A wind turbine in Wisconsin collapsed, leaving a crater and debris strewn across a field. The blades and top portion of the wind turbine collapsed in Dodge County, near the town of Herman in southern Wisconsin. The GE turbine, which is part of the Butler Ridge wind farm, stands about 400 feet above the ground. The collapse was so massive that it caused nearby houses to shake. NextEra Energy Resources owns the turbine and believes that “this was an isolated incident as turbine malfunctions are rare.” The company is working to determine “the cause of the turbine failure and assessing other turbines on site as a quality-control measure.” The cause is still under investigation.
That collapse followed one in Michigan on December 14 where the wind caused the turbine to spin out of control and eventually fall to the ground. The Michigan wind turbine supplied energy to the Northport Leelanau Township Water Treatment plant. In June, another GE wind turbine bent in half and crashed into the ground near Fleming in Logan County, Colorado. Also in June, a wind turbine near the town of Ames in northern Oklahoma bent in half and the top of the turbine fell to the ground. In February, a wind turbine collapsed west of Cheyenne, Wyoming. That collapse occurred during an “arctic wave,” when temperatures dropped to 1 degree below zero and a persistent fog could have led to surface icing. On February 25th, a 120-meter Vestas turbine fell in a field in Elkton, Michigan during a winter storm. That turbine was part of the Harvest I wind project built by U.S-based Exelon Corp.
While wind turbines are supposed to last 20 to 30 years—far less than traditional generating technologies fueled by coal, natural gas or nuclear power—the life of some are far less. The 5 turbines that are noted above were mostly located in recently built wind farms in rural areas. However, as the density of wind turbines is also far less than traditional generating technologies, more and more land in more densely populated areas will be needed to meet Biden’s climate goal of 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035. While the wind industry touts how safe and environmentally friendly its turbines are, turbines can catch fire, crash, or leak oil.
Other Wind Turbine Crashes
In early January, a wind turbine collapsed in the Netherlands, with the upper section of the turbine making a crater in the road surface. The incident took place amid strong winds at the 18-megawatt Eemmeerdijk Wind Farm, which was completed in 1998 and uses two-bladed turbines manufactured by a now defunct Dutch company.
On August 17, a wind turbine tower in the Point Tupper wind farm, Nova Scotia, Canada collapsed. The collapse of the tower is supposedly the first incident of its type in Canada although collapses have occurred in other countries. The 10 other E-82 turbines at the Point Tupper site, built in 2010, were not affected by the collapse.
Wind farms generally produce power from a number of turbines across a site, which means they can continue to generate electricity if one or more machines go down. Examples of turbines malfunctioning have captured public interest. Multiple turbines that are taller than 750 feet are collapsing across the world, with the tallest—784 feet—falling in Germany in September 2021, and a new turbine in Lithuania last March. Those turbines are taller than both the Space Needle in Seattle and the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. Smaller turbines that recently collapsed in Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Wales, and Colorado were about the height of the Statue of Liberty.
Reasons for the Failures
The drive to quickly develop more powerful wind machines to take advantage of taxpayer subsidies and mandates has created challenges. The wind manufacturers say they are focused on improving manufacturing, but it takes time to stabilize production and quality on these new products. Industry analysts cited the need to add production lines for increasingly bigger turbines as a major factor in the turbine failures. According to GE’s CEO, “Rapid innovation strains manufacturing and the broader supply chain.” Siemens has had quality control issues on a new design, Vestas has had project delays and quality challenges, and GE has had an increase in warranty costs and repairs. Along with these challenges are uncertain supply chain issues and fluctuating material pricing. As turbines grow in size and cost, failures will necessitate the deployment of armies of lawyers arguing about who is at fault and who pays for the failures.
The three largest Western turbine makers — GE, Vestas Wind Systems, and Siemens Energy’s Siemens Gamesa unit — have incurred hundreds of millions in costs as a result of the problems, which could result in more expensive insurance policies or new coverage limits and thus more costly generation. GCube Underwriting Ltd., based in London, insures about $3.5 billion in wind assets in 38 countries.
Turbine heights are now stretching taller than 850 feet with blades 300 feet long because the bigger the turbine, the more energy it can capture. But the bigger the turbine, the more that can go wrong—and the farther it falls if it collapses.
While there’s no publicly available data on turbine failures industrywide, Vestas and GE have said that the numbers of their inoperative machines have increased. Siemens Energy this month revised its earnings outlook downward for 2023, citing elevated costs due to flaws in the company’s installed turbines.
Wind turbine failures are on an upswing. While failures have occurred on older models, the failures now are happening in a shorter time frame on the newer, larger turbines. Besides supply chain issues and fluctuating material pricing, wind manufacturers are facing issues with stabilizing quality with the push for larger turbines that can produce more energy. Clearly, the energy transition that western politicians want is moving too quickly for technology and manufacturing to keep up with production and quality control. Ultimately, consumers will pay for their haste.