If you’ve ever driven past one of the rows of shiny towers increasingly becoming a recognizable part of the landscape in many parts of the world, you’ve probably wondered what it costs to construct and maintain these behemoths of spinning steel. Over the last ten years, worldwide wind energy capacity has grown at a continually increasing pace with nations like Germany, US and China leading the charge. According to the IEA, total installed capacity has grown from 18GW in 2000 to over 250 GW today.
But despite falling costs and improved technological design, wind energy development is not cheap, eating up billions in subsidies and capital construction costs. The most expensive sector within wind energy is offshore development, which consequentially dominates this list of the world’s most expensive wind farms. Hammered by critics who cite the low average output of the farms in comparison to their stated capacity and the extensive use of polluting helicopter fuel to perform turbine maintenance, these megaprojects are hard-pressed to prove their long-time utility.
Although the per-megawatt installation costs of wind turbines on land are now as low as $1 million, this number can be as much as ten times higher for offshore projects. Durability of underwater turbine masts, the extensive geological studies required to determine the suitability of the seabed, and costly maintenance in rough weather all contribute to the high costs of offshore development. The biggest advantage of offshore wind farms is that they do not have to be built near human settlements, a big draw in heavily populated Europe.
Land-based wind farms also have varying costs and often have to contend with private property issues. Wind farm opponents often cite inconclusive reports about the supposedly adverse health effects of living near large turbines, or complain about the visual pollution of these industrial structures rising in rural landscapes.
Although wind energy on land presents a more economical solution, there are also many other renewable energy generating options. Photovoltaic (PV) Solar, Thermal Solar, and Geothermal all have massive potential capacity around the world. Particularly PV solar looks set to expand dramatically, as costs have fallen precipitously over the past decade. PV also has the advantage that individual homeowners can install sizeable systems, as has been demonstrated in Germany, where many roofs are covered by solar panels. Currently, wind energy is still the favorite for large utility-scale investments running in the hundreds of megawatts and costing into the billions.
One of the defining issues of the 21st century will be the extent to which renewable energy can replace or augment the widespread burning of fossil fuels so essential to the world’s economy. Although electricity generated via fossil fuels is still by and large cheaper than renewables, rapidly falling costs are set to change this situation dramatically as soon as cost equilibrium with coal and gas is reached.
Nuclear, although very reliable, remains very expensive and brings with it the ever-present risk of disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima, not to mention the costs associated with disposing of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel. If the world is to produce a significant percentage of its energy from renewable sources, it must exploit all of the options available to the fullest extent.
For now, one of the most attractive renewable options is wind energy. Here are five of the biggest and most expensive wind energy farms in the world today:
5 #5 – Alta Wind Energy Center, California
Cost: $1.85 Billion
Built in several phases and financed in part by Google, this onshore wind facility is located in the Tehachapi Mountains near Bakersfield, CA. Dominating the landscape, these wind turbines pick up the hot winds coming off the Mojave Desert as they slam against the mountains. As of 2013, 342 turbines produce up to 1320MW of energy for California’s fertile central valley.
4 #4– Shepherds Flat Wind Farm, Oregon
Cost: $2 Billion
Built entirely on private property near Arlington, Oregon, this facility commenced operations in September 2012. It has a nameplate capacity of 845 MW and sprawls across 78 square kilometers (30 sq miles). Construction was financed by loans from the federal Department of Energy, and the ranchers owning the land also received $12,000 of compensation for each of the 338 turbines.
3 #3 - Greater Gabbard, UK
Cost: $2.5 Billion
Completed in September 2012, this 504 MW offshore wind farm is built on sandbanks immediately off the coast of south-east England. The UK’s prominence in offshore development is due to the building suitability of the shallow continental shelf located off on the eastern coast of England. All 140 of the 131m turbines were assembled onsite, partially with the help of EU infrastructure funding.
2 #2 - The London Array, UK
Cost: $3 Billion
The UK’s “flagship” windfarm project, the London Array lies 20km off the coast of south-east England and currently holds the status of the world’s largest offshore wind farm. It commenced full operations on April 8th, 2013. With a total of 175 turbines producing a maximum of 630 MW on an area of 100 square kilometers, the London Array provides power to 400,000 homes in Greater London. Initially conceived plans for expanding the array are currently on hold.
1 #1 - BARD-1 Offshore Wind Center - Germany
Cost: $4 Billion
It took 5 years to build this 400 MW megaproject that features 80 state-of-the-art specialized tripod-style deep water turbines. Unfortunately, this came at quite the price, as the project saw its construction budget increase by over 40% of what was originally planned. Harsh weather conditions at sea due to the distance from land and water depths of up to 40 meters make this the most expensive large offshore wind facility ever built, despite having a lower output than the London Array.
Heavily criticized for its cost overruns, this wind farm represents a pioneer of sorts, not only because it is built in deeper waters than any before it, but also because of its exorbitant price tag.