Some strange news has emerged from the World Coal Association recently: the WCA claims that wind turbines use a large amount of coal during their production. At the European Wind Energy Association we recognise that energy is needed during the manufacturing and transport of wind turbines as well as during installation site works, but the amounts suggested by the WCA are way above the reality.
In fact, a wind turbine consumes less than 1g of coal per kilo-Watt hour of electricity produced over its full lifecycle. A coal plant, meanwhile, will consume over 300 times this amount per kWh of electricity, assuming a 40% average efficiency. Moreover, one wind turbine pays back the coal it uses during production with just one month of operation. Looking at all fossil energies used during the lifecycle of a wind turbine, the ‘fossil fuel debt’ ranges from 3-8 months of turbine operation.
But there’s another factor to consider. Coal extracts far more resources from the earth than wind energy. If all resource extraction used during the lifecycle of a wind turbine and a coal power plant – including extraction of fossil fuels, iron ores, aluminium and precious metals – is compared per kWh2, a turbine consumes around 75-150 times less than a typical coal power plant.
In short, traditional energy sources including coal, oil and gas will consume more energy in their life cycle than they return. A traditional power plant typically returns only around 0.4 times the energy consumed over its lifecycle: it will always consume more energy than it returns.
Conversely a wind turbine, over a 20-year turbine lifetime, will return over 30 times more energy to society than it consumed during the manufacturing, operation and recycling process. There’s not much more to say than that!