Can wind power become truly carbon neutral?

Wind is one of the cleanest power technologies, but there’s still potential to cut life cycle emissions

Robert Liew

Principal Analyst, Power and Renewables Research

Wind markets specialist with over 10 years of power and renewables research experience.

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Electricity generation from wind power doesn’t directly create emissions, but the manufacture, construction and end-of-life disposal of wind turbines does. To date, no power technology has achieved carbon neutrality over its life cycle. However, wind power is the lowest emitter after nuclear (which is far more expensive) and has the potential to reach this goal ahead of other technologies.

In our report Assessing life cycle carbon emissions of wind power we explore the potential for carbon neutral wind. Fill in the form to receive an extract from the full report. Or read on for an introduction.

What are the potential life cycle emissions of wind power?

Global wind power installations will increase more than 400% by 2050, and our research shows this could add 55 million tonnes of total life cycle carbon emissions. While this is only a fraction of the 12 billion tonnes of emissions generated by the global thermal power sector in 2020, it’s still far from being truly carbon neutral.

What are the sources of emissions from wind power?

Up to 86% of total lifecycle emissions for wind power comes from raw materials extraction and turbine manufacture. The remaining 14% comes from transportation, installation, operation and maintenance, and decommissioning and disposal. Together, steel and concrete contribute over 95% of raw material emissions, making them the key target for achieving reductions.

Average turbine height has more than doubled over the last 20 years and continues to increase. This improves power generation efficiency and reduces transportation costs but consumes more steel. What’s more, the source of electricity used in the manufacturing process can also impact emissions.

What’s the wind industry doing about life cycle emissions?

The top five turbine suppliers in the world have all committed to becoming carbon neutral in their operations. Most are also targeting net zero over the full life cycle of their turbines.

The use of ‘green’ steel and concrete manufactured using low-carbon processes will be vital to achieving the latter, though this will take some time to achieve given that there are currently no commercial plants and only a few pilot projects operating. Further reductions could be achieved by increasing the use of renewable electricity in the manufacturing process, as well as by using electric vehicles for transportation. Turbine technology improvements can also help improve durability, resulting in fewer site visits.

What are the challenges?

Wind turbines manufactured in developed countries could potentially release up to 53% less emissions due to the lower carbon intensity of grid power. However, the challenge will be greater in some other markets.

The indirect emissions from raw material extraction and manufacturing of steel and concrete remains a core challenge. The industry is looking at solutions, such as using hydrogen to produce steel and securing raw materials mined with renewable power. But costs will need to come down significantly to make these approaches commercially viable.

Meanwhile, with decommissioned capacity set to increase six-fold between 2020 and 2030, end-of-life disposal will increasingly be an issue. Turbine blades are made from composite materials which are not easily recyclable and decommissioning regulations are generally lacking, so non-metal parts are often sent to landfill.

The full report contains a detailed breakdown of carbon emissions at each life cycle stage, together with a global outlook for emissions and a scenario comparison of base case versus best case scenarios.

Fill in the form at the top of the page for a complimentary extract, including:

  • Turbine manufacture: electricity use in the supply chain
  • Global wind power capacity expansion: offshore and onshore wind outlook.