Wind Towers Finding Concrete Ways to Grow Taller

June 1, 2016

Nuclear struggling. Wind is the cheapest source of electricity in the US, and getting cheaper. Subsidies or no.


Wind power engineering is governed by a simple fact: The higher you go, the stronger and steadier the wind gets and the more power you can generate. So the evolution of wind power over the years has largely been a process of building bigger and bigger blades and perching them atop higher and higher towers.


The turbine being assembled in this video, by MidAmerican Energy, will be the tallest land-based wind turbine ever built in the US, with a hub height (ground to center of blades) of 115.5 meters (379 feet) and a capacity of 2,415 kW. It’s not quite up to the level of the best turbines in Europe, but it’s mainly meant as experiment.


Ramez Naam:

In 2014, the average cost of Power Purchase Agreements for new wind power in the US was around 2.35 cents per kwh, the lowest it has ever been. In the windiest parts of the great plains, prices are as low as 2 cents per kwh.


The above graph from the NREL 2014 Wind Technologies Market Report uses subsidized numbers. Even after removing the effects of the major federal subsidy, the Wind Production Tax Credit, new wind power in the US costs an average of 4 cents per kwh or less.

NREL’s projection of the capacity factors of future wind turbines is, of course, just a projection. NREL has an excellent track record, yet we won’t truly know the achievable capacity factors for 140 meter wind turbines until we have a number built in the US.

Actually building them is quite a challenge, however. Wind turbine components are built in factories and then transported to the site. But as wind turbines have grown larger, transportation has hit the limits of what can be moved by road.

Consider the following images from DOE’s Wind Visions report, showing the challenges of moving a segment of a wind turbine tower (first image) and of moving a single blade of a wind turbine (second image).



These images depict the challenges of transporting current wind turbine components. To move pieces of 140-meter turbines (more than 500 feet tall), new steps are needed.

The new frontier is to assemble more of the wind turbine at the site, using parts that fit in ordinary semi-trailer or flat-bed truck cargos. That’s the approach used by GE’s Space Frame wind towers, which use a scaffolding-like approach to wind turbine construction. And it’s also the approach used by a number of companies working on wind turbine blades that can be shipped in pieces and assembled into full-length blades on site.

None of this is impossible. Germany’s wind industry already averages 120 meters for new wind turbines, with some as tall as 140 meters. But deploying these in the US will require innovation.



19 Responses to “Wind Towers Finding Concrete Ways to Grow Taller”

  1. Another possibility is to skip the tower and enormous blades entirely:

    • Alec Sevins Says:

      You mean by abandoning the landscape-wrecking farce of wind turbines altogether and focusing on rooftop solar and small, backyard turbines that don’t loom over everything? Well, I guess not.

      Look up the controversy over a mere 143 foot LG tower that caused a row on the Hudson River a few years ago. LG agreed to limit it to 70 feet so it wouldn’t dwarf the treeline, yet wind turbines up to 10 times that tall are being called environmental champions. It makes no sense at all! Here’s a hypocritical article on that from the NRDC, which keeps making excuses for wind power:

      Quote: “This building, if constructed, would destroy the unbroken natural vista that is not only a designated National Natural Landmark, but has been the heritage of the citizens of New Jersey, New York and the United States for more than 100 years. It would mar one of the few remaining natural places in the middle of the New York City metro area. And it could open the door for further high-rise development northward along the river. ”

      Yet, in another NRDC article, they have a picture of turbines wrecking a California landscape while extolling the virtues of ruining ever-more landscapes. Where is their moral consistency?

      Quote: “Wind farms have become a familiar part of the landscape, and solar panels have spread across rooftops nationwide. Yet we have only begun to tap the potential of clean energy alternatives.”

      I will never understand the hypocrisy of wind power zombies. At least climate deniers are consistent in their (dis)respect for nature.

  2. rlmrdl Says:

    All I could think about was the massive investment of CO2 credits in the concrete and the steel and the transport and to ask, as prices for the energy fall, how long it will take to pay back the carbon debt and the financial debt.

    To build enough of these towers to make enough of a difference , soon enough, still seems like something out of reach. We are still far too focused on the supply side and not nearly enough on cutting back on demand.

