Carbon Footprint of Wind Turbine Construction vs Other Sources (Table)

Georgette Kilgore headshot, wearing 8 Billion Trees shirt with forest in the background.Written by Georgette Kilgore

Carbon Offsets Credits | March 18, 2024

Woman looks at a giant wind turbine carbon footprint floating in the air from the construction equipment being used to erect them and wonders about the real measure of the carbon footprint of wind turbine construction.

No one can argue that renewable energy is a great way to reduce fossil fuel usage, but is the carbon footprint of wind turbine construction vs other sources really beneficial?

The manufacturing of wind turbines generates emissions, and the dangers these power sources pose to wildlife and ecosystems is a serious concern.

Although wind itself is clean energy, in order to harness it, there are drawbacks.

Understanding the carbon footprint of wind turbine construction (vs other sources of renewable energy) can illuminate the issues that need addressed to make wind generators more eco-friendly.

Carbon Footprint Wind Turbine and Wind Turbine Emissions

The carbon footprint of the actual wind turbine itself comes from the raw materials used to construct the enormous structure. With an average height of about 280 feet, and blades that stretch out up to 164 feet, these mechanical marvels are a production in themselves.

But what are they composed of?

  • 66-79% of the structure is made of steel
  • 11-16% of the structure is fiberglass, resin, or plastic
  • 5-17% of the structure is iron
  • 1% of the structure is copper
  • 0-2% of the structure is aluminum

Combining all of these materials into the structure of a turbine that is going to weigh hundreds of tons is where the questions arise around the carbon emissions caused by the carbon footprint of wind turbine construction.

After all, they all have to be smelted together in blast furnaces that will be burning fossil fuels and emitting tons of CO2.

Fortunately, a lot of these components are locally sourced within the United States rather than being imported from several countries which helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions somewhat. Aside from sourcing locally, companies can look into shipping carbon offset to further reduce their emissions.

Carbon Footprint of Wind Turbine Construction vs Other Sources(Table)

The table below factors in the construction process of the wind turbine to calculate the carbon footprint, and compares that to other sources of generating electricity.

These figures are based on the life cycle of the method used to generate this energy.1

Carbon Footprint CO2e Per kWh
Carbon Footprint of Wind Turbine 11 g of Carbon Emitted Per kWh
Carbon Footprint of Coal 900-1000 g of Carbon Emitted Per kWh
Carbon Footprint Nuclear Power Plant 9 g of Carbon Emitted Per kWh
Carbon Footprint Solar 44 g of Carbon Emitted Per kWh
Carbon Footprint Natural Gas 450-500 g of Carbon Emitted Per kWh
Carbon Footprint of Hydropower 24 g of Carbon Emitted Per kWh
Carbon Footprint of Oil 970 g of Carbon Emitted Per kWh

TVA Douglas Dam hydro electric dam in Sevierville, Tennessee.

Technology is constantly improving the efficiency of wind turbines, enabling the blades to be increased in size to generate more electricity, and also reduce the carbon footprint of wind turbine construction possibly to as low as 6 g  carbon emitted per kWh.

Carbon Footprint Offshore Wind Farms vs Onshore Wind Turbine Footprint Area

Onshore and offshore wind turbines use essentially the same technology to capture and convert wind power to produce electricity. The two are different in their placement, size, scale, and method of transferring the electricity they produce.

Where onshore wind farms are easier to set up compared to offshore installation, the main advantage of wind farms based offshore is that they capture more wind and generate more electricity.

This “capacity factor” as it is called, is an illustration of the amount of wind able to be captured consistently to convert to electricity, with an onshore turbine producing around 2.5-3 megawatts compared to 3.6 megawatts for offshore.

Undeniably, the carbon footprint of wind turbine construction relating to an offshore wind farm is greater at the start, but over the lifetime of an offshore wind turbine, that is easily offset by the clean energy supplied.

Nuclear Power CO2 Per kWh and CO2 Emissions Per kWh By Energy Source (CO2 Emissions By Energy Source)

It is quite surprising that nuclear power has a bad reputation considering that it has virtually the lowest carbon footprint of any other form of electricity production.

Bar graph of CO2 emissions by energy source.
The carbon footprint of nuclear power is generated from the energy-intensive phase of constructing the facility.

After that, over the lifetime of the plant, that is easily offset by the energy produced.

Carbon Footprint of Renewable Energy and the Carbon Footprint of Nuclear Power

Renewable energy produces electricity from resources that are limitless, which can then lessen the consequences of global warming by decreasing greenhouse gas emissions without causing any damage to the atmosphere.2

The degree of the carbon emissions is created from the initial sourcing of the base components, construction, and operating emissions through the life cycle of the product.

