Wind turbines have come a long way since the first windmills centuries ago – with the next generation among Europe’s tallest structures.
The need to extract increasingly more power from turbines to make them commercially viable without subsidies means the core structures will stand over 200 meters tall. To the tip of the blades, they’ll reach over 300 meters, making them taller than the London skyscraper, the Shard, the tallest building in western Europe.
The blades alone will be longer than the wingspan of an Airbus A380, currently the largest passenger jet in the world. Built by Siemens and Vestas Wind Systems, the new ‘monster turbines’ are due to come online by 2025, though their eventual buyers have yet to be finalized.
They will have a total generation capacity of 13-15 megawatts of electricity, making them over a thousand times more powerful than the biggest commercial windmills of the 19th century. To this day, the world’s largest windmill – standing in Schiedam in the Netherlands, built for the gin industry in 1803 – is only 33 meters tall.
Power yields from turbines have needed to rise to make them competitive with traditional energy sources and avoid taxpayer-funded subsidies that have raised domestic energy bills. The first generation of commercial wind turbines in the 1990s (standing about 50 meters tall) had a total generation capacity of about 0.5 megawatts of electricity.
The megawatt figure represents the total capacity; depending on the number of hours per year that the blades rotate, the total electricity generation is measured in kilowatts per hour. So if a 10 megawatt capacity turbine operates for 24 hours a day and 365 days a year, the amount of electricity it would generate 87.6 million kilowatts per hour.
Typically, wind turbines operate for only half that time. Since wind power entirely depends on wind availability and speed, both of which are inherently unreliable, the solution has been to make the turbines bigger, more efficient and more productive. The largest turbines have not been able to produce electricity as competitively as fossil fuel burners – until now.
“Wind has finally become a competitive alternative to conventional energy,” says Chris Berkouwer, an analyst with Robeco’s Global Equities team. “Over the lifecycle of a wind turbine, it will return 35 times more energy back to society than it consumes, compared to a negative return for coal power plants.”
“The era of subsidies for wind energy is also coming to an end. After the first hype, most turbine companies massively restructured, resulting in much better business models. Now that balance sheets are restored and profitability has improved, ‘wind’ is a very interesting financial investment too.”