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Fact check: Meme of wind turbine being de-iced includes 2015 image from Sweden

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Winter weather: Drone footage of Texas cities covered in snow

A record-breaking winter storm continues to dump snow on the state of Texas.

Staff Video, USA TODAY

The claim: Wind power companies are using helicopters and chemical spray to de-ice wind turbines

Millions of Texans are without power after a winter storm brought unprecedented temperatures to the region this week. Many social media users have inaccurately blamed wind turbines. One such post is mischaracterizing an old photo of a Swiss windmill de-icing procedure to question the sustainability of wind power.

“A helicopter running on fossil fuel spraying a chemical made from fossil fuels onto a wind turbine made with fossil fuels during an ice storm is awesome,” reads an image that was posted to Instagram Feb. 16. 

The image, which appears to be a screenshot of a tweet, includes a photo of a helicopter and frozen wind turbine. The helicopter carries a barrel and sprays fluid on the wind turbine.

The tweet was shared by prominent Texas oil and gas consultant Luke Legate. After garnering more than 30,000 retweets and 89,000 likes, Legate has made his tweets private.

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Instagram user @pilotstuff posted the image and claim with a caption reading “Useless, land wasting, bird killing, subsidized, behemoths, and eyesores.”

Other Facebook users have posted the same image and misleading claim.

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A post shared by PILOTSTUFF (@pilotstuff)

Image from Swiss helicopter company – no chemicals were used

The image comes from the Swiss company Alpine Helicopter.

Alpine Helicopter displayed the image in its 2015 presentation for the Winterwind International Wind Energy Conference. According to a presentation, Alpine began testing the helicopter-hot water method in 2013.

Alpine stressed that the procedure does not use chemicals. 

The same image appeared in a 2015 article from Norweigan publication TU Media. The article explains that the helicopter is using hot water jets to melt ice on Swedish windmills.

Helicopter operators use a joystick to spray hot water on turbines to defrost ice or snow that’s collected on them to prevent dangerous fallout and impediments to wind turbine function. In preparation, water is heated in a tank with a 260kV oil burner the night before. The procedure then takes about 90 minutes to de-ice a wind turbine. 

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This hot water de-icing strategy is used for wind turbines that do not have an internal de-icing system or for wind turbines that don’t have sufficient de-icing systems. 

“No chemicals are added to the water, in contrast to aircraft de-icing, which often involves extensive use of chemicals,” states the article. 

Social media users have posted this image with criticism about fossil fuel use to de-ice several times over the last few years.

Australian sustainability publication Renew Economy calculated that a wind turbine can pay back the helicopter fossil fuel emissions used to de-ice a turbine with 22 minutes of strong wind.

Wind turbines responsible for a fraction of Texas outages

Rice University associate professor of civil and environmental engineering Daniel Cohan told USA TODAY frozen wind turbines were not to blame for Texas’ current outage.

Cohan explained that power operators plan for varying demand and capacity throughout the year, aware that wind has a lower capacity at certain times. Failures of gas, coal and nuclear to contribute the expected bulk of needed power caused the outages.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas is the nonprofit that manages Texas’ power grid. According to ERCOT data, wind accounted for 25% of Texas’s energy in January. In all of 2020, it supplied about 23% of Texas’ energy demands.

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Fossil fuels used in windmill construction

The post correctly states that fossil fuels are used to construct wind turbines. Vehicles and construction equipment that run on gasoline are used to transport supplies to the construction site and build the structure. Fossil fuels also help to gather materials and make the supplies necessary to build a wind turbine. For example, steel is made in a furnace powered by coal and natural gas. 

According to IEEE Spectrum, a magazine for the professional organization for engineers, a functioning wind turbine can generate enough power to offset the emissions used to build it in less than a year. While wind power is not emission-free and independent from fossil fuels, wind farms produce far fewer net emissions than traditional fossil fuel power generation.

Our rating: Partly false

We rate the claim that wind power companies used fossil-fuel-based sprays to de-ice turbines PARTLY FALSE because some of it was not supported by our research. Posts falsely claim the viral image shows a helicopter spraying chemicals to de-ice windmills. The photo is from a Swiss helicopter company that uses hot water to melt ice on wind turbines. It is true that wind turbine construction and maintenance use fossil fuels, however, those emissions are minimal compared to the emissions offset over time by functioning wind turbines. 

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Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook. 

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