Calls for a legal framework to modernise wind farms: otherwise wind energy development could be halted
As the development of wind energy in Lithuania gathers momentum, wind farm developers are worried about the future of wind farms. Some of the wind farms currently in use will be technically obsolete in 10 years’ time, but the country’s legal framework is not yet ready for the modernisation of wind farms, where old wind farms are replaced by new, modern and more powerful wind farms. There are fears that failure to prepare in time for the renewal of wind farms will slow down the development of wind energy.
According to Urtė Daškevičiūtė, Executive Director of the Lithuanian Wind Power Association (LVEA), although most of the wind farms currently being developed in the country are not yet obsolete, it is time to start thinking about their modernisation.
“Wind farms have a lifespan of 20-25 years, and the first wind farm built in Lithuania has already been in operation for 15 years and the first wind farm for 18 years. So it is only a matter of time before the first wind farms need to be modernised. If the legal barriers are not removed by then, we will face a situation where old, technologically outdated and inefficient wind farms will have to be dismantled, and the conditions will not be right for the installation of new wind farms,” says U. Daškevičiūtė.
Mindaugas Juodis, CEO of Renerga, a company that manages several wind farms in Lithuania, also stresses the need to create the conditions for modernising wind farms. According to him, there are not many new suitable areas for building wind farms in Lithuania, so it is necessary to preserve the existing wind farms and to create conditions for their modernisation.
“The wind farms that are currently being developed were built after years of planning documents, feasibility studies, environmental impact assessments and selection of the most suitable locations for wind farms, so it would be imprudent to restrict the development of these farms without allowing them to be upgraded and more modern, state-of-the-art wind farms to be built. Especially as the engineering infrastructure needed for wind farms is already in place, there is no need to develop the project from scratch,” says Mr Juodis.
Replacing old with new ones
Wind farms can be renewed in two ways: by dismantling old plants and replacing them with new ones, or by upgrading some of the equipment and components to extend the life of the plant. However, the latter option is increasingly seen as inefficient, as the production lines of wind power manufacturers hardly produce the parts needed for the old type of power plants anymore, says U. Daškevičiūtė.
“Properly maintained wind farms can last longer than the manufacturer’s lifetime, but they cannot last forever. Upgrading certain components of a plant can help extend its lifetime, but in many cases it is no longer possible to achieve the same efficiency as before, let alone the efficiency offered by today’s new modern wind turbines. This is one of the main reasons why the renewal of wind farms with new, more modern wind turbines is inevitable,” she says.
U. Daškevičiūtė is echoed by M. Juodis, CEO of Renerga. According to him, the renewal of wind farms by replacing components should only be used as a last resort, as it is much more difficult to find the right parts 25 years after the date of manufacture of wind turbines. Manufacturers are not interested in producing and stocking parts for old models of wind turbines, which have to be specially ordered, resulting in production losses.
“It is common practice in Western countries to replace wind farms not only at the end of their lifetime, but also just at the halfway point, in order to maximise the efficiency of wind farms. Moreover, in Germany, for example, the modernisation of wind farms is encouraged by subsidies for the purchase of new, more efficient power plants, provided that they reduce the number of wind turbines and the environmental impact on the area. Lithuania does not yet have such a model, even though wind energy development is considered a priority,” says Mr Juodis.
Guarantees efficiency but presents challenges
Modern wind farms are not only taller, but also have much higher power outputs – a wind turbine from 10 years ago could have a power output of as little as 350 kilowatts (kW) to as much as 2.75 megawatts (MW), while wind turbines of 6 to 7 MW are now on the market.
“More powerful wind farms are more efficient, both in terms of performance and the amount of electricity they produce. For the same amount of electricity, 3-4 times fewer wind turbines are now needed. New plants are also often more environmentally friendly, with less noise and narrower towers and blades that have less impact on the landscape,” emphasises the LVEA CEO.
The only more significant negative external environmental impact attributed to taller wind turbines is increased shadowing, which is easily solved by limiting the operation of the wind turbine in sunny days, according to experts.
U. Daškevičiūtė points out that the choice of much more efficient wind farms is unjustifiably confronted with greater challenges posed by the restrictions on their design and construction, which are currently in force and which do not correspond to the realities of the times.
“The modern wind turbines that are currently being built are much taller. While a decade ago they were up to 150 m high, today they are 240-250 m high. As technology becomes more modern, it is essential that the new landscape protection restrictions take into account the change in the height of wind farms, so that the developers of ageing wind farms can modernise them in due course with taller wind farms,” explains U. Daškevičiūtė.
She also said that there is no answer yet on how wind farms that were installed before the new requirements came into force will be modernised, which are included in the map restricting the design and construction of wind farms, approved by the Order of the Commander-in-Chief of the Lithuanian Armed Forces in 2016. It is not at all clear whether these wind farms will be allowed to renew themselves by building more modern wind farms. With hundreds of millions of euros invested in wind farms, business needs clarity now and urgently to ensure the further development of wind energy.
According to WindEurope, the European wind industry’s trade body, the average number of wind turbines installed in a fleet renewal is 27% less, while the installed capacity of the fleet is in many cases doubled – three times more powerful wind turbines generate twice as much electricity.
European statistics also show the tendency of wind farm developers to opt for more powerful wind turbines: in the first three quarters of the year, 71% of the 1,647 onshore wind farms commissioned in the first three quarters of the year were larger than 4.5 MW.
“According to WindEurope, Denmark has one of the oldest wind farms on the continent, while Germany has the largest number of wind farms reaching the end of their useful life. Here, more than 21 GW of the total capacity of wind farms are older than 15 years.
The LVEA Executive Director points out that the countries with the oldest wind farms are also the most advanced in terms of modernisation. Germany is the winner of the wind farm modernisation race so far, with 73 successful wind farm modernisation projects already completed.