Constructing a nuclear power plant can take between 5-10 years to build compared to renewable installations that can be up and running within a year, and they also take a lot more steel, concrete, and water to build.

What they have in their favor is their size and the low carbon footprint over the lifetime of the power plant, which can be from 40 years to 80 years, or more with proper maintenance compared to 20-25 years of renewable energy projects.

This longevity offsets the large initial carbon footprint and reduces the overall carbon impact considerably.

How to Calculate Payback Period for Wind Turbine (Wind Turbine Payback Calculator)

The payback period of the carbon footprint of wind turbine construction has to be calculated from birth, so to speak.

This relationship between the energy expended to manufacture, run, and maintain a wind farm, is contrasted against the energy produced by the facility.

When the energy required to run a wind power plant is equalized by the energy it has produced, the energy payback is accomplished. Once wind turbines reach this “breakeven” point, the energy generated from that point on is considered to be neutral.

But how is this payback period calculated? Let’s have a look.

Turbine Size kW Av Wind Speed Units Generated kWh/pa Installation Costs Electricity Generated Per Year Price Per kWh Approx Payback Years
100 kW 11 km/hr 124,600 $130,000 $12,460 0.10 10.5
200 kW 11 km/hr 249,400 $260,000 $24,940 0.10 10.4
500 kW 11 km/hr 623,000 $650,000 $62,300 0.10 10.4
1 MW 11 km/hr 1,245,000 $1,300,000 $124,500 0.10 10.5
2 MW 11 km/hr 2,500,000 $2,600,000 $250,000 0.10 10.4
3 MW 11 km/hr 3,735,000 $3,900,000 $373,500 0.10 10.4
4 MW 11 km/hr 5,000,000 $5,200,000 $560,250 0.10 9.3

Is a Wind Turbine Worth It? (Why Wind Turbines are Good)

The figures and calculations are approximate based on a consistent daily wind gusting at 11 km/hr, the cost of the turbines, price per kW of electricity, but doesn’t include maintenance costs which can vary by state.

The set-up costs are expensive, the yearly running costs are not cheap, and the carbon footprint at the start is expansive, but wind turbines are definitely worth the effort.

With a payback period of approximately 10 years, the good news is that after that time period, wind turbines will reach carbon neutrality.3

What Are Wind Turbine Landowner Royalties?

The land where wind farms are erected has to belong to someone, and that someone is going to want a form of payment for having those turbines on their land.

On a yearly basis, a landowner can receive up to $1,500 per wind turbine for as long as it is contracted to stay on the land. These are known as Wind Lease Royalties and generally last for 20 years when they are then renegotiated.

Rather than signing for a fixed amount, some royalty agreements give a percentage of the renewable energy produced back to the landowner.4

The Carbon Footprint of Wind Turbine Construction vs Other Sources: How Many Wind Turbines Are Needed To Power a City?

In an ideal world in the not-too-distant future, cities could be powered exclusively by offshore wind farms.

No doubt, the carbon footprint from the construction and manufacturing process would be financially daunting initially and would vary considerably between the needs of each particular city.

But the pay-off in the not-too-distant future would be beneficial way beyond the hurdles that had to be overcome at the beginning of any project.

Consider the comparison of the approximate requirements of 10 major cities would be:

  • Tokyo, Japan: 10,310 offshore wind turbines.
  • New York City, U.S.: 3,687 offshore wind turbines.
  • Seoul, South Korea: 3,644 offshore wind turbines.
  • Shanghai, China: 3,304 offshore wind turbines.
  • Los Angeles, U.S: 1,818 offshore wind turbines.
  • Milan, Italy: 238 offshore wind turbines.
  • Kuala Lumpur, Singapore: 286 offshore wind turbines.
  • Barcelona, Spain: 299 offshore wind turbines.
  • Mumbai, India: 346 offshore wind turbines.
  • San Francisco, U.S.: 363 offshore wind turbines

Disadvantages of Wind Energy and Wind Turbine Problems and Solutions

The wind is a free source of energy, a sustainable way to generate electricity without leaving a carbon footprint and damaging the planet.

But it is not consistent, it is not 100% reliable day in, day out.

This makes it an unpredictable power source for a city or an entire country to rely on completely and disregard all other sources.

Other disadvantages include

  • Thousands of birds die each year colliding with the spinning blades
  • The noise of the turbines can be intrusive to neighborhoods
  • Many people find the sight of wind farms unappealing
  • Ideal locations are limited for large wind farms
  • Expensive setup costs

When it comes to problems associated with wind turbines, that generally boils down to breakdowns and failure of components. To maintain a continuous, smooth operation, regular monitoring of all moving parts should be undertaken.

