The UK’s first wind turbine to produce electricity was built in Scotland in 1887. Although not nearly as effective as newer models, the first turbine for electricity powered its creator’s home for 25 years before reaching the end of its life.
While the design of wind turbines has changed drastically since the first attempt, the life span of a turbine has remained the same. Most turbines have a life span of around 25 years. Many of the UK’s and Europe’s wind farms have been operating for over 20 years, with even more having been operational for 15 years.
With the UK government’s current plan to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, it’s no surprise that replacing or repowering wind turbines is a top priority. Here’s what you need to know about wind turbines as they reach the end of their life.
What Is Wind Turbine Repowering?
Wind turbine repowering refers to the process by which old wind turbines or sometimes entire wind farms are replaced with newer technology. Wind turbine repowering aims to use technological advancements to increase wind turbine efficiency and generate more power from an existing station.
Wind farms can be partially or entirely repowered depending on how old they are and how much energy they produce. Generally, wind farm repowering means removing old turbines and replacing them with newer, more efficient models with a greater wind turbine power output.
Since newer models tend to be more efficient, repowering allows each wind farm to generate more electricity. However, replacing each turbine isn’t as simple; repowering can be complicated and fraught with issues.
When considering repowering a wind farm, the most common issues arise regarding permission and agreements. Most wind farms are granted permission on a time-limited basis. This means the local community, land owner, local council, and any connection agreements will need to be renegotiated.
If a farmer or the local community puts up resistance, repowering may not be possible. Furthermore, each wind farm will have connection and network agreements which will need to be checked to see if an extension or new contract is required.
Assuming all legal permissions are granted, raising finances are the next most common issue.
Repowering wind farms involve replacing large aspects of the farm, including new turbines and processing equipment, and upgrading networks to handle greater energy output. This requires significant investment, and obtaining this kind of capital can be challenging.
Financial lenders will look at cash flow, current output, and the potential future output when deciding whether or not to give the wind farm repowering project approval.
Furthermore, some sites may have complications caused by recent urbanization and buildings. Accessing a site may have become complicated due to new developments, or upgrading the connecting network may not be possible.
Repowering Wind Farms Benefits
Despite the problems and challenges associated with repowering wind turbine farms, the benefits are substantial.
Notably, the main benefit of repowering wind turbines is to increase the amount of power generated by each turbine. Current research suggests that repowering wind farms could increase energy generation by around 170%, powering an additional 3.8 million homes within the next decade.
As the UK looks to move towards a carbon-neutral future, repowering existing farms will be a positive step forward.
Another benefit of repowering existing wind farms is that it is a more affordable way to increase energy generation than establishing a new wind farm. There is no need to clear ground, build access roads, lay foundations or install new power grids that are associated with building a new wind farm.
While repowering can be challenging to fund, it is possible to work with specialist renewable energy finance brokers to arrange finance to maintain and improve an existing asset compared to getting a loan for a new wind farm project.
Additionally, modern wind turbines are taller than older models and require a greater distance between each turbine. The result is that repowered wind farms generate more power with fewer turbines, thereby minimizing the visual impact on local communities.
Repowered wind farms and new stations generally have around 24% fewer turbines than older farms while still generating more energy.
Other End-Of-Life Options
Repowering wind turbines have become a priority for many European countries as we look for new ways to power the future.
However, repowering is expensive and can be inconvenient or impossible. But ageing wind farms cannot continue once they reach their life expectancy and agreements run out.
So, what happens to old wind farms?
Decommissioning Wind Farms
Generally, there are two options for wind turbines reaching the end of their life. The first option is to decommission the wind turbines, remove any trace of the wind farm and return the land to its original state.
Decommissioning old wind farms can be costly and reduces the amount of renewable energy being produced in the UK. When decommissioning wind farms, the existing wind turbine components can be sold for parts and used to help upgrade other sites (wind turbine recycling).
Reusing functioning equipment where appropriate from decommissioned farms can help reduce the cost of repowering and maintaining other locations. Around 90% of a wind turbine is reusable or recyclable, making the blades the only issue when decommissioning a site.
With the government hoping to rely on renewable energy sources, decommissioning wind farms is not the preferred option.
However, decommissioning is sometimes the only option due to planning restrictions and wildlife. Many existing sites were built with a 25-year lifetime in mind, and current contracts state that the land must be returned to its original condition.
Many UK wind farms will see contracts expire within the next few years, making this a pressing issue.
Extending The Lifespan
If repowering a wind farm is not possible and decommissioning is not ideal, extending the life of the existing wind turbines is the next best option. This is a complicated procedure that is not always possible.
Firstly, the existing infrastructure must be inspected to see if it is worth investing in the farm in order to extend its life. Environmental conditions, wear and tear, and the age of the technology may mean extension projects are not financially viable. Renovating and maintaining equipment and ensuring the infrastructure remains safe as it ages can be costly.
If it is possible to extend the life of the existing turbines, negotiations can take place to discuss the use of the land, potential engineering works, planning permission, and other aspects of daily maintenance.
Often, wind turbine lifetime expansion projects take place with the aim of repowering the turbines in the future.
The Future Of Repowering Wind Turbines
When wind turbine farms started popping up in the UK, the best, windiest sites were the first to be built.
Of course, this now means that many of the sites with the most potential for producing power are stuck with outdated technology which isn’t working efficiently. The potential for repowering these sites is vast and could help the UK reach its energy targets.
However, much of the legislative framework needed to renegotiate repowering agreements don’t exist yet. As a result, wind farms undergoing lifetime extension projects, when repowering them would be a more practical option.
Combined with the fact that some sites will be decommissioned, repowering and building new sites will be top of the government’s priority list over the coming years.
For farmers with wind farms on their land or landowners with land that could support a new site, potential financial support is likely to make investing in wind power an interesting venture.
Since wind turbines can be installed on agricultural land, many UK farmers could benefit from allowing wind farms onto their land – and this is another way of diversifying their farm income.
Energy companies often pay for installation, maintenance, and repurposing, making more wind farms possible across the UK.
With so many sites up for repowering or life extension projects in the coming years, many energy companies are now beginning to plan which sites can be repowered and the potential need for new locations.
Wind Farm Investments
The future of wind farm repowering will likely stay a priority for energy companies, landowners, and the government in the coming years.
With so much at stake and many targets to hit, repowering wind farms will continue attracting interest from wind farm finance companies who are looking to support the future.
If you operate an ageing wind farm that will reach its life expectancy in the coming years, now is the time to consider repowering or other life extension projects.
To discuss financial support and long-term finance options for repowering wind farms, get in touch today to speak with one of our brokers.