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Can You Make a Wind Turbine Without Fossil Fuels?

Robert Wilson's picture
University of Strathclyde

Robert Wilson is a PhD Student in Mathematical Ecology at the University of Strathclyde.

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Wind Turbine and Energy Use

Various scenarios have been put forward showing that 100% renewable energy is achievable. Some of them even claim that we can move completely away from fossil fuels in only couple of decades. A world entirely without fossils might be desirable, but is it achievable?

The current feasibility of 100% renewable energy is easily tested by asking a simple question. Can you build a wind turbine without fossil fuels? If the machines that will deliver 100% renewable energy cannot be made without fossil fuels, then quite obviously we cannot get 100% renewable energy.

This is what a typical wind turbine looks like:

What is it made of? Lots of steel, concrete and advanced plastic. Material requirements of a modern wind turbine have been reviewed by the United States Geological Survey. On average 1 MW of wind capacity requires 103 tonnes of stainless steel, 402 tonnes of concrete, 6.8 tonnes of fiberglass, 3 tonnes of copper and 20 tonnes of cast iron. The elegant blades are made of fiberglass, the skyscraper sized tower of steel, and the base of concrete.

These requirements can be placed in context by considering how much we would need if we were to rapidly transition to 100% wind electricity over a 20 year period. Average global electricity demand is approximately 2.6 TW, therefore we need a total of around 10 TW of wind capacity to provide this electricity. So we would need about 50 million tonnes of steel, 200 million tonnes of concrete and 1.5 million tonnes of copper each year. These numbers sound high, but current global production of these materials is more than an order of magnitude higher than these requirements.

Fossil fuel requirements of cement and steel production

For the sake of brevity I will only consider whether this steel can be produced without fossil fuels, and whether the concrete can be made without the production of carbon dioxide. However I will note at the outset that the requirement for fiberglass means that a wind turbine cannot currently be made without the extraction of oil and natural gas, because fiberglass is without exception produced from petrochemicals.

Let’s begin with steel. How do we make most of our steel globally?

There are two methods: recycle old steel, or make steel from iron ore. The vast majority of steel is made using the latter method for the simple reason that there is nowhere near enough old steel lying around to be re-melted to meet global demand.

Here then is a quick summary of how we make steel. First we take iron ore out of the ground, leaving a landscape looking like this:

This is done using powerful machines that need high energy density fuels, i.e. diesel:

And the machines that do all of this work are almost made entirely of steel:

After mining, the iron ore will need to be transported to a steel mill. If the iron ore comes from Australia or Brazil then it most likely will have to be put on a large bulk carrier and transported to another country.

What powers these ships? A diesel engine. And they are big:

Simple engineering realities mean that shipping requires high energy dense fuels, universally diesel. Because of wind and solar energy’s intrinsic low power density putting solar panels, or perhaps a kite, on to one of these ships will not come close to meeting their energy requirements. We are likely stuck with diesel engines for generations.

We then convert this iron ore into steel. How is this done? There are only two widely used methods. The blast furnace or direct reduction routes, and these processes are fundamentally dependent on the provision of large amounts of coal or natural gas.

A modern blast furnace

The blast furnace route is used for the majority of steel production globally. Here coal is key. Iron ore is unusable, largely because it is mostly iron oxide. This must be purified by removing the oxygen, and we do this by reacting the iron ore with carbon monoxide produced using coke:

Fe2O3 + 3CO → 2Fe + 3CO2

Production of carbon dioxide therefore is not simply a result of the energy requirements of steel production, but of the chemical requirements of iron ore smelting.

This steel can then be used to produce the tower for a wind turbine, but as you can see, each major step of the production chain for what we call primary steel is dependent on fossil fuels.

By weight cement is the most widely used material globally. We now produce over 3.5 billion tonnes of the stuff each year, with the majority of it being produced and consumed in China. And one of the most important uses of cement is in concrete production.

Cement only makes up between 10 and 20% of concrete’s mass, depending on the specific concrete. However from an embodied energy and emissions point of view it makes up more than 80%. So, if we want to make emissions-free concrete we really need to figure out how to make emissions-free cement.

We make cement in a cement kiln, using a kiln fuel such as coal, natural gas, or quite often used tires. Provision of heat in cement production is an obvious source of greenhouse gases, and providing this heat with low carbon sources will face multiple challenges.

A modern cement kiln

These challenges may or may not be overcome, but here is a more challenging one. Approximately 50% of emissions from cement production come not from energy provision, but from chemical reactions in its production.

The key chemical reaction in cement production is the conversion of calcium carbonate (limestone) into calcium oxide (lime). The removal of carbon from calcium carbonate inevitably leads to the emission of carbon dioxide:

CaCO3 → CaO + CO2

These chemical realities will make total de-carbonisation of cement production extremely difficult.

Total cement production currently represents about 5% of global carbon dioxide emissions, to go with the almost 7% from iron and steel production. Not loose change.

