The energy solution often labelled ‘green’ may not be as environmentally friendly as we think. The much-vaunted wind turbines emit a harmful greenhouse gas, with Germany being the largest contributor in Europe.
The SF6 concern
The main concern is sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) – also known as elegas. It’s used in the manufacture of wind turbines and then leaks into the atmosphere. As Germany has the highest number of wind turbines in Europe, scientists suspect that this is leading to elevated levels of SF6 in the country.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) classifies sulphur hexafluoride as a serious threat to the climate, 26,087 times more harmful than carbon dioxide.
Yet many industries regard SF6 as the ultimate insulator. Despite being banned in several sectors, it remains a staple in the manufacture of wind turbines. According to a report by the German media outlet Taggeschau, once SF6 enters the atmosphere, it takes more than 3,000 years to break down.
Kyoto Protocol and compliance issues
The 1997 Kyoto Protocol called for a reduction in SF6 emissions. Although its use has declined, it is still widely used in electronic switchgear with no regulatory restrictions. Industry has committed to limiting its use of SF6, restricting it to closed systems and ensuring proper recycling and neutralisation at the end of its life. In a 1998 commitment, companies also agreed to document and disclose their SF6 consumption and recycling.
But there’s a big gap. Germany, in particular, is failing to meet this commitment, according to air samples.
Surprisingly, atmospheric SF6 levels are 50 times higher than estimates based on company declarations. This large difference suggests that Germany’s SF6 emissions are grossly underreported.
In addition to environmental concerns, SF6 poses risks to human health. Elevated concentrations can cause carbon dioxide narcosis, which can lead to suffocation.
Industry defends use of SF6
In an interview with the business magazine Plusminus, prominent German wind turbine manufacturers Nordex and Vestas admitted that SF6 is irreplaceable. They argue that its release into the atmosphere is minimal and that it is properly disposed of at the end of a turbine’s life.
However, empirical data challenges this stance, possibly because it’s not the manufacturers’ responsibility to recycle end-of-life turbines. Apparently, it is more economical for them to dump toxic chemicals than to recycle them.
For the time being, the EU intends to delay a ban on SF6 until 2030.
Siemens has developed a vacuum bulb system without the chemical, but its use in wind turbines remains limited.
Source: Remix News