This Anti-Renewable Energy Meme Is Absurd
Wind turbines are made using coal. But they can prevent hundreds of thousands of tons of coal from being burned in power plants.
As a part of my series on clean energy misinformation, I joined about 40 anti-renewable Facebook groups across the country. One of the most common posts I saw was what I call the “coal-powered wind turbine” post.
The post takes a passage out of an essay by scientist David Hughes, distorts it, and leads people into thinking:
Wind power isn’t environmentally-friendly because turbines are made using coal.
Constructing a wind turbine requires more energy than that turbine will produce over its life.
The second claim, that wind turbines are net-negative sources of energy, is just a flat out lie. Multiple peer-reviewed studies have shown that wind turbines generate about 25 times more energy than they consume during construction. On average they have an energy payback period of 5 to 6 months.
But the first claim, that coal is used to make wind turbines is technically true. While companies are working on making steel out of green hydrogen and renewable electricity, virtually all the steel components in wind turbines are made using coking coal.
However, like many anti-renewable messaging and memes, this one lacks some very important context.
Once a wind turbine is built, it can displace coal-powered electricity. So the question we have to ask is how much coal can a turbine save over the course of its life? The answer is a lot more than 255 tons.
Let’s look at some visuals in order to see just how little coal a wind turbine requires compared to the coal-fired power plants they often displace.
Each piece of coal in the image below represents 100 tons.
A typical 3 MW wind turbine can be expected to generate about 27,500 megawatt hours (MWh) of clean electricity over the course of its 25 year life.
So how much coal would you need to burn in a power plant to generate that same amount of electricity?
That’s a lot of coal. 606 times more than it takes to build a wind turbine to be exact.
This is the magic of renewable energy. Invest a little energy and raw materials upfront and you get paid back in low-cost, clean energy for decades to come. And that’s to say nothing of the air pollution and planet-warming greenhouse gases that wind turbines prevent.
Of course, technology is always changing. There’s a good chance that in future decades, wind turbines won’t even be built using coal. Companies around the world are developing new techniques to make steel using renewable electricity and green hydrogen. If this technology can scale up, we could stop burning coal altogether.
But make no mistake: Regardless of whether wind turbines are made using green steel or coal, they are a boon for the environment.
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Notes and sources
Electricity per wind turbine
Average capacity per turbine: 3 MW (Source)
Capacity factor: 42% (Source)
Electricity generation per year: 11 million kwh
Average lifespan: 20-25 years
Electricity generation over lifespan: 220-275 million kwh
Electricity per ton of coal
0.89 kWh produced per pound of coal (source)
1,780 kWh produced per ton of coal