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How Can We Make Wind Turbines More Sustainable?

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Jane Marsh's picture
Editor, Environment.co

Jane Marsh is the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co. She covers topics related to climate policy, sustainability, renewable energy and more.

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  • Dec 20, 2021
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Wind power is one of the most prolific renewable energy sources in the world. It rivals hydropower to produce a significant portion of national electricity supplies. Recent national sustainability initiatives will also increase wind power production rates and decrease atmospheric degradation in the process.

To effectively achieve carbon-neutrality, manufacturers must increase the eco-friendliness of turbines. Current production practices release greenhouse gas emissions and create municipal solid waste (MSW). Clean energy professionals can make wind turbines more sustainable by exploring several opportunities.

The Increased Demand for Clean Energy

Before assessing sustainability-enhancing turbine features, individuals must explore the demand for clean energy.

America isn’t alone in sourcing nearly 80% of its energy from fossil fuels. Fossil fuels produce greenhouse gas emissions during the combustion phase. When emissions invade the atmosphere, they change its composition and limit its heat regulation capability. Earth relies on a specific atmospheric condition to achieve life-supporting temperatures.

The planet produces heat from infrared radiation, warming its surface. Then, the atmosphere collects extra energy and sends it to space. Artificially added greenhouse gases alter the process by raising the atmospheric sunlight-to-heat exchange rate. They also trap excess energy in the environment, re-filtering it through the heating process. Trapping and overproducing heat increases Earth’s temperature over time.

Wind power prevents adverse environmental impacts by decreasing emissions related to energy production. Unfortunately, a few ecological limitations are associated with turbines and clean power development. Environmentalists can improve the eco-friendliness of renewables by first evaluating the environmental challenges with turbine designs.

Ecological Challenges With Turbine Designs

Though turbines effectively produce electricity without releasing emissions, they still create some forms of pollution. Current turbine blade models are non-recyclable, generating MSW at the end of their life cycles. When turbines expire, disposal professionals remove the rotor blades and divide the fiberglass into transportable pieces.

Then, workers bring the blades to designated landfills. One disposal center in Wyoming now holds 870 turbine blades. Professionals place the expired materials in shallow “graves” where they remain indefinitely.

Researchers predict an additional 8,000 blades will reach landfills in the next few years. Over time, we may run out of land to bury these turbine components. The limited recyclability of the non-biodegrading blade materials produces surface-level and atmospheric pollution.

Another adverse ecological effect of turbines is biodiversity loss. Winged animals are experiencing fatal impacts from blade and shaft collisions. Researchers found the renewable energy technology kills between 600,000 and 900,000 bats annually.

As species numbers dwindle, local ecosystems experience a ripple effect of degradation. Bats consume insects, manage their populations, and limit adverse health effects like malaria. When bats die, the number of insects increases.

Because of their significant sizes, transporting turbines also has its limitations. Environmental engineers developed the SAVER field instrument to track and monitor a turbine’s emissions during transit. Professionals should also invest in sustainable transportation vehicles to further decrease emissions related to the system.

Engineers are also redesigning the conventional turbine to minimize surface-level pollution and biodiversity loss. Technological advancements can help increase emission-free power production without additional adverse effects.

Bladeless Turbines

Environmental scientists and engineers are increasing wind power’s sustainability by removing turbine blades. A Spanish startup evaluated the environmental challenges associated with blades and their low recyclability rates. They minimized the surface-level pollution of turbines and removed the rotor blades from the design.

The new technology relies on vibrations instead of rotating parts. As wind moves around the mast, it shifts back and forth, creating energy. The device is much shorter than conventional turbines, decreasing interference with migration patterns and biodiversity. It also eliminates issues with blade disposal.

Storage Technology

Tech companies are developing mass battery storage centers to house excess renewable energy. One sustainability challenge with wind power is its reliance on inconsistent weather patterns. When wind patterns falter, turbines fail to produce sufficient quantities of electricity.

A solution to the problem involves storing extra energy during high-production times. The battery centers also minimize power loss, increasing efficiency rates. Some facilities are using hydrogen fuel cells to enhance sustainability as well.

Hydrogen fuel cell batteries decrease adverse ecological effects by converting wind power into hydrogen. After the energy passes through an electrolyzer, creating power, it releases oxygen as its only emission. When turbine production drops, society can source its electricity from the storage facility, converting hydrogen back into energy.

Advanced storage technology increases the eco-friendliness of wind power by supporting most of society’s energy demands. Creating a reliable electricity supply with emission-free energy decreases an individual’s dependence on pollution-producing sources.

Drone-Connected Wind Power

Another sustainability-enhancing wind technology relies on drones. A team of engineers in Europe developed an uncrewed aerial vehicle (UAV), creating its own wind energy without a shaft connection. The drone connects to a generator on the surface using a tether.

The UAV flies in circles, creating energy independently. It filters the power down to the surface, helping the generator produce abundant quantities of electricity. The technology is more sustainable because it decreases shaft collisions, which impact biodiversity levels.

It also increases the number of suitable locations for wind power production. The drone system is less reliant on inconsistent weather patterns, helping more individuals generate wind energy. Over time, the technology may enhance the abundance of clean electricity available to consumers.

Fabric Turbine Blades

An Italian renewable energy company and a Scottish startup developed a sustainable turbine blade material out of textiles. The material is similar to a boat’s sail, creating lighter and less expensive rotor blades. A significant ecological benefit of using fabric for turbine components is its recyclability.

The blade technology meets the efficiency and structural integrity demands of turbines. When companies use textiles to manufacture turbine parts, they can create a closed-loop system, eliminating MSW over time. They may also improve the affordability of wind energy when using cost-effective materials, decreasing society’s reliance on the conventional electricity grid.

Adopting the New Technologies

As manufacturers continue developing sustainable turbine alternatives, individuals may begin purchasing and installing these systems. The initial costs may be steep because the technology remains in its infancy. Consumers and energy professionals can access financial help from the government by applying for renewable energy tax credits. Many nations’ sustainability funding initiatives involve clean power incentives. Individuals and companies may access these credits to increase the affordability and efficiency of their new purchases.

Discussions
Clifford Spilsbury's picture
Clifford Spilsbury on Dec 26, 2021

Size matters. Expect larger offshore turbines. Land fill and bird strike are side issues blown massively out of proportion, Forget oddities anything without large blades will produce tiny amounts of power. Wind turbines are far from perfect. They are evolving but should in most cases be large with large horizontal axis blades.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Dec 27, 2021

Corrupt New York politicians are deploying large numbers of wind turbines right in the middle of areas frequented by endangered whales. Then there is the matter of ships and vast numbers of obstacles; ships with holes in their hull are a good recipe for oil spills. Anybody in New York able to rationally and logically evaluate the pluses and minuses of large scale energy production? Actually no - the Democratic politicians are too busy getting their palms greased by money.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Dec 27, 2021

Green energy motto: We had to destroy the environment to save the planet.  Fact is, wind and solar require vast areas of the planet to provide the energy civilization requires. Needs to be deployed in a balanced fashion with other energy production resources.

Clifford Spilsbury's picture
Clifford Spilsbury on Dec 30, 2021

By a long, long way. Renewable electricity is best made from very large offshore wind turbines.

corruption, poor specifications, poor build quality, is another thing.

We probably agree that the way in which renewables are being deployed is to the detriment of renewables. We are not a bolt on fuel saver. We are an intergraded system of multi vector inputs.

Things are changing in Europe. Renewables need to get over the two week no wind or solar hump to progress. That is all and that is vey close. 

Jasmine Lyn's picture
Jasmine Lyn on Mar 2, 2022

I think this article presents at a high-level some of the issues with wind turbines. However, what usually is missing is the comparison of RE technologies and their environmental impacts with the impacts of fossil-fuel energy sources and nuclear. Let's set a benchmark and compare the consequences when we discuss these impacts.

One other item I noted that I felt was an exaggeration was the line about "Over time, we may run out of land to bury these turbine components." This is a strawman argument as we in our western society have lots of other wastes (that are more toxic even) than turbine blades, and I would go as far as to say this isn't a significant issue. Perhaps someone who deals with the disposal of blades can speak more to it, but I feel that the land mass and water systems that are sited to deal with nuclear, mining or NG (fracking) wastes are more significant than those to for the blades. Thanks author for brining these to light. 

Jane Marsh's picture
Thank Jane for the Post!
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