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Can You Make a Wind Turbine Without Fossil Fuels?

Can You Make a Wind Turbine Without Fossil Fuels? thumbnail

Various scenarios have been put forward showing that 100% renewable energy is achievable. Some of them even claim that we can move completely away from fossil fuels in only couple of decades. A world entirely without fossils might be desirable, but is it achievable?

The current feasibility of 100% renewable energy is easily tested by asking a simple question. Can you build a wind turbine without fossil fuels? If the machines that will deliver 100% renewable energy cannot be made without fossil fuels, then quite obviously we cannot get 100% renewable energy.

This is what a typical wind turbine looks like:

What is it made of? Lots of steel, concrete and advanced plastic. Material requirements of a modern wind turbine have been reviewed by the United States Geological Survey. On average 1 MW of wind capacity requires 103 tonnes of stainless steel, 402 tonnes of concrete, 6.8 tonnes of fiberglass, 3 tonnes of copper and 20 tonnes of cast iron. The elegant blades are made of fiberglass, the skyscraper sized tower of steel, and the base of concrete.

These requirements can be placed in context by considering how much we would need if we were to rapidly transition to 100% wind electricity over a 20 year period. Average global electricity demand is approximately 2.6 TW, therefore we need a total of around 10 TW of wind capacity to provide this electricity. So we would need about 50 million tonnes of steel, 200 million tonnes of concrete and 1.5 million tonnes of copper each year. These numbers sound high, but current global production of these materials is more than an order of magnitude higher than these requirements.

Fossil fuel requirements of cement and steel production

For the sake of brevity I will only consider whether this steel can be produced without fossil fuels, and whether the concrete can be made without the production of carbon dioxide. However I will note at the outset that the requirement for fiberglass means that a wind turbine cannot currently be made without the extraction of oil and natural gas, because fiberglass is without exception produced from petrochemicals.

Let’s begin with steel. How do we make most of our steel globally?

There are two methods: recycle old steel, or make steel from iron ore. The vast majority of steel is made using the latter method for the simple reason that there is nowhere near enough old steel lying around to be re-melted to meet global demand.

Here then is a quick summary of how we make steel. First we take iron ore out of the ground, leaving a landscape looking like this:

This is done using powerful machines that need high energy density fuels, i.e. diesel:

And the machines that do all of this work are almost made entirely of steel:

After mining, the iron ore will need to be transported to a steel mill. If the iron ore comes from Australia or Brazil then it most likely will have to be put on a large bulk carrier and transported to another country.

What powers these ships? A diesel engine. And they are big:

Simple engineering realities mean that shipping requires high energy dense fuels, universally diesel. Because of wind and solar energy’s intrinsic low power density putting solar panels, or perhaps a kite, on to one of these ships will not come close to meeting their energy requirements. We are likely stuck with diesel engines for generations.

We then convert this iron ore into steel. How is this done? There are only two widely used methods. The blast furnace or direct reduction routes, and these processes are fundamentally dependent on the provision of large amounts of coal or natural gas.

A modern blast furnace

The blast furnace route is used for the majority of steel production globally. Here coal is key. Iron ore is unusable, largely because it is mostly iron oxide. This must be purified by removing the oxygen, and we do this by reacting the iron ore with carbon monoxide produced using coke:

Fe2O3 + 3CO → 2Fe + 3CO2

Production of carbon dioxide therefore is not simply a result of the energy requirements of steel production, but of the chemical requirements of iron ore smelting.

This steel can then be used to produce the tower for a wind turbine, but as you can see, each major step of the production chain for what we call primary steel is dependent on fossil fuels.

By weight cement is the most widely used material globally. We now produce over 3.5 billion tonnes of the stuff each year, with the majority of it being produced and consumed in China. And one of the most important uses of cement is in concrete production.

Cement only makes up between 10 and 20% of concrete’s mass, depending on the specific concrete. However from an embodied energy and emissions point of view it makes up more than 80%. So, if we want to make emissions-free concrete we really need to figure out how to make emissions-free cement.

We make cement in a cement kiln, using a kiln fuel such as coal, natural gas, or quite often used tires. Provision of heat in cement production is an obvious source of greenhouse gases, and providing this heat with low carbon sources will face multiple challenges.

A modern cement kiln

These challenges may or may not be overcome, but here is a more challenging one. Approximately 50% of emissions from cement production come not from energy provision, but from chemical reactions in its production.

The key chemical reaction in cement production is the conversion of calcium carbonate (limestone) into calcium oxide (lime). The removal of carbon from calcium carbonate inevitably leads to the emission of carbon dioxide:

CaCO3 → CaO + CO2

These chemical realities will make total de-carbonisation of cement production extremely difficult.

Total cement production currently represents about 5% of global carbon dioxide emissions, to go with the almost 7% from iron and steel production. Not loose change.

In conclusion we obviously cannot build wind turbines on a large scale without fossil fuels.

Now, none of this is to argue against wind turbines, it is simply arguing against over-promising what can be achieved. It also should be pointed out that we cannot build a nuclear power plant, or any piece of large infrastrtucture for that matter, without concrete or steel. A future entirely without fossil fuels may be desirable, but currently it is not achievable. Expectations must be set accordingly.

Energy Collective

32 Comments on "Can You Make a Wind Turbine Without Fossil Fuels?"

  1. sunweb on Tue, 25th Feb 2014 9:52 pm 

    Great article. I have done the same for wind and other “renewables” with diagrams and pictures:
    Solar and wind capturing devices are not alternative energy sources. They are extensions of the fossil fuel supply. There is an illusion of looking at the trees and not the forest in the “Renewable” energy world. Not seeing the systems, machineries, fossil fuel uses and environmental degradation that create the devices to capture the sun, wind and biofuels allows myopia and false claims.

    Energy Return on Energy Invested (ERoEI) is only a part of the equation. There is a massive infrastructure of mining, processing, manufacturing, fabricating, installation, transportation and the associated environmental assaults. Each of these processes and machines may only add a miniscule amount of energy to the final component of solar or wind devices. There would be no devices with out this infrastructure.

  2. Meld on Tue, 25th Feb 2014 9:53 pm 

    Now lets do the same with Solar panels and see what results we get. Slightly less use of fossil fuels I’m guessing, but not by much. Cue Arthur in 5…4…3…2….

  3. J-Gav on Tue, 25th Feb 2014 9:58 pm 

    Ha ha ha ha ….

  4. Dave Thompson on Tue, 25th Feb 2014 10:15 pm 

    We are fast approaching into a new and way different world of life.

  5. MSN (revised) fanboy on Tue, 25th Feb 2014 10:15 pm 

    To imagine, 4 weeks ago I thought renewable tech was… renewable. 4 articles and a book later I see the hard maths. Truth is a bitch.

  6. Steve on Tue, 25th Feb 2014 10:17 pm 

    “Average global electricity demand is approximately 2.6 TW, therefore we need a total of around 10 TW of wind capacity to provide this electricity.”
    We’re just talking electricity here; no mention of liquid fuels, therefore not addressing 100% renewable energy, not even close.

  7. Steve on Tue, 25th Feb 2014 10:28 pm 

    Another issue not addressed is where will the fossil fuel come from to build out all of this infrastructure? Aren’t we using all that we currently produce to try to maintain BAU? Seems to me that if we were to try, we’d have to assume a war-like stance and forego the production of autos, washing machines, etc., etc.

  8. Meld on Tue, 25th Feb 2014 10:54 pm 

    This is why anyone who is even remotely well read on the subject of peak oil knows that what we call renewables are simply fossil fuel extenders. Worst case scenario they are actually using up precious fuel that could be better channeled to build real renewables like wind mills, water mills and passive solar technologies.

  9. Makati1 on Tue, 25th Feb 2014 11:08 pm 

    We finally get an article on here that shows how ‘renewables’ are NOT renewable without oil. I have been saying this for years, but some on here have been arguing that ‘renewables’ can reproduce themselves without oil. ^_^

    The article missed the roads, trucks, cranes, tools, human support, financing, etc., that will ALSO be needed to maintain them after they are in place.

    P.S. sunweb, I saw your article when you posted it long ago, and now you have backup for your statement that prove we cannot live like we do without oil. I worked in a steel mill. It is obvious to the thinking person that much of what we have will disappear as they wear out and oil is no longer available to replace them.

  10. sunweb on Tue, 25th Feb 2014 11:17 pm 

    Meld – my essay does it for photovoltaics, solar hot water, and solar hot air. Written in 2011

    This one does it for photovoltaics:
    Spain’s Photovoltaic Revolution: The Energy Return on Investment by Prieto, Pedro A., Hall, Charles 2013.

    and this one does across everything:…/DFID_Report1_2012_11_04-2.pdf

  11. sunweb on Tue, 25th Feb 2014 11:18 pm 

    Meld – my essay does it for photovoltaics, solar hot water, and solar hot air. Written in 2011
    This one does it for photovoltaics:
    Spain’s Photovoltaic Revolution: The Energy Return on Investment by Prieto, Pedro A., Hall, Charles 2013.
    and this one does across everything:…/DFID_Report1_2012_11_04-2.pdf

  12. bobinget on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 12:29 am 

    So, what SHOULD we do? Wring our hands and cry?

    Of course it will take more liquid fuels than are currently available for manufacturing near term.
    Here’s the big ‘however’:
    Just as we are approaching the day of computers working autonomously, computers designing, even printing out even greater computer power leading to
    profound efficiency improvements. We see greatly
    improved PV (21%) efficiency lower costs per watt, .54 cents. Entire factory roof tops are already covered
    with PV’s lowering manufacturing cost. (FSLR)
    GE, Germany’s Siemens, Denmark’s Vestas, India’s Suzlon, China’s Guodian United Power NOT content with today’s turbine outputs sitting around resting on past generating capacity. At some point we need to start counting increased generating power coming on line displacing coal and gas liquids.

    It’s time to start celebrating our gas bonanza, not
    whine about how much energy conversion requires.

  13. GregT on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 1:49 am 


    “It’s time to start celebrating our gas bonanza”

    The last time I checked natural gas is still a fossil fuel, and contributes to the accumulation of greenhouse gasses in the environment.

    Celebrate what? Planetary extinction?

  14. Davy, Hermann, MO on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 2:02 am 

    I feel renewables have a special place within the fossil fuel decline scenario. We should be using them complimentary to the grid power locally and large scale. I have a dual system in my cabin. Grid power for heavy loads and solar panels and batteries for lighter loads. Wide spread cheap low power solar for homes need to be considered for widespread use. If the grid becomes unstable in our contracting world we will still have lighting. I believe it is ok to put in large scale renewables in sweet spots where efficiencies are high. Places where infrastructure is adequate and doesn’t need expensive upgrades. Areas where the grid can easily accommodate renewables variability. I am pushing for a buffet of responses to the declining energy gradient we will ride down as a society. This buffet would include small dispersed renewable construction and the larger scale solar and wind farms where most economic. The policy of pushing maximum renewable penetration in the electric power market is in my mind a game of diminishing returns. The more you push the percentage of market penetration in a large grid the more expensive the upgrades need to be to adapt renewables to the grid. You end up with investments that may be less economic. In the upcoming energy decent we cannot afford improper investments. We must make the very best investment decisions considering the many critical resource depleting currently. We are heading for a brick wall of having less wealth and more problems. Locally comparative advantages need to be exploited where possible. Bio fuels in Iowa and solar thermal in Arizona for example. I hope we are hearing the end soon of those folks blowing smoke up the asses of the general public claiming a renewable based society is our salvation and can happen soon. Renewables have a niche in the energy mix but they will never be more than a segment. The amount of economic infrastructure, financial capital, and expertise needed is huge. This makes it a complex industrial process. These processes will come under increased pressure very soon. We have to properly deploy renewables or they will be like the Chinese ghost cities with huge embedded energy costs with little economic return to benefit society. In any case we are running out of time to change out society’s energy infrastructure. We have to fully utilize what we have and add what we can that is economic.

  15. Poordogabone on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 2:05 am 

    Yep, and the reason that we are screwed now is because instead of transitioning in the 70’s when we had all the warnings and still 30 years of cheap oil ahead we decided to follow Reagan/Tatcher’s lead and get rich quick instead. No smarter than bacteria I tell you.

  16. DMyers on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 3:57 am 

    The article shows convincingly that renewables will go down in tandem with the decline in fossil fuels and other resources of which they are composed. Consequently, they cannot represent a substitute for fossil fuels, or more then a short term low voltage lifeline for a dying civilization.

    A remnant of a dream still abides in the zeitgeist that we will find “new sources of energy”, as a human-packed future unfolds before us. I’m talking about truly new sources, meaning new fuel. First to come to mind is nuclear fusion. How many times has this one popped out a headline of hope? Fusion promises to be the little canister of power that we can carry in a back pack to satisfy our every energy requirement, at nothing more than a small start up cost and then reasonable annual renewals. Unfortunately, even with a large population of highly trained scientists obligated to do research at the universities in this country, there is still no tangible new fuel of the future in sight.

    If there’s no hope for renewables, then we must find a new fount of energy. For years, it’s been promised. “We will meet the technological challenge! They’ll come up with something!” I would think there’s money to be made here. And the world has never known such a number of research facilities, stocked with everything money can buy, manned by an army of excess Ph.D.’s who thought they would never find work.

    I don’t think it’s ever going to get any better than this, when it comes to an environment with chances for a great new scientific breakthrough. If it isn’t discovered soon, I contend that the chance will be lost. New Dark Age, anyone?

  17. ulenspiegel on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 5:13 am 

    The article is nonsense at least in respect to wind turbines:

    You could make as worst case the assumption, that all the required oil is made by P2G and GTL (400 ->USD barrel oil), how would this affect the price of the wind turbine, how much would this affect the EROEI.
    I bet the price would go up less than 10% and the change in EROEI is actually small.

    We are talking about a development that spans about 4 to five decades. Steel can be made of course without fossil coal, and concrete production can be modifeid,too.

    Coal and gas were convenient in the past because they were cheap, they are not esential. This arguments are a strawmen.

  18. GregT on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 5:51 am 

    “Coal and gas were convenient in the past because they were cheap, they are not essential.”

    No, not essential at all, we could just replace them with the billions of unemployed people that will be soon available. Might take them a few decades to build out the infrastructure of course. In the mean time they could feed themselves with those that drop dead on the job. Then there is always the minor problem of exactly what we would use the electricity for……

    “We are talking about a development that spans about 4 to five decades.”

    We don’t have 4 or 5 decades, we will be lucky to have 2, 1 is more likely.

  19. deedl on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 6:27 am 

    First af all: Yes you can. In northern Germany near Hannover is a prototype of a wind turbine whichs tower is made of wood. This prototype proves succesful so several more of them will be build.

    Second: Steel can be recyced to 100%. In a steady state economy no new steel has to made from ore and coal, instead you can recycle the steel. This is done in arc furnaces which run on electricity and are a charge process so they can be dispatched as the sun shines and the wind blows. Arc furnaces today make up roughly one third of world steel production, so this is no pipe dream but large scale proven technology.

    This arcile makes the failure of false induction, typical among peak oil doomsters. That the turbine is a consequence of using coal and steel means that those can be used to make the turbine, but it does mean they have to be used.

    So the entire article just proves that coal and steel are sufficent for a wind turbine and concludes (falsly) that they are necessary.

  20. Makati1 on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 7:09 am 

    deedle, you, ulenspiegel and bobinget need to rethink your comments.

    Recycling steel requires temperatures in excess of 1,000C. I worked in a steel foundry that made steel from scrap and some added ores using electric arc furnaces. One furnace took 2 hours to get to pouring temps. They also use the electric of a town of 25,000 people each time one of them fired up, just to pour 6-7 tons of steel or one piece of a rock crusher.

    As for wood…lol… how long will that last and how much forest will be left for windmills when they are being burned for heat?

    Dream on if you think your techie dreams can come true, but it is like wishing upon a star…

  21. Meld on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 7:15 am 

    So many bargainers on here today. We’ve all been there, we know the signs 😉

  22. Stephen on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 7:34 am 

    Would it be possible to make a wind turbine with plastic and fuel made from Algae I wonder?

  23. Stephen on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 7:36 am 

    After all, we can make diesel out of non-petroleum based fuel (Algae, Camelina, Jatropha, Soybeans, Castor, Pongamia, etc). Technically we could use it in a blast furnace as opposed to a car engine if we chose.

