced energy”. Most of that latter anxiety is focused on the future market price for the electricity produced, and not on the operational costs, since as the authors report on the basis of a number of industry interviews:

Uncertainty about future failure rates was not a major consideration of operators. Since lifetime extension requires only low investments, a common approach is terminate turbine operation if costly repairs become necessary. (p. 1268.)

None of this sounds like the behaviour of a vigorous and expanding industry. Indeed, it seems more likely to be the skilful management of the death spiral, ensuring that owners extract as much as possible from investments made under the existing policy instruments before they exit to enjoy their winnings.

This is a situation that could develop very rapidly. Ziegler et al. report that in 2016 some 12% of the installed wind turbine capacity was older than 15 years, a share that will increase to 28% by 2020 (p. 1261). The UK, as a relative latecomer to this enthusiasm, will be below the average, with only 10% of its current capacity older than 15 years in that year, but in other countries, as the authors themselves admit, the “future age distribution of installed wind capacity almost looks dramatic”:

By 2020, 41% of the currently installed capacity in Germany will be over 15 years old, 44% in Spain, and 57% in Denmark.

If this is not repowered, and the evidence presented in this paper suggests strongly that without new subsidies owners will prefer to focus their attention on short-run lifetime extensions, we will be looking at the beginning of the end of the wind industry in Europe.

  1. Charles Wardrop permalink
    May 15, 2018 10:07 am

    Wind_powered electricity and solar panels should never have been installed.
    Absolutely no more of our money must be wasted on them, as offshore in Scotland.
    New nuclear means is needed, as Rolls Royce have made, but, meanwhile, gas and coal are what the UK needs.

  2. May 15, 2018 10:43 am

    Sadly Cognitive Dissonance will keep these turbines spinning for many years. All it needs is to continue fiddling with the market with tax incentives/bribes.

  3. HotScot permalink
    May 15, 2018 11:35 am

    A question for the knowledgeable amongst you.

    Is there provision made for the decommissioning of wind turbines in the event of, say, them being to expensive to run?

    Or will the taxpayer be left holding the baby once again?

    • Gerry, England permalink
      May 15, 2018 12:44 pm

      I would doubt it as they would never consider such a thing and wind power is becoming so cheap now…allegedly.

      Business people are usually in business because they are smart and will be quite adept at finding a way to put wind power in a separate company that can go bankrupt when required. That would probably leave the decommissioning cost to the landowners who have been doing nicely from the scam and therefore deserve little sympathy.

    • Simon from Ashby permalink
      May 15, 2018 12:49 pm

      As far I am aware there is no legal provision for decommissioning.

      In any event, when the subsidies finally run out the companies that own and run the wind Farms will simply be allowed to go bust. You can’t make someone pay for something if they have no money.

      The Wind farms themselves will be abandoned and will fall into disrepair leaving behind a legacy of deteriorating, ugly and ever more dangerous industrial waste.

      The tax payer will have to pick up the bill. Scrap value might put something back but it will not cover the cost.

    • May 15, 2018 7:45 pm

      Planning permission for onshore wind turbines and wind farms is usually granted for a fixed period (usually 25 years) with usually a condition that within one year of end of operation all above ground equipment must be removed (the foundations are usually allowed to remain buried). If, as Simon says, the owner has gone bust, then the landowner must remove the rubbish.

  4. Roy permalink
    May 15, 2018 1:31 pm

    FFS just start fracking!

    (btw – don’t use FFS on the BBC’s website as it will get your post banned – yes, just using the initials is enough)

    • David Richardson permalink
      May 15, 2018 7:19 pm

      Just using the letters BBC should get you blocked on here.

  5. swan101 permalink
    May 15, 2018 2:53 pm

    Reblogged this on UPPER SONACHAN WIND FARM and commented:
    ….And in Scotland, developers are clinging on in the hope that the government will develop their plans to support the industry however economically or environmentally damaging it is.

  6. swan101 permalink
    May 15, 2018 3:06 pm

    In response to Simon from Ashby…..You are so right. Note that toxic blades et al are now being shipped to African land fill sites. Ask SEPA here what plans are in existence to deal with the burgeoning number of failed/old/damaged blades now in existence and you will be told that most are returned to their foreign manufacturers. I.e ‘pass the parcel.’ There appears to be a woeful/unforgivable lack of appreciation that this problem not going away and will escalate rapidly. Recycling is problematical due to the toxins as any research will soon discover.

  7. markl permalink
    May 15, 2018 3:27 pm

    Just more unintended consequences being ignored by the so called ‘environmentalists’. The renewable energy blight is nigh. Already in Hawaii there is a forest of rusted and deteriorating wind turbines on the big island.

  8. May 15, 2018 7:46 pm

    Nice one.

  9. Bitter@twisted permalink
    May 15, 2018 9:41 pm

    We want a promise of more subsidies.

  10. Europeanonion permalink
    May 16, 2018 8:37 am

    The eponymous Emma constructed all manner of outcomes for the people that she infected. But only her own epiphany gave her the power, the realisation, to understand the damage that she had reeked, took the scales from her eyes.

    To love the planet is one thing but to only view it in terms of the limitations of your own vision, visibly and intellectually, is a preposterous act. These huge mechanical devices are only promising continual refurbishment and the less they realise their capacity mythology the more that will be constructed to try and give some credence to what is postulated. I know of no other brain, other than Emma, that would persist in a doleful, disconnected and self-admiring way outside the green lobby, transfixed by their own ennoblement and dissociated from reality.

    When we refer to elections and the power of the majority we find some solace, like minds, broad consensus, responsibility. But to be mired in this contemptible and unrealistic charade of a rescue of mankind and his world in a lobby group controlled environment, with its high rhetoric and dystopian allusions?

    I find the whole proceedings to be undemocratic. Manoeuvred by those sorts of powers who by their religion care not one jot about the evolution of others and their outcomes in this moment.,Who, without the application of necromancy and the proven worthlessness of futurology, are a coterie, an opinion at best, purveyors of false news and blinded by a romantic ideal that runs counter to the scientific method even to the concept of progress and the constant refining of the human condition.

  11. Ben Vorlich permalink
    May 16, 2018 11:07 am

    News of the cost of subsidies is gradually leaking out.

    Consumers will pay £1.5billion too much for electricity after ministers handed windfarms golden subsidies, watchdog says

    National Audit Office slammed business department’s green energy scheme
    Subsidies awarded to firms will add £100 million-a-year to electricity bills
    MP Meg Hillier slammed the department for ‘once again’ letting consumers down

    By Kate Ferguson, Political Correspondent For Mailonline

    Published: 09:52 BST, 16 May 2018 | Updated: 10:42 BST, 16 May 2018

  12. Gamecock permalink
    May 16, 2018 2:00 pm

    ‘In the absence of new subsidies, we could be looking at the beginning of the end for the wind industry in Europe.’

    The one that is now cheaper than coal ?!?!

    Being a renewablephile means you are able to forget what you said yesterday.

  13. Henning Nielsen permalink
    May 16, 2018 8:52 pm

    Wind power will be very cheap, indeed free. When the blades stop turning, and yet another “climate crises” illusion is laid to rest. Tens of thousands of -happily still and silent- towering monuments to failure will be a warning to a disillusioned populace.

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