Bad Things About Wind Turbines and the Negative Effects of Wind Turbines on Agriculture

Acres of land are needed to erect wind turbines and one of the very negative effects of needing that flat, open plain, is that occasionally trees have to be removed to expand the zone to accommodate the maximum amount of structures.

Apart from noise pollution, there is also a phenomenon called shadow flicker.5 This is caused by sunlight shining through the rotating blades which then cast a flickering shadow that can be disconcerting to local residents.

The Real Truth About Wind Turbines: Wind Turbine Pollution

Worldwide, wind turbines account for about 5% of the electricity generated and that could be increased if they were installed along coastlines in huge wind farms. Unfortunately, that would prove to be unsightly and would receive pushback from conservationists.

Preparing the land for wind turbine installation requires constructing a large infrastructure that involves excavating the ground with heavy machinery so concrete can be poured for the foundations.

The carbon footprint of wind turbine construction starts with transporting the myriad components on newly cleared roads by diesel-powered trucks so they can be erected on-site, creating pollution that has to be factored into the carbon footprint equation.

Even before the turbines are fully in operation, miles of cabling need to be buried underground to transport the electricity, vegetation needs to be cleared, and converter stations need to be erected that connect to the grid.

Offsetting this initial level of carbon pollution takes years, but once carbon neutrality is achieved in about a decade or so, then wind turbines are worth their weight in clean energy generation.

How Many Wind Turbines Can You Put on 40 Acres? How Many Wind Turbines Can Be Put on 100 Acres?

Whether the land available for installing the wind turbines is 40 acres or 100 acres, the number of wind turbines possible to install on the land would depend on the size of the turbines, the terrain of the land, the advantages or disadvantages concerning the consistency and speed of the wind in that zone.8

This number could vary from 25-80 wind turbines, especially if they were of varying heights and different blade spans, and that quantity would undoubtedly affect the carbon footprint of wind turbine construction.

Carbon Footprint of Wind Turbine By Life Cycle Assessment

Over the life cycle of a wind turbine, the ‘hot spot’ for carbon emissions is front-loaded derived from land preparation, component manufacturing, transportation, and installation.

By the time the turbine has reached the end of its useful life cycle, a wind turbine will have a negative carbon footprint ratio of about -19%.

What contributes towards this negative rating is the recovery and reusability of some of the turbine components, and with the improvements in technology, this ratio can only improve over time.

Instead of using fossil fuels in the blast furnaces to forge these steel turbine behemoths, several companies are turning green.

By investing in hydrogen and other renewal methods to power the furnaces, these enterprises are working towards creating green steel that would significantly reduce the upfront carbon footprint of wind turbine construction.6

When the wind turbine needs to be replaced or upgraded at the end of its life cycle, these companies are also recycling the fiberglass composite blades to reduce the back-end carbon footprint rather than just consigning them to landfills.

Whatever components cannot be repurposed for new blades, are ground down and used as a cheap form of cement filler, recycling at its best.

Why Use a Wind Turbine Spacing Calculator?

Setting up a wind farm over hundreds of acres of land requires proper planning, and not just how much concrete is going to be required for all the bases.

Aligning the turbines adequately is crucial to capture the maximum amount of wind from each one, and that relies on the exact spacing between each turbine. A computer simulation calculator was specifically developed to estimate the perfect spacing between them.

After all the information such as height, wind speed, blade length, the terrain, and the MW, a minimum spacing of 15 times the diameter of the rotor was arrived at.

Carbon Footprint of Solar Panels

For the first few years of operation, solar panels produce about 50g of CO2 per kWh. The majority of solar panels reach carbon neutrality after three years of use.

Even so, this still produces about 20 times less carbon than electricity generated by coal-fired power plants, but doesn’t account for the carbon footprint of solar panels during disposal.

Recycling tons of defunct types of solar panels every year is also propelling the goal of several nations to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

Nuclear Power Carbon Emissions Compared to Coal

The carbon footprint of nuclear energy is extremely low at around 15 to 50 gCO2/KWh. In contrast, the typical carbon footprint of coal-fired power plants is 1,050 gCO2/KWh.

Therefore, in the drive to assist in the worldwide decarbonization process, many nations are depending more heavily on nuclear power to reduce their emissions.

All ten of the world’s top emitters of greenhouse gasses have plans to employ nuclear energy in some capacity to lessen their carbon footprint and turn away from utilizing coal.

In nations associated with The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), nuclear power is presently the main source of low-carbon electricity in the drive for decarbonization.

Carbon Footprint of Wind Turbine Construction: Is Nuclear Energy Bad for the Environment?

The generation of radioactive wastes is an environmental hazard associated with nuclear power, even though while in operation they do not emit pollutants such as carbon dioxide, and have a very low carbon footprint.

If not transported and disposed of correctly the radioactive waste products left after the energy production process would pose a significant threat to the local environment and inhabitants.

For this reason, there are extremely strict rules and regulations for all reactors for daily operation procedures, maintenance, and disposal so that the population can be reassured that leaks and accidents of any nature are highly unlikely to happen.

When it comes to the breakdown of energy consumption in the United States, nuclear power is not particularly highly utilized, but it should be.

  • Nonrenewable petroleum accounts for 36%
  • Nonrenewable natural gas accounts for 32.2%
  • Nonrenewable coal accounts for 10.8%
  • Nuclear power accounts for 8.4%
  • Renewable biomass accounts for 5%
  • Renewable wind generation accounts for 3.4%
  • Renewable hydropower accounts for 2.3%
  • Renewable solar accounts for 1.5%
  • Renewable geothermal power accounts for 0.2%

If the balance of power could be changed from the comparison list above from nonrenewable to renewable energy, the world would be a cleaner place.

And despite the carbon footprint created on the front end of a wind turbine, the carbon footprint of wind turbine construction vs other sources is low, proving that wind power has the ability to power the world and help us all to breathe a little bit easier.7

Frequently Asked Questions About Carbon Footprint of Wind Turbine Construction

How Much Fuel Does a Wind Turbine Use?

A typical wind turbine has a multitude of moving parts and requires about 80 gallons of synthetic oil a year to keep everything spinning friction and problem free.

How Long Does a Wind Turbine Take To Pay for Itself?

It can take between 10-15 years for a wind turbine to pay for itself depending on wind conditions, upfront costs, maintenance costs, and even land rental fees.

How Long Does a Wind Turbine Last?

An average wind turbine that runs for 120,000 hours will last for about 20-25 years.

How Many Wind Turbines Can Be Put on an Acre of Land? (How Many Acres Does a Wind Turbine Need?)

Due to the size of the base and the span of the blades, just one industrial wind turbine is situated on an acre of land because of the supporting infrastructure around it.

How Long Does It Take for a Wind Turbine To Become Carbon Neutral?

As soon as the payback period has been exceeded, approximately 10-15 years after installation, a wind turbine can attain carbon neutrality where the carbon footprint has been offset by the green energy generated.

Where Is the Ideal Location for Wind Turbine?

Wind turbines need to be placed where the most wind can be captured, to maximize energy production and the best locations are on hilltops, on wide open plains, in areas where the wind is funneled, or in open water.

Why Are Wind Turbines Bad for the Environment?

On occasions, wind turbines have been known to leak lubricating fluid into the local environment and even more rarely catch fire. Another environmental impact of wind turbines is a phenomenon called wind shadow. The constant rotation of the blades has a tendency to minutely raise the surface temperature in the area, caused by mixing and churning the surrounding atmosphere.

Read More About Carbon Footprint of Wind Turbine Construction


References

1U.S. Energy Information Administration. (2022). What is energy? Sources of energy. EIA. Retrieved November 30, 2022, from <https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/what-is-energy/sources-of-energy.php>

2Ciolkosz, D. (2009, July 15). What is Renewable Energy? Penn State Extension. Retrieved November 30, 2022, from <https://extension.psu.edu/what-is-renewable-energy>

3Yale Sustainability. (2020, April 18). Yale Experts Explain Carbon Neutrality. Yale Sustainability. Retrieved November 30, 2022, from <https://sustainability.yale.edu/explainers/yale-experts-explain-carbon-neutrality>

4US Department of the Interior. (2022). Onshore Renewables | How revenue works. Natural Resources Revenue Data. Retrieved November 30, 2022, from <https://revenuedata.doi.gov/how-revenue-works/onshore-renewables/>

5US Department of Energy. (2022). Wind Energy Projects and Shadow Flicker. WINDExchange. Retrieved November 30, 2022, from <https://windexchange.energy.gov/projects/shadow-flicker>

6Schroeder, D. (2022). Wind Energy Basics. NREL. Retrieved November 30, 2022, from <https://www.nrel.gov/research/re-wind.html>

7US Department of Energy. (2022, August 16). How Wind Energy Can Help Us Breathe Easier. Department of Energy. Retrieved November 30, 2022, from <https://www.energy.gov/eere/wind/articles/how-wind-energy-can-help-us-breathe-easier>

8Caltech Science Exchange. (2022). Wind energy facts, advantages, and disadvantages. Caltech Science Exchange. Retrieved November 30, 2022, from <https://scienceexchange.caltech.edu/topics/sustainability/wind-energy-advantages-disadvantages>