The claim: Wind turbine generators typically only last three to four years
But some social media users are claiming that wind turbine generators – the part that produces electricity when the turbine blades are spinning – must be replaced much more frequently.
"The wind farm in Mt. Pulaski has been running for 3 1/2 years," reads a July 17 Facebook post. "They have been replacing the generators in all the wind towers. There are 100 of them in this wind farm. So evidently the life span on the generators on these things is about 3 to 4 years."
The post then disparages wind power, asserting that a "huge" amount of diesel fuel required for repairs and maintenance.
The post was shared 18,000 times in three weeks, but it is inaccurate and misleading.
Like any technology, wind turbine generators are subject to manufacturing defects or other problems. However, they typically last much longer than three or four years, according to research and industry representatives.
Further, even when the fossil fuels required to manufacture, install, maintain and dispose of wind turbines are considered, wind power releases far less greenhouse gases per kilowatt-hour than burning fossil fuels for electricity.
Finally, while the post doesn't name a specific wind farm, the photo accompanying the post shows turbines at the HillTopper wind farm just outside of Mt. Pulaski, Illinois, according to a spokesperson for the company that operates the farm, Enel Green Power. HillTopper recently replaced 17 gearboxes, not 100 generators.
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USA TODAY reached out to the Facebook user who shared the claim for comment.
Wind turbine generators typically last longer than four years
There is no evidence that wind turbine generators have a lifespan of only three or four years.
Jason Meeks, site manager of HillTopper wind farm, told USA TODAY that generators are "typically expected to last around 20 years."
According to an analysis conducted in 2012 and 2013, wind turbine generators have a failure rate of about three and a half percent per year for the first 13 years, Eric Lantz, wind analysis manager at National Renewable Energy Laboratory, told USA TODAY in an email.
Based on this failure rate, only 14 percent of generators would fail after four years. However, the industry has worked to improve the technology in the years since then.
Based on information from industry representatives, Lantz believes generator failure rates are lower now than they were a decade ago. But National Renewable Energy Laboratory has not independently assessed more recent data, he said.
HillTopper farm repairs due to manufacturing defects
While the post claims that all the generators are in the process of being replaced, Meeks said that HillTopper has not replaced any generators in its three and a half years of operation.
Instead, 17 gearboxes had to be swapped out "due to unforeseen and rare defects related to the equipment procured from a third-party manufacturer," he said. A gearbox is a device used to transform the relatively slow turbine blade rotation speeds into faster rotational speeds ideal for generator function.
In addition to HillTopper, Enel Green Power operates the Whitney Hill wind farm outside of Mt. Pulaski, but this project has not required any major recent repairs, according to Meeks.
Wind turbine company Vestas also operates a large wind farm about 15 miles east of Mt. Pulaski. Vestas spokesperson, Chelsea Sassara, told USA TODAY in an email that the company has not been replacing generators and that the turbine pictured in the social media post did not belong to Vestas.
Wind power generation releases far less CO2 than fossil fuels
The post is correct that utilizing diesel-fueled vehicles to maintain wind turbines releases CO2. However, wind power still produces far less CO2 per kilowatt-hour than burning fossil fuels.
When manufacturing, construction, maintenance, operation and decommissioning are considered, wind releases about 11 grams of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt-hour, according to the Department of Energy. Meanwhile, natural gas releases 465 grams per kilowatt-hour and coal produces 980 grams per kilowatt-hour.
"That makes coal’s carbon footprint almost 90 times larger than that of wind energy, and the footprint of natural gas more than 40 times larger," says the Department of Energy website.
Our rating: False
Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that wind turbine generators typically only last three to four years. According to 2013 data, only 14% of generators would be expected to fail after four years, and an expert says lifespans have likely increased since then. The wind farm shown in the social media post is not in the process of replacing all of its generators but recently replaced 17 gearboxes, according to the company that operates the farm.
Our fact-check sources:
Eric Lantz, Aug. 1-3, Email exchange with USA TODAY
Jason Meeks, Aug. 1-11, Email exchange with USA TODAY
Chelsea Sassara, Aug. 4-5, Email exchange with USA TODAY
Trieu Mai, Aug. 8, Email exchange with USA TODAY
U.S. Wind Turbine Database, accessed Aug. 4, Mt. Pulaski, Illinois area
Department of Energy, Aug. 30, 2021, How wind energy can help us breathe easier
Department of Energy, accessed Aug. 5, How do wind turbines work?
Energy Information Administration, accessed Aug. 5, Electricity explained
Enel Green Power, Dec. 12, 2018, Enel Green Power starts operation of HillTopper, its first wind farm in the U.S. state of Illinois
U.S. Wind Turbine Database, accessed Aug. 5, Radford's Run Project
Yale Climate Connections, June 30, 2021, What's the carbon footprint of a wind turbine?
My Climate, accessed Aug. 9, What are CO2 equivalents?
National Renewable Energy Laboratory, May 7, 2013, Operations Expenditures: Historical trends and continuing challenges
National Renewable Energy Laboratory, July 2015, NWTC collaborative increases gearbox reliability and helps reduce cost of wind energy
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: False claim wind turbine generators only last 3 to 4 years