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They All Fall Down

Wind turbines are making headlines...for the wrong reason

Imagine a 300-foot pinwheel, with wings about half that length, precariously swaying and toppling to the ground. Sounds a bit apocalyptic, right? In truth, it's a very real problem stemming from engineering flaws and heightened construction demand that is capturing recent headlines amid heavy concern for both the workers and surrounding areas of wind turbines across the globe.

A collapsed 311-foot (95 metre) high wind turbine in Saxony, eastern Germany.— photo

Turbines are taller now than they were in previous decades, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Since 2012, the average height of wind turbines installed in the United States has been about 280 feet, or 80 meters. Before 2006, few wind turbines were as tall as 280 feet.

A recent Bloomberg report highlighted the issue, citing a story from Oklahoma and using the Statue of Liberty as a visual benchmark for height. That alone is frightening to picture. Try multiplying it by three. A Popular Mechanics article published on the heels of the Bloomberg piece mentioned locations in Germany, Sweden, and the U.S., including German record-holders that measure over 750 feet—or a height taller than Seattle's Space Needle or the Washington Monument. In light of the findings, locals are posting videos to YouTube of actual turbine collapses:

Wind speed typically increases with altitude and increases over open areas without windbreaks such as trees or buildings. Favorable sites for wind turbines include the tops of smooth, rounded hills; open plains and water; and mountain gaps that funnel and intensify wind.

Similarly, rotor sizes have grown during the same span. A turbine’s rotor diameter, or the width of the circle swept by the rotating blades, has also grown exponentially in the past few decades. Back in 2010, no turbines in the United States employed rotors that were 115 meters (380 feet) in diameter or larger. The average rotor diameter in 2021 was 127.5 meters (418 feet)—longer than a football field, according to Department of Energy data from August 2022.

"Larger rotor diameters allow wind turbines to sweep more area, capture more wind, and produce more electricity," the DOE says. "A turbine with longer blades will be able to capture more of the available wind than shorter blades—even in areas with relatively less wind. Being able to harvest more wind at lower wind speeds can increase the number of areas available for wind development nationwide. Due to this trend, rotor swept areas have grown around 600% since 1998–1999."

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