Britain, we’re told, is on the brink of a green energy revolution – and 2008 will be a big year of ecological decision-making. With the EU’s renewable energy target dates of 2010 (and 2020) fast approaching, Westminster and the Scottish Government will be keen to unveil newer and brighter initiatives to create greener electricity.
In two year’s time, the UK has promised to create 10% of its electricity needs from green sources, while Scotland has a target of 18%. The move, it is claimed, would make a major contribution to the European-wide target of 20% renewable energy by 2020.
One of the most hotly debated energy topics of recent years has been the potential of wind power, and as we go into the new year the government is assessing the feasibility of building 7000 wind turbines across the UK. According to a recent study, this number of turbines, located both onshore and offshore, would be enough to provide the electricity demands for every home in Britain.
But the arguments for and against wind power continue to rage. The advantages of a carbon emission-free energy that uses a free natural power source are beyond doubt, claim the pro camp. Those against retaliate with arguments about the look and location of wind turbines, and discredit the efficiency of wind farm schemes.
For the general public it is often difficult to differentiate between the fact, the fiction and the growing grey area in between. Here we provide the opposing views on a range of wind power questions – so you can make up your own mind.
DO 7000 TURBINES GO FAR ENOUGH TOWARDS MEETING THE UK’S GREEN ENERGY TARGETS?
Yes: At present, 2% of the UK’s power comes from renewables, with wind generating less than one gigawatt. By 2020, the UK government believes it could provide around 34 gigawatts, which would power 25 million homes, “almost all the domestic requirement for Britain”. John Hutton, Westminster’s business secretary, is reported as saying: “There is the potential out there, using the wind resources there are around the UK, to generate maybe all of the electricity households need.”
No: The Conservatives do not believe it is possible to build so many turbines by the target date. Using anti-wind group Country Guardian as their source, they state: “If the government wants to meet its targets by wind power they will have to build a turbine every one or two days until 2010.
Many engineers back up this claim. Sue Ion of the Royal Academy of Engineers says: “The engineering effort required to build 7000 large turbines by 2020 will be enormous, unprecedented and is probably underestimated.” David Black, wildland campaign officer for The Ramblers, questions too whether there are enough “suitable” locations for so many turbines.
BUT ISN’T IT TIME WE EMBRACED MORE ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY FORMS OF ENERGY IN ANY CASE?
Yes: The British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) makes the claim that “wind power is a clean, renewable source of energy that produces no greenhouse gas emissions or waste products. Just one modern wind turbine will save over 4000 tonnes of CO2 emissions annually.”
No: Black says: “There is a need to look at energy carbon emissions as a whole, and from the standpoint of use less and use what we do use more effectively. We also need to look at other alternative means to supply needs, across all sectors. Pushing for more wind power does not address this as electricity is only a part of energy use.”
ARE OFF-SHORE TURBINES A BETTER BET THAN ON-SHORE?
Yes: A few anti-wind countryside groups say that if they have to make a choice then off-shore turbines are less unsightly but it does depend on their size and location. They are campaigning for clarification about off-shore planning regulations.
No: The WWF are still undecided, but they are worried about the effect on seabed flora and fauna when foundations are dug and cables installed. Other concerns are technical and financial. For maximum cost efficiency it is better to have turbines located close to existing infrastructure, otherwise the energy needs to be transported through cabling. While transmission losses are substantially lessened with DC cables, there is a large knock-on cost in converting electricity from DC back to AC for domestic use.
I’VE HEARD THAT BUILDING A WIND FARM TAKES MORE ENERGY THAN IT COULD EVER PRODUCE, AND IS THEREFORE NOT COST EFFECTIVE. IS THIS RIGHT?
Yes: Conservationist David Bellamy is a vehement anti-turbine protester. He has been reported as saying: “Each turbine takes 1000 tonnes of concrete for foundations and with all the other negative environmental effects of building roads to the wind farms, wind power is sheer lunacy.” Others claim 400 to 600 tonnes of concrete are required for the foundations.
