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Wind farms use fossil fuels for construction and operation

By Gary Johns - posted Wednesday, 29 July 2015


Bill Shorten should have asked a couple of questions before committing Australia to a 50 per cent renewable target. Can you build a wind turbine, or start a wind turbine, without fossil fuels?

The answer is no and no, you cannot. So what is the point of saddling Australia with an increasing load of wind turbines? (Much is also true for solar.)

Whatever one’s beliefs on the veracity and level of threat from climate change, what is the point in spending hard-earned dollars on expensive and inadequate-for-purpose technology?

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The energy density of wind power is a little over one watt a square metre. As Smaller, Faster, Lighter, Denser, Cheaper author Robert Bryce tells, if all the coal-fired generation capacity in the US were to be replaced by wind, it would need to set aside land the size of Italy. Hydrocarbons are denser energy sources than wind. There is nothing that can overcome that fact.

James Hansen, the former NASA climate scientist, wrote in 2011: “Suggesting that renewables will let us phase out rapidly fossil fuels is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter bunny.”

The other thing about renewables is that they cannot produce the intensity of heat required to not only build turbines but just about anything else that makes the modern world modern.

The material requirements of a modern wind turbine have been reviewed by the US Geological Survey (Wind Energy in the United States and Materials Required for the Land-Based Turbine Industry From 2010 Through 2030). On average, 1 megawatt of wind capacity requires 103 tonnes of stainless steel, 402 tonnes of concrete, 6.8 tonnes of fibreglass, three tonnes of copper and 20 tonnes of cast iron. The blades are made of fibreglass, the tower of steel and the base of concrete.

Robert Wilson at Carbon Counter takes us through the ­science. Fibreglass is produced from petrochemicals, which means that a wind turbine cannot be made without the extraction of oil and natural gas. Steel is made from iron ore. To mine ore requires high energy density fuels, such as diesel. Transporting ore to steel mills requires diesel.

Converting iron ore into steel requires a blast furnace, which requires large amounts of coal or natural gas. The blast furnace is used for most steel production.

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Coal is essential, not simply a result of the energy requirements of steel production but of the chemical requirements of iron ore smelting.

Cement is made in a kiln, using kiln fuel such as coal, natural gas or used tyres. About 50 per cent of emissions from cement production comes from chemical reactions in its production.

Then there is the problem of priming windmills. Large wind turbines require a large amount of energy to operate. Wind plants must use electricity from the grid, which is powered by coal, gas or nuclear power.

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This article was first published in The Australian.



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About the Author

Gary Johns is a former federal member of Parliament and served as a minister in the Keating Government. Since December 2017 he has been the commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.

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