Wind energy does not generate emissions, but its life cycle – from raw material extraction through manufacturing and construction to end-of-life disposal – does. Up to 86% of wind energy life cycle emissions are attributed to the extraction of raw materials and the manufacturing of wind turbines. This includes the use of metals such as steel, aluminum and copper. The remaining 14% of emissions come from transportation, installation, operation and maintenance (O&M), as well as decommissioning and disposal.
Wood Mackenzie Senior Analyst Robert Liew said: “To put it in perspective, the total life cycle emissions of wind power are only a tiny fraction of the 12 billion tonnes of CO2 released by the entire world. electricity production from fossil fuels in 2020.
“Wind power is the cleanest renewable energy based on life cycle emissions, and compared to other technologies, it ranks second after nuclear power. However, the investment costs of the latter can be two to three times higher.
The sources of electricity used in the manufacturing process can also make a difference in reducing emissions. Wind turbines manufactured in developed countries could potentially release up to 53% less emissions due to the lower carbon intensity of the electricity grid.
Wood Mackenzie estimates that up to 60% of CO2 emissions could be reduced in the transportation and operations and maintenance segments by the end of the decade. This is due to a larger turbine size, which reduces the number of units and trips required to transport components to sites, better fuel consumption of ground transportation, greater use of electric vehicles and improvements. turbine technology reducing the frequency of site visits and improved durability.
Liew said, “We expect the industry to be cautious in adopting new methods of manufacturing and installing wind turbines, particularly the impact on the discounted cost of electricity (LCOE). The recent surge in commodity prices in 2021, where steel prices rose 25%, could lead to an increase in LCOE by 3-5%, and turbine suppliers cannot absorb price increases as well. high.
However, as more wind turbines reach the end of their life cycle, operators will need to plan for their dismantling and disposal. Wood Mackenzie expects total global decommissioning capacity to increase six-fold to 11 gigawatts by the end of this decade. Turbine blades will pose a challenge as composite materials are not easily recyclable and are currently disposed of by landfill. Fortunately, new policies are being considered to ban the use of landfills for blade disposal, and major wind turbine companies are investing in new technologies to recycle these composite materials.
Liew said: “The world’s leading turbine suppliers aim to be carbon neutral in their operations in the short term, with plans to decarbonize life cycle emissions in the long term.
“However, the elephant in the room are the indirect emissions derived from the extraction of raw materials and the manufacture of steel and concrete. Although it is still in its infancy, the he wind industry will closely follow the decarbonisation that is taking shape in the steel, mining and electricity sectors. ”
Emissions from base materials such as steel and concrete will eventually become more efficient over time and help reduce emissions as decarbonization spreads across all sectors. In the meantime, wind project developers aim to improve turbine efficiency and plant utilization to maximize the carbon-free electricity supply to the grid.
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