No: The BWEA says that the average wind farm will pay back the energy used in its manufacture within three to five months of operation. They also say that this figure compares favourably with coal or nuclear power stations, which take about six months.
Renewable Energy Systems says: “Each operational wind farm typically pays back the electricity consumed in making, installing, operating and decommissioning the wind farm in the first three to 10 months of its 20-year life.” The energy consultancy RNEI claims that “with reasonable wind conditions, wind turbines will pay for themselves in three years and after that yield £250,000 per MW per annum, contributing to a long-term income system”.
DO INTERMITTENT WIND CONDITIONS AFFECT EFFICIENCY?
Yes: It’s widely expressed by those against wind farms that turbines are active for between 28% and 30% of the time. Because this electricity can’t be stored (as yet), one major issue is whether electricity generated by turbines will be available exactly when there is demand for it. Health Link, a US-based pro-environment research group, says that wind must blow between a “somewhat limiting” 16mph and 60mph for power generation.
No: The BWEA puts a far more positive spin on this, stating that technology has moved on considerably in the last three decades and a modern wind turbine produces electricity 70-85% of the time but generates different outputs depending on the wind speed.
Therefore, “over the course of a year, it will typically generate about 30% of the theoretical maximum output, but this does mean that a modern wind turbine will generate enough to meet the electricity demands of more than a thousand homes over the course of a year”.
The pro-wind power lobby claims turbines start producing power at 10mph (a light breeze) and hit optimum production at 33mph, which is a stiff breeze. According to ScottishPower, a recent study has shown that in Scotland our stronger, more energy-producing winds coincide with our times of highest demand in the winter and during the day.
EVEN IF BRITAIN MAKES FULL USE OF WIND POWER, WILL WE STILL NEED OTHER ENERGY BACK-UP?
Yes: With ageing conventional power plants set to be closed in the “fairly near” future, the UK will need to replace this energy with another reliant source. While wind power is part of the solution, Black explains wind power can only be seen as a “supplementary” form of energy.
The best scenario, he claims, would be a combination of smaller, community-based wind turbines, and other renewables such as biogas, biomass, groundsource heat, solar heating, plus a further reliance on hydro electricity.
BWEA agrees that all forms of power generation require back up and no energy technology can be relied upon 100%. But “the UK’s transmission system already operates with enough back-up to manage the instantaneous loss of a large power station”.
ISN’T WIND POWER VERY EXPENSIVE?
Yes: If the cost is so competitive, say the anti groups, then why does the industry need to be so heavily subsidised by the government?
No: Wind energy producers respond that up-front infrastructure costs are expensive.
The BWEA claim that the cost of wind power has fallen dramatically. It references the 2003 study, The Economics of Wind Energy: “Between 1990 and 2002, world wind energy capacity doubled every three years and with every doubling, prices fell by 15 per cent.” It adds: “The average cost of generating electricity from onshore wind is now around 3-4p per kilowatt hour, competitive with new coal (2.5-4.5p) and cheaper than new nuclear (4-7p).”
WIND FARMS ARE UGLY AND UNPOPULAR, AREN’T THEY?
Yes: Many people are concerned about the impact on the landscape and wild areas. Cameron McNeish, the mountaineer and broadcaster, says: “Big turbines are a blot on the landscape. They spoil completely wild places.” Country Guardian make their views clear: “Large 400ft turbines are a gross visual intrusion.”
No: BWEA cites various studies that “regularly show that most people find turbines an interesting feature of the landscape”. It adds: “On average, 80% of the public support wind energy.”
More subtle questions asked by a Rural Community Gateway poll in 2005 found that 18% agreed with the current policy of large onshore wind turbines, regardless of size, while 67% preferred smaller community ventures, offshore, or alternative measures.
IS TOURISM AFFECTED BY WIND FARMS?
Yