Because of a flood of misinformation about what it costs to dismantle wind turbines, I’ve chosen to post a section from my 1995 book on the topic. Note that this was written nearly two decades ago.
The difference in cost between decommissioning nuclear power plants and wind power plants is substantial, but often ignored. For example, the two units at Pacific Gas & Electric’s Diablo Canyon nuclear plant will cost $580 million to decommission. Dismantling Southern California Edison’s 2,400 MW, three-unit complex at San Onofre will cost $870 million in 1988 dollars. Decommissioning the damaged Unit 2 reactor at Three Mile Island will cost more than $1 billion when completed or nearly as much as it cost to build the plant. Overall, decommissioning nuclear plants will cost from $0.3 billion to as much as $3 billion per 1,000 MW reactor in 1985 dollars or $300-$3,000 per kilowatt.
Though individual turbines at wind plants may need replacement after 20 to 30 years, there is no compelling reason for abandoning the site. New, more cost-effective turbines can be added, the infrastructure upgraded if necessary, and the plant returned to use. This is one of wind energy’s most significant attributes: it is sustainable. Because there is no accumulation of wastes (as in a nuclear plant) or exhaustion of the fuel source (as in a fossil fuel-fired plant), production of wind-generated electricity is sustainable indefinitely.
It is still useful to look at the costs of dismantling because removal of individual turbines may be necessary from time to time. The public also wants assurance that removal costs are within the financial reach of salvage companies, should the wind plant become inoperative.
Decommissioning a wind plant, in its simplest form, requires removal of the turbines. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management estimated that removal of a turbine and tower would cost $1,500-$2,500. Removal of the foundation and wiring could add another $1,500-$2,500; revegetation of disturbed soil, another $500-$700. The BLM estimated that total removal would cost from $3,000 to about $5,500 per turbine for the 100 kW turbines typical of the mid 1980s.
The BLM’s estimate, about $50 per kilowatt, represents the high end of expected removal costs. To date, dismantling has cost much less. Several early 40 kW turbines were dismantled in Tehachapi for $1,500 each. In the Altamont Pass, U.S. Windpower dismantled 200 of its 50 kW turbines, removing the towers, transformers, and the top two feet of the foundation for $925 per site or about $20 per kilowatt.
A turbine’s salvage value often offsets much of the removal cost. In 1989 a contractor to Riverside County began removing 98 turbines from a site near Palm Springs for $23,000; only $230 per turbine. U.S. Windpower received salvage bids of $1,025 per turbine for their 200 machines, resulting in a net credit of $100 per unit removed.
The lower end of the range of cost estimates for decommissioning nuclear power plants is six times greater than the highest estimate of the cost of dismantling a wind power plant.
Wind Energy Comes of Age, by Paul Gipe, John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1995, 536 pages, ISBN 0-471-10924-X, pp. 240-241.