  24. Meld on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 7:42 am 

    Just because something can be done doesn’t make it financially viable and therefore useful. Take the LHC for instance, all that money spent to find a particle which the majority of scientists don’t know what to do with. Good Job!

  25. Arthur on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 7:58 am 

    Cue Arthur in 5…4…3…2….

    Damn, this is the most important article posted here in months and I have a bunch of Korean Nazis in my neck for meeting a deadline on Sunday. I hope I have time to respond next week, probably via my blog and will implicitly address comments made here. No promises.

    The article is so important because it is crucial in forming the very bleak outlook of many here about the future of society.

    My answer is: yes, you can make wind turbines without fossil fuel.

    a) 1 kwh = 1 kwh, regardless of the source
    b) mining of steel will be largely superfluous, because all the iron we will ever need will already be above the ground (recycling). Just make sure your car makes his last journey to the smelter and after that use your 3 Watt ‘iCrap’ to do the (virtual) travelling, instead of the 60,000 Watt car.

  26. meld on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 11:04 am 

    Maybe we can get your blog post submitted here Arthur so the rest of us can “peer review” it. I’m sure that’s possible isn’t it mr invisible person who posts all this Jazz?

  27. Davy, Hermann, MO on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 1:16 pm 

    The idea of using wood is something we need to look at closer but not to generate electricity but direct mechanical efforts. If we can avoid unsustainable forest usage to harvest wood and fuel we may be able to build out some mechanical wood windmills. I imagine the mad scramble by the cold hungry masses will cut down trees like the log barrens have in past periods all over the world. We must not forget all the future navies by the powers to be in a postindustrial world. You know man’s nature to war over survival!

  28. GregT on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 2:18 pm 

    Well, if the polar vortex that has been plaguing North America this winter becomes the new norm, I think it’s a safe bet to predict that the trees will disappear rather quickly.

    Also guys, again I ask, what does everyone think that electric power would be useful for?

    All of the electric gadgets that we currently enjoy have relatively short lifespans. In a world without industry, how would we keep manufacturing them? I suggest that we would most likely be concerned with far more important endeavours, like food production, home heating, and security.

    Lighting, I can see, but how long before even the lightbulbs run out? One year, five years, a decade?

  29. Kenz300 on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 2:59 pm 

    Energy Collective — a shill for the fossil fuel and nuclear industries……………

  30. isgota on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 6:26 pm 

    This article is a joke and easy to debunk, let’s take a look at this:

    “These requirements can be placed in context by considering how much we would need if we were to rapidly transition to 100% wind electricity over a 20 year period. Average global electricity demand is approximately 2.6 TW, therefore we need a total of around 10 TW of wind capacity to provide this electricity. So we would need about 50 million tonnes of steel, 200 million tonnes of concrete and 1.5 million tonnes of copper each year.”

    Let’s do some numbers…

    The world produced 1547Mt of steel in 2012 and to do that only needed 14% of the coal production (1 billion tonnes).

    Since we need 50Mt of steel/year, we only need about 32Mt of coal per year to made the steel needed.

    For concrete/cement the numbers are similar. A tonne of cement only needs 200 kg of coal to be produced. So, 200Mt/year requires 40Mt/year of coal.

    Add both and you only need about 72Mt of coal per year. That’s less than 1% of the total production in 2012!!!

    But since, in theory, you are changing all the power production to wind you don’t need to burn coal anymore to produce electricity. That’s the lion’s share of coal compsumption, and your coal reserves would last centuries.

    Oh BTW, you can use charcoal to produce that too, it’s a process well known for millenia.

  31. andya on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 7:03 pm 

    No mention of the rare earth magnets that make electricity, but a fair representation of the difficulties involved. Sure anything is possible at Candy Mountain, but in the real world we are going to carry on with our self destructive ways.

  32. sunweb on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 9:52 pm 

    isgota – what world do you live? What world do you want to live in?
    I like the Candy Mountain part of it. They don’t allow air pollution there. Or water pollution. Water is a infinite resource there. Fish multiply and jump into the boats like the carp in the Mississippi. And money, in the trees of course.

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