In the Dutch House of Representatives debate on climate and energy on the 10th of June 2021, engineer and Belang van Nederland party leader Wybren van Haga claimed that wind farms, solar farms and biomass plants are not sustainable over their entire life cycle. In his plea, Van Haga refers to the citizens who live close to the wind farms: ”… meanwhile they also know that a wind turbine is not sustainable over its entire life cycle.” According to Van Haga, both production and waste processing of windmills are not environmentally friendly. The wind turbines cannot be recycled and, according to Van Haga, it is better to opt for another alternative. This claim turns out to be mostly false.
The claim made is as follows: “Windmills are not sustainable over the entire life cycle”. The claim was made by Wybren van Haga, Member of Parliament, engineer and entrepreneur. Van Haga has been active in the House of Representatives since 2017 and represents his own party: Groep Van Haga.
To check the statement’s factuality, we searched for research on the different life stages of a windmill. To appoint; production, transport, usage and demolition. In addition, there are more potential factors that can be taken into account. One of them is nuisance. This can occur due to cast shadow, noise and horizon pollution. In addition, windmills have an effect on the local ecosystem and its animals.
For this factcheck we consulted research and articles by Milieu Centraal and TU Wageningen (hereafter TUW). The organization claims to be independent. Yet about two-thirds of the organization are funded by the government. TUW’s research institutes work on behalf of the government, the business community and non-profit organizations. Both parties are therefore relatively reliable. They say they have no interest but are financed by interested parties.
Milieu Centraal says that wind energy is clean and comes from a never ending resource. They do not mention that if there is no wind or too much wind, there is no production of power. The CO2 emissions are 50 times lower than those of ‘grey’ electricity. However, according to Milieu Centraal, ‘some’ CO2 is released during construction, maintenance and demolition. But after 3 to 6 months of operation, a turbine has already saved that amount of CO2 emissions. Over the lifetime of a wind turbine, 20 years, it produces up to 80 times as much energy as it takes to build one. It has not been stated which factors have been included in this calculation. It can be assumed that these are the same factors as mentioned before: construction, maintenance and demolition. The factors transport and recycling are not included. It is impossible for the reader to ascertain what this calculation is based on.
Unfortunately, we were unable to find emission figures for the transport of wind turbines. To get an idea of this factor, consider the following example: G. Vlastuin Transport is one of the largest transporters of wind turbines and wind turbine parts in the Netherlands. They transport parts up to 200 tons in weight throughout Europe. On January 1st, 2021, there will be 2,610 wind turbines in the Netherlands. Although it is not clear how much emissions the transport of windmill parts produces, it is likely that it is considerable.
Milieu Centraal says ”…the wind turbine only provides environmental benefits if it prevents more emissions than is generated during the construction and waste processing of the turbine.” Research by TUW shows that the amount of kWh produced by one wind turbine in about 20 years is so much that an entire solar park cannot compete. In these years, a windmill does not use fossil fuels and therefore no harmful substances are released. Dutch energy company Greenchoice also confirms this. They do indicate that a lot of fossil fuel is needed for the production and demolition of wind turbines. According to Vattenfall, they are recyclable. Manager of sustainable waste processing company Geocycle Eric Waeyenbergh disproves this statement. He says there are windmills currently being designed that can be recycled entirely. The blades cannot be broken down. They are buried, which in the long run causes a lot of environmental impact. Full reuse of wind turbines is therefore under development. “But dumping will be preferred in the coming years because it is cheaper,” says Eric Waeyenbergh.
Voor de Wereld van Morgen reports that in the coming years half of all wind turbines in the Flevopolder will be demolished, that (mostly) can not be recycled. There are currently 641 wind turbines. Windesheim University of Applied Sciences even estimates an additional influx of 1.3 kilotonnes of discarded windmill blades in 2025. This number is expected to double in 2040. Alternative ways of recycling are being devised. Such as processing shredded blades in asphalt or tiles. It is an increasingly well-known fact that the blades of windmills cannot be recycled.
Impact on ecosystem
According to estimates, about 50,000 birds per year die by 1,800 Dutch wind turbines. 2 Million birds die every year in traffic. An article by the Dutch Renewable Energy Association shows that by 2050 there will be more than 10,000 wind turbines in the Netherlands. Even in that scenario, fewer birds would die from windmills than from traffic. Although less so than through traffic, this does not alter the fact that windmills contribute to harming the bird population. Milieu Centraal does state that windmills also cause major disruption of food, rest and breeding areas.
The claim is Mostly False. Although Van Haga is correct that wind turbines are not completely sustainable, it is likely that they yield more than what they cost in terms of energy. The outcome of this factcheck leaned towards uncheckable because important factors are omitted in almost all studies. In order to give a quality assessment, there must be research in which all factors are taken into account. TUW appears to be a transparent and reliable source. They clearly state their sources and research can always be traced back. Milieu Centraal never actually names its sources. However, the information published by Milieu Centraal is assessed before publication by a scientific advisory board whose members and their employers are appointed on the website. Although both sources can be seen as reliable, it is important to know that Milieu Centraal is funded for 2/3 by the government and that 1/3 of the funding remains unexplained. TUW’s research institutes are also financed by interested parties.
RESEARCH | ARTICLE: Maud Amptmeijer, Fleur Hienekamp.
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