Ageing gracefully: Wind's new longevity

New research finds turbines will last much longer – 25 years or more – before needing an upgrade, a finding that could swing hesitant investors.


Wind turbines can produce electricity for 25 years before needing an upgrade, according to new research out of the United Kingdom. That’s considerably longer than previously thought.

The UK boasts 4246 individual wind turbines across 531 wind farms. The paper, produced by researchers at Imperial College Business School, carried out a comprehensive and nationwide analysis of that fleet, and covered about two decades worth of data.

They found that the oldest turbines, which were built in the 1990s, are still producing three-quarters of their original output 19 years later. Furthermore, the turbines should last about 25 years before needing an upgrade, which is on par with the lifespan of the turbines used in natural gas power plants.

An earlier study predicted the turbines’ output would drop by a third in as little as 10 years, and could need to be replaced by that point. The finding had led opponents to dismiss wind power as a poor financial investment.

“There have been concerns about the costs of maintaining ageing wind farms and whether they are worth investing in,” said professor Richard Green, a co-author of the paper and the Head of the Department of Management at the Imperial College Business School.

“This study gives a ‘thumbs up’ to the technology and shows that renewable energy is an asset for the long term.”

The study pulled data from NASA to determine the wind speed at each onshore wind farm in the United Kingdom over two decades. The researchers then compared those numbers with the actual recorded electrical output from each wind farm to build a formula for how wear and tear affects the turbines. The previous study that found a lower lifespan took a far less granular approach, only looking at average estimates of nationwide wind speeds.

Beyond their topline numbers, the researchers also found evidence that the latest turbines are performing even better than their earliest models, suggesting they could outlast the 25-year threshold.

In America, wind turbines recently proved their value in Texas. The state, which leads the nation in wind capacity, wound up relying on its wind farms when the recent polar vortex drove up electricity demand to a new winter record and forced several power plant shutdowns. Texas avoided many major outages because the winds from the storm drove up wind electricity generation.

Other states like Tennessee, South Carolina, and Indiana weren’t so lucky, losing power and suffering rolling blackouts at various times as the storm swept through.

Pointing to the UK study, Dr Iain Staffell, another co-author and a research fellow at Imperial College Business School, said:

“Wind farms are an important source of renewable energy. In contrast, our dwindling supply of fossil fuels leaves the UK vulnerable to price fluctuations and with a costly import bill. However, in the past it has been difficult for investors to work out whether wind farms are an attractive investment.
“Our study provides some certainty, helping investors to see that wind farms are an effective long-term investment and a viable way to help the UK tackle future energy challenges.”

Originally published on ClimateProgress. Reproduced with permission.

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