    • kevinboyce Says:

      I wondered about all that concrete too. They said 554 cubic yards, which is about 1.4E9 grams of CO2 using a number of one ton of CO2 per ton of concrete that I found. Over a 20 year lifetime, assuming a 35% availability, it will produce about 1.4E8 kWh, for a lifecycle carbon intensity of ~10 g/kWh.

      That is the median value that Arvesen and Hertwich (2012) (IPCC’s primary reference) found for land-based wind power, and this is just for the concrete.

      So, it seems that with current concrete manufacturing techniques, concrete towers will approximately double the carbon intensity of wind turbines.

      But as you (rlmrdl) say, time is not on our side, so the bigger issue may be that this technique clearly takes weeks, and we need to be putting up dozens or hundreds of turbines per day across the country. Global warming is the Reavers, and I’m Malcolm Reynolds: “Faster, faster. Faster would be better.”

      • lracine Says:

        These towers could have a longer life cycle then 20 years…

        So you can change out the rotating mach. on the top and reuse the “platform/tower”.

      • Alec Sevins Says:

        kevinboyce wrote: “…we need to be putting up dozens or hundreds of turbines per day across the country.”

        Yeah, let’s blight as many landscapes as possible while pretending it will actually replace fossil fuels or reduce CO2 in a meaningful way. Nothing else matters to mainstream environmentalists but carbon, apparently. Did you folks ever care about unfettered open spaces outside of crowded parks? How far would you push it; wind turbines on the rim of the Grand Canyon?

        Many nice, unofficially scenic areas are already spoiled by wind towers and viewsheds from protected places are being encroached on. Growing protests in Europe (e.g. to the protect the visual heritage of Loch Ness) are a bellwether for America if anti-carbon monomania prevails over landscape aesthetics. Places like Vermont and Maine are already fighting big wind to save their mountains. All this time we could have been focusing subsidies on rooftop solar instead of coddling the wind industry and its “careful siting” propaganda.

        I guess we could enjoy what used to be natural scenery in cities on 60″ 4K TVs, similar to the dying old man in Soylent Green. That’s what “environmentalism” has come to. If any non wind zombies read this blog, I highly recommend this article and a followup podcast they did: (“saving” the environment by destroying it)

        • kevinboyce Says:

          Huh. Four “wind power is destroying the world” comments at once, on a 3-month old blog entry. Someone paying you to write this?

          Why you think that national parks are the only viable place for wind farms is beyond me. Ever flown from coast to coast in the US? The entire middle part of the country is farms. There is no more natural landscape there. Now, look at one of the NREL wind availability maps. Compare and contrast.

          Nothing else matters to mainstream environmentalists but carbon, apparently.

          You do understand that CO2 is the biggest environmental threat to the world, right?

    • Gingerbaker Says:

      “We are still far too focused on the supply side and not nearly enough on cutting back on demand.”

      When we have enough wind towers, we can run our smelters with electric furnaces and move steel components with electric trucks.

      Those concrete pads you are so concerned about will be there for a hundred years or more. A coal-fired power plant puts out 350 million tons of CO2 in 100 years. What’s the problem? What’s the alternative?

      • Gingerbaker Says:

        350 million tons is roughly 300 trillion grams or 300,000 times more than your figure for a 554 cubic yard slab.

        And this doesn’t even take into account how much CO2 is used to put up a coal power plant, or how long they actually last.

        Plus, we may see a new concrete production technique that doesn’t produce much net CO2. Which will suck if you enjoy posting reasons NOT to build new RE while encouraging people to suffer the slings and arrows of demand-reduction in the name of halting AGW.

        • lracine Says:


          350 millions tons is 2.9 x 10 to the 14 = 290,000,000,000,000 grams

          try using google convert next time and then counting your zeros….

          here is the link

          We have waited way to long to start implementing low CO tech…

          “suffer the slings and arrows of demand-reduction in the name of halting AGW”

          sadly shaking my head at your nativity and arrogance….

          • Gingerbaker Says:

            I don’t know how many times I have said this here, but…..

            Energy use is NOT the problem. Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is the problem. We can use as much energy as we please once all we use is carbon-free energy.

            But this transition has to be sold to the public. And telling them that they are going to have to reduce their energy demand means they are going to have to increase their discomfort.