In conclusion we obviously cannot build wind turbines on a large scale without fossil fuels.

Now, none of this is to argue against wind turbines, it is simply arguing against over-promising what can be achieved. It also should be pointed out that we cannot build a nuclear power plant, or any piece of large infrastrtucture for that matter, without concrete or steel. A future entirely without fossil fuels may be desirable, but currently it is not achievable. Expectations must be set accordingly.

Recommended Reading

Sustainable Materials With Both Eyes Open – Allwood and Cullen

Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization – Vaclav Smil

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Steve Frazer's picture
Steve Frazer on Mar 2, 2014
1:100.0 Hydro 1:80.0 Coal 1:36.0 Willow 1:24.0 Yellowhorn 1:18.0 Wind 1:18.0 Natural Gas 1:10.0 Nuclear 1:10.0 Petroleum – Conventional 1:9.0 Palm Oil 1:8.0 Petroleum – Exploration 1:6.8 Photovoltaic (tracking) 1:6.2 Jatropha/Tallow/Moringa 1:5.2 Soy biodiesel 1:5.0 Ethanol sugarcane 1:5.0 Petroleum – Shale 1:3.0 Petroleum – Tar sands 1:1.9 Solar flat panels 1:1.6 Solar collector 1:1.3 Corn ethanol
jan Freed's picture
jan Freed on Mar 2, 2014

Surprising figures about solar flat panel from your chart.  I had read that the EROI of solar panels was about 18 mo.-  and they last around 30+ years.  So, what does 1:1.9 mean? 

Steve Frazer's picture
Steve Frazer on Mar 2, 2014

Robert, thank you for sharing this link.  We have reviewed about 25% of the papers listed on the reference on this document, but we had not reviewed this document. 

Our EROI chart stats and those presented in this paper share some data, but there are significant differences – esp. per nuclear and 2nd generation feedstock for biodiesel.  Obviously, the author of this paper had little expertise in biofuels and only touched on ethanol/distilled fuels.

You can see by how the paper is written, just how much discussion and discern is present in the research and approach to generating a single EROI stat for each energy source model. 

Is the air travel energy of a dozen Federal inspectors flying from D.C. from 1982-2300 to the state of Washington several times per year to inspect the stored nuclear waste of a nuclear power plant part of the EROI equation of a nuclear power plant?  Yes it is.

Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on Mar 2, 2014

No, can we means is it possible.  We have the technology to do it right this instant.  Thus the question is not can we do it but when could we develope cost effective means to do it.  Depends on how much we value a future world with a half decent climate.  the more that is valued the sooner it is do-able in a cost effective manner.  How much do you value the world your grandchildren will inherit.  From the rationalisations of many I see here the answer for those is “not much”.

Steve Frazer's picture
Steve Frazer on Mar 2, 2014

I do not understand why anyone would have such a goal – electric mining of minerals needed to build wind turbines powered by wind turbines.  Parasitic energy drain is a common concept, but you guys are taking this so literally, the discussion is moot.

Mining can move to biodiesel almost immediately and cargo ships already are beginning to migrate to biodiesel blends.  Yes, we do use wind turbines to generate electricity to mill material and we do sell metals to wind turbine manufacturers.   Already there. 

How about considering the use of wind turbines to pump the water to the trees which produce the oil for the biodiesel which powered the heavy mining equipment which provides more minerals for more turbines. 

Happy to see there are discussions about these issues – they have been our business model for 5-6 years.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Mar 2, 2014

I think it’s a good idea. Are there water issues concerning harvesting the trees in a sustainable manner. Also, is it possible to “add hydrogen” produced from high process heat of CSP or closed cycle nuclear to make the fuels more efficient?


Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Mar 2, 2014

It is obvious to me that the higher the energy density of the source, the more favorable the EROEI. The following backs up this claim. (Not against 2nd gen biofuels, now that you pointed it out).

Back then, it must have been a mess (that we’re still paying for) but the future of energy does not have to be based on the past. That future could have already been here. Advanced closed cycle nuclear such as LFTR or PRISM are meltdown proof, are on the order of a hundred times as efficient (as the LWR) thus have a hundred times less wastes which are “just” fission products which decay back to normal background levels in about 1,000ths the time (about 300 years) and would be vitrified in a 4 part mixture of glass for storing.

It would be a shame for humanity to figure out the “inner atom” just to abandon it for fear (at least France didn’t ). Robotics and fast reactors could be used to handle and generate electricity from yesterday’s wastes issues. Why limit some clean energy options when ALL of then might be needed (and could compliment each other). If, for example, China India, Africa, South America and the already develop world use up all the fossil fuels, what are we going to make nuclear reactors out of? Advanced biofuels!

It needs to be done!

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Mar 2, 2014

His chart is wrong, unless…

NREL states that a solar panel is about 1 to 7 meaning it generates 7x the energy required to make it (and I assume that NREL also figured in the primary energy required to generate the electricity at the usual 2/3rds loss to thermodynamics in a steam generator). If not, then 1:1.9 (or almost twice) would be only slightly on the low side. This is because the cells require LOTS of heat to make, more so than glass.

CSP, on the other hand, has a far higher EROEI because it’s just a bunch of mirrors, small motors and the conventional steam turbine coupled with molten salts for heat storage.

Wind, also has a pretty good EROEI but supposedly, is not good enough for economic recovery when all inputs are considered. Steve likes advanced biofuels and it is this that can be used to make concrete and steel should we “run out of” fossil fuels. But why waste it on making millions of wind turbines when it could be used more wisely to make just thousands of advanced melt down proof reactors?

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Mar 2, 2014

Future nuclear power plants will be on the order of 100x as efficient even more so when considering that centrifuges will not be necessary (once started). But only IF they do not succumb to FEAR

Forever Eliminate Advanced Reactors?

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Mar 2, 2014

The energy expense of a dozen inspectors…

A 747 uses some 50,000 gallons of jet fuel x 120,000 = 6 billion btu consumed for entire jet (and all the other passengers from full to empty). Figure one per year dedicated per nuke plant. Fissionable material offers over 1.4 trillion btu from one liter. I believe a 1GW plant “burns” a ton of it (mixed with many more tons of non-fissionables in the open cycle). A liter of u325 weighs about 19kg and offers the equivalent of 230 such fully loaded 747 trips. 907kg (ton) / 19 = about 1/47th of the u235 consumed per year. 47 x 230 = about .01 of 1% of total nuclear. Or just .03% after converting over to electricity at the 2/3rds loss to the steam cycle.

Consider that the closed cycle, such as LFTR would be far more safe and efficient than ordinary rather unsafe nuclear if governments would allow the re-development of the proven concept to the commercial level. Governments help out for just about everything else, why not this.

donough shanahan's picture
donough shanahan on Mar 3, 2014

Unfortunately english is a simple language

Can which also means ‘to be able to’, have the power/skill/ability to’, to know how to, is a present singular or present plural form verb. Could is the form of the verb that expresses possibility.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Mar 3, 2014


Your proposals for how we “can” do this are outright delusional. Why should anyone take serious suggestions that we return to sail based shipping? This is never going to happen. If you value the world your grandchildren will inherit you might consider proposing ideas that stand more than zero chance of working.

But if you think that me dismissing sail based shipping as a solution is a rationalisation then I suggest you learn some basic facts before attacking people on the internet.

Peter Lang's picture
Peter Lang on Apr 12, 2015

I’d remind readers of a few important relevant facts when comparing wind and nuclear.

1.  Regarding the embodied emissions, nuclear requires about 1/10 the steel and concrete needed for wind power (life cycle analysis).  That means 1/10 the emisisosn produced during transport of ores, coal, gas and components too.

2.  Electricity and transport fuels contribute about 2/3 of all GHG emissions.  Approaching 90% of these can be avoided with nuclear power (eventually).  France has been demonstrating for over 30 years that it’s emissions intensity of electricity is about 1/10th of Australia’s (75% of France electricity is gherated by nuclear power and 75% of Australia’s by coal).  Emissions intensity of electricity in Germand and Denmark is about 7 times higher thant France’s.

3.  Transport fuels (petrol/gasolene, diesel, jet fuel can be produce from seawater by nuclear power using well proven, commercially available technologies.  The costs is high now ($3-$6/ gallon accoridn to the US Navy research) but would come down once production began to ramp up.

So we have the technologies to enable us to reduce emissions from electricity and transport fuels by approaching 90%.  

Politics and ideology is waht is blocking progress, not technology.

John Macdonell's picture
John Macdonell on May 18, 2016

According to this, the energy produced over the lifetime of a typical turbine averages 16x the energy required to make that turbine, with payback in 7-9 months.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on May 18, 2016

Energy return on investment in a nuclear plant is on the order of 81, with a similar payback time (but a 60-80 year lifespan).

John Macdonell's picture
John Macdonell on May 18, 2016

I was restricting myself to the subject of the article – turbines.

Nuclear could well offer a better energy return. The nagging problem, though, is “What to do with nuclear waste?” There are possible solutions/mitigations to the nuclear waste problem – but I think discussing nuclear here is beyond the scope of this article.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on May 19, 2016

Companies are setting up plants to make aluminum and poly-silicon in Iceland to tap the geothermal energy. A price on carbon would drive more of that sort of investment.

I could also imagine putting nuclear power on large ships — recycled oil tankers maybe — to serve as floating factories that take advantage of low-cost clean power.

Remember the original Alien movie where the space ship was processing ore en route to Earth? You could have a nuclear powered ship pick up ore in Australia or Brazil and deliver refined metal to Asia.


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