Rare Earth Metals

Everyday Rare Earth Metal Use: Cell Phones vs. Wind Turbines

Did you know that rare earth metals are found in many everyday items including smartphones, computer hard drives, LCD screen, florescent light bulbs, and headphones? While they are also found in certain wind turbine models (described in detail below), the overall volume of rare earth metals used in everyday products greatly outweighs the volume of these materials in wind turbines.
Some things to think about: 

  • At the end of 2014 there were 268,000 wind turbines spinning around the world.
  • There are over 7 Billion mobile devices worldwide.
  • A PEW Research Center study found that 91% of American adults own a cell phone and 64% own a smartphone. 
  • A wind turbine's lifespan is 20-30 years while a cell phone is typically replaced every 2-3 years.  

Wind turbines and rare earth metals:  There are two typical wind turbine models used today, a Type 3, also known as a doubly-fed induction generator (DFIG) and a Type 4, also known as a full converter wind turbine (FCWT), which employs a permanent magnet alternator (PMA). Turbine manufacturers started to develop Type 4 turbines for offshore wind, and these turbines contain magnets that are made of rare earth metals. Though we do not yet know which kinds of turbines will be used at Lighthouse Wind, we can confirm that no Apex project to date has used a Type 4 turbine, and we do not currently expect to use them at Lighthouse.

Over the past few years, turbine manufactures have been producing more Type 3 generators in general. This is at least in part due to the fact that the increasing price of rare earth metals is making Type 4 turbines less competitive. According to an article in Plant Engineering, “In the first case, the high price of rare earth materials has led turbine original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and generator manufacturers to reduce production costs by using less rare earth materials in their designs,” said Jared Kearby, analyst at IHS. “This has resulted in an emphasis on continuing the production of [Type 3 turbines], due to the increased demand.”

Wind energy has the lowest 'lifecycle emissions' of nearly all energy production technologies: Wind turbines produce no greenhouse gas emissions during their operation. It takes a turbine just three to six months to produce the amount of energy that goes into its manufacturing, installation, operation, maintenance, and decommissioning after its 20-25 year lifetime. During its lifetime, a wind turbine delivers up to 80 times more energy than is used in its production, maintenance, and scrapping (GWEC).