            This is exactly how the Republicans are framing the issue – renewable energy means suffering that you will have to pay extra for. And that is bullshit. We do NOT have to use less energy – we will have the opportunity to harvest as much as we want and it will cost a lot less than fossil fuels.

            You are NEVER going to get people to suffer more to reduce energy use significantly. You will NEVER promote the transition to RE by telling people to use less energy. You will NEVER get people to transition to RE if you go around pointing out the nominal amount of carbon pollution needed to build RE.

            All you will do is reinforce the pro fossil fuel message. And if you walk like a duck and quack like a duck, sir, then what are you?

            Answer – you are not helping.

        • Alec Sevins Says:

          I suggest you research the term “fossil fuel extenders” if you think gigantic wind turbines aren’t entirely reliant on fossil fuels. You are making up fanciful claims, and show no concern for the visceral damage being done to scenery, birds, bats, human health (noise is a big deal) plus red light pollution. The psychology of not being able to go outside at night without hundreds of blinkers on the horizon can’t be overstated. These intrusions are happening in some very nice parts of the country where no coal mines or oil wells exist for hundreds of miles.

          You’re oddly appealing to greed while ostensibly coming from an environmental angle. Those who’ve seriously studied the situation doubt we can fix AGW because the physics doesn’t work, even if the planet was spiked with several million wind towers (250,000+ is the current number). To reduce fossil fuels, personal restraint is critical and it just hasn’t been fully tested yet. Wait until global oil production finally peaks once the shale illusion fades. At this moment you have the luxury of pretending a world free of fossil fuels is possible, but it would take much greater sacrifices than you envision. Oil is the most critical fossil fuel due to its versatility and portability. Imagine transporting a single wind turbine blade with battery power (and battery components made possible by fossil fuels). Elon Musk is planning electric semi trucks, but they will depend on gas turbines or similar technology to keep the batteries charged. Energy density is critical for heavy transport. The most wind (and solar) can do is charge light-duty machines for shorter trips.

          Wind power is very inefficient and overrated in terms of its actual output. Many parts of Europe (where wind power is deeply embedded) have ended up burning more carbon to back it up for low-wind days. The wind rush is giving us a planet with vast stretches of industrial scenery and a strange breed of “environmentalist” pretends it’s all nice and green. The notion that AGW is the only environmental problem worth major concern is creating a growing tragedy for shrinking remnants of natural scenery. But wiser people are fighting back. Witness the focus on wind power blight in Vermont’s recent gubernatorial election. A Democrat (Galbraith) ran on a platform banning wind turbines from Vermont’s mountaintops and we’ll be seeing that backlash continue as turbines get larger and more prominent.

  3. Greg Wellman Says:

    Has anyone considered moving the blades by dirigible?

  4. Alec Sevins Says:

    Bragging about the sheer size of machines that are supposedly green and environmentally benign is the height of hypocrisy, but that’s normal for the wind industry and its apologists. They ditched aesthetic concerns long ago by necessity. You can’t hide machines that big, so you have to invent rationalizations for the blight. The wind power business has been engaged in a Trump-like skyscraper building contest. Some models now tower over 700 feet, and America’s first offshore wind project (Block Island, RI) may open the door for widespread desecration of coastlines. Putting such large machines far out enough to be invisible is too expensive. Even when some of them seem relatively small at a distance (depending on your location) they still shatter the illusion of a vast ocean with endless possibilities. They emphasize that Man is filling the planet with more and more machines to support modern comforts, while unspoiled nature shrinks every day. This is a fact, and true environmentalists should lament it.

    In a purely visual context, wind turbines are the least natural man-made structures in terms of their size, distribution (in countless scenic areas) and prominence for dozens of miles. Many “environmentalists” claim that coal mines and dams are uglier than industrial wind turbines, but do they really believe it?Landscape damage has occurred on many fronts but wind power has become the worst, visually. It intrudes on places where industrial development was never expected, and that’s why it’s so discouraging to true environmentalists. We’d hoped that things like rooftop solar would prevail over noisy Godzilla structures that greatly expand the human footprint and create red light pollution along with a cumulative increase in dying birds & bats (species not affected by other technologies).

    Study the photo panels below in a purely visual context. This is just a reality check on wind power hypocrisy, not an excuse for coal mining, fracking or the damming of rivers. I’m sure this will get the usual glib replies on this blog but it’s no laughing matter for the environment.

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