Wind turbines, cement, plastics, steel and the Industrial Age

Wind turbines are often the subject of heated discussions between those in favour and those against. I do not particularly want to jump into that debate but I thought that spending a bit of time trying to understand how things really work might be useful to me and maybe some of my readers.

Wind Turbines and the Industrial Age

This is an account of our latest visit to Le Havre and its harbour, last July 3 years after our 2019 trip, before the dreaded pangolin took two years out of our life span. A new industry is developing over there, and it’s sprawling.

Wind turbines

They store those wind turbines over there like humongous amphorae that they will later sink to the bottom of the sea.

Those amphorae are lined up on this island and look like a collection of vases in a shop window. The flowers that will be fitted in them are even bigger. One makes these flowers of steel, concrete and plastics.

Wind Turbines and Cars in the Foreground

As we approached the end of the harbour, it became easier for us to see those giants and fathom their size. I deliberately shot them from afar with the cars in the foreground. I moved my bike as close to the anglers as possible, so as not to miss anything.

Travelling Light

As I was travelling by bike, I had only taken my lightweight Nikon Z7 with me and its tiny weeny 40 mm f/2 lens. The picture above wasn’t cropped (it’s a full-fledged 8K job and the EXIF data is available here).

Wind turbines

Wind turbineFor the benefit of my readers, here’s a blow-up (above) of those wind turbines on the right-hand side.

I can well imagine these crates at the bottom of these things being the size of man.

What are wind turbines made of?

Probably bigger than a human being in fact (see on the right). You may imagine how tall these things are when they are fully mounted.

In this instance, we’re only seeing the foundation that is sitting at the bottom of the sea. The rest of the turbine is just massive. We came across a few blades that were stored on the ground but the fence prevented me from taking any decent pictures.

They are even more massive.

Wind turbines
They were maybe a tad smaller than that though – image by Aram Boghosian for GE Renewable Energy via CNBC

I find these big industrial sites amazing and fascinating as well as somewhat frightening. This is probably why it makes for good photography.

I’ve asked myself a few questions after seeing that.

Wind turbines are touted as green. But what are they made of? – image by the Renewable Energy Hub

Let’s Delve a little deeper and find out about the list of components of wind turbines. Semprius have answered that question for us in a very detailed article.

What are wind turbine blades made of?

The blades of a wind turbine are made of a composite material composed of glass fabric and carbon fibre infused with a liquid plastic resin. This material offers the best strength to weight ratio and can withstand the extreme pressures that come with constant rotation. The ratio of material changes depending on the size of the turbine and its environment.

Definition by Semprius

200 tons of steel for every MW of installed generating capacity

Apparently, most people think that one makes those blades out of aluminium. As a matter of fact, one used to, but no longer because of the weight of aluminium (a highly energy-intensive product anyway).

As it happens, at that time I was reading Vaclav Smil’s How the World Really Works opus. Smil is, as usual, very pedantic in his descriptions. He leaves nothing aside. Here is what he thinks of ‘green’ electricity production.

No structures are more obvious symbols of ‘green’ electricity generation than large wind turbines – but these enormous accumulations of steel, cement, and plastics are also embodiments of fossil fuels. Their foundations are reinforced concrete, their towers, nacelles, and rotors are steel (altogether nearly 200 tons of it for every megawatt of installed generating capacity), and their massive blades are energy-intensive – and difficult to recycle – plastic resins (about 15 tons of them for a midsize turbine). All of these giant parts must be brought to the installation sites by outsized trucks and erected by large steel cranes, and turbine gearboxes must be repeatedly lubricated with oil.

There’s probably more to it but I suspect you’ve had enough at this point.

Multicoloured containers from South-East Asia

Let’s focus on other symbols of the Industrial Age, those multicoloured containers from Korea, China and Japan.

Containers in the Le Havre harbour.
That was our trip to the harbour.

We then jumped on our bikes and went back home across the harbour and all the way uphill. 

God knows who will pay and when for what we’ve done to this poor planet of ours.

Yann Gourvennec
Latest posts by Yann Gourvennec (see all)
36 views of the Eiffel Tower
Prev 36 views of the Eiffel Tower minus a few
Next Romanesque churches in Saint Bertrand de Comminges
romanesque churches


    • Well… precisely David. These machines are made of a lot of unsavoury materials. Smil’s book is quite clear about that. The main innovations that our civilisations aren’t new, they even date from the 19th century and they are indeed a crowd: cement, plastic, steel and ammonia (all of them being energy-intensive). A depressing, yet very important book.

%d bloggers like this: