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Fact check: Energy costs of wind turbine manufacturing recouped in months

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The claim: A wind turbine must spin continuously for seven years to replace energy required to manufacture it 

Wind power is the largest source of renewable energy in the U.S., and it now accounts for more than 9% of electricity generated in the country, according to the Energy Information Administration.

As this supply of energy has expanded, critics have questioned its use. Recently, social media posts have alleged that wind power is inefficient and unnecessarily expensive.  

"The turbine has to spin continually for 7 plus years just to replace the energy it took to manufacture the turbine," reads part of the caption of an April 16 Facebook post.  

The post garnered nearly 800 interactions. Versions of the claim also spread on Twitter

However, the post is wrong. Wind turbines recoup the energy required to build them within a year of normal operation, according to researchers.

USA TODAY reached out to the Facebook users who shared the post for comment.  The Twitter user could not be reached. One Facebook user, Send It Services, LLC, sent USA TODAY articles that did not support the claim.

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Energy used to build wind turbine recouped in months

Wind turbines recoup the energy expended to manufacture them within a year of normal operation, according to Eric Lantz, wind analysis manager at National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

That said, many studies have estimated even quicker time periods – between four and eight months, he told USA TODAY in an email. 

Ryan Wiser, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who specializes in renewable electricity systems, reviewed 20 studies of wind power energy payback timeframes for a 2011 IPCC renewable energy report.

He found that the "median reported energy payback time for wind power plants was 5.4 months," he told USA TODAY in an email.

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Financial costs of wind turbine earned back within lifetime

The social media post also alleges that a wind turbine would have to run continuously for 50 years to recoup the financial costs of manufacturing and installation.

This assertion is incorrect, Michael Howland, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told USA TODAY in an email. He noted that investors wouldn't fund wind turbine projects if this math was accurate 

"The energy market is a market," he said. "Wind farms have to be financially viable."

The timeframe required to earn back the financial costs of turbine manufacturing and installation is dependent on factors such as local wind resources, the turbine model, electricity prices and the financing agreement. 

Approximately 10 to 12 years of normal operation is a reasonable, rough estimate to recoup the investment, according to Howland. 

If wind turbines took 50 years – as long as the post alleges – to pay off, they wouldn't be financed because turbines are currently not expected to last that long, said Lantz. Wind turbines tend to be financed based on an assumed 20 years of life, though they can last longer. 

"If it takes too long to recover the initial investment capital, it's not economic and won’t move forward," he said. 

The claim was previously debunked by Climate Feedback

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Post makes other misleading statements

The social media post also includes the claim that "the majority of parts for a wind turbine are built in Germany." However, the Department of Energy reports that there is significant domestic production of wind turbine parts.

For wind turbines installed in the U.S., 60%-75% of towers and 30%-50% of blades and hubs are manufactured domestically. More than 85% of nacelle assemblies – which house the drivetrain – are also made in the U.S.

The post also includes a photo of oil spilling out of a wind turbine and criticizes the industry for using oil – a fossil fuel – for lubrication.

But Jeroen van Dam, a mechanical engineering researcher at National Renewable Energy Laboratory, told USA TODAY in an email that the oil is not burned, it "gets replaced about every five years and is then recycled."

When leaks do occur they are typically caught before the oil reaches the ground, van Dam said. 

The post also correctly states that wind turbine blades are often landfilled at the end of life. While that is true, wind turbine blades are technically recyclable, and industry leaders have pledged to implement widespread recycling programs.

Even if wind turbine blades continued to be landfilled for decades, they would still only represent a small fraction of the U.S. waste stream. A National Renewable Energy Laboratory study found that, without recycling, 2.2 million tons of wind turbine blade waste could end up in U.S. landfills by 2050, but the U.S. landfilled more than 65 times that amount of trash in 2018 alone.

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Our rating: False

Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that a wind turbine must spin continuously for seven years to replace the energy required to manufacture it. Wind turbines typically recoup this energy expenditure in less than a year. 

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