Sunday, August 09, 2009


Wind Turbines and Maintenance

Opening this morning’s newspaper here in Japan, I found an article on problems facing wind power in Japan, mainly the northern island of Hokkaido. While the public seems to have a rosy picture of renewables — thanks to the relentless propaganda put out by governments and corporations — there is next to no knowledge about the surprising drawbacks.

Let me cite some of the information given in this article (unfortunately I could not find anything in English online, so trust me). Three-quarters of the wind turbines installed in Hokkaido and Japan as a whole are foreign-made, which may surprise many people who think of Japan as a major “green technology” exporter. A point made here is that when wind turbines break down and need parts, they are out of service for long time periods for the parts to arrive and be installed. One municipality in Hokkaido says its foreign-made turbines are typically out of service for three months while waiting for maintenance! Of the total 267 turbines in Hokkaido, 74% are foreign-made, and in FY2007, 62 of them were out of commission for at least one month.

What can we learn from this? Of course many will say the lesson is that using domestically made wind turbines is the answer. That would indeed shorten down time because replacement parts could be obtained quickly. But the real important lesson here is the surprising number of turbine breakdowns reported. And when a turbine breaks down, that requires maintenance personnel to come with cranes or even helicopters to do the repairs. The cranes in turn need access roads, and those roads too must be built and maintained. So the important lesson here is that once the petroleum economy falters, so will maintenance on windmills and other renewable energy infrastructure, not to mention conventional sources of power.

Because the world public is ceaselessly bombarded with upbeat information about renewables, people naturally have woefully unrealistic expectations about what renewables can do. Instead of beating the drums, rolling out the bandwagon, and passing out pairs of rose-colored glasses, proponents need to be honest with themselves, and with the public about what we can expect from renewables, which is far less than most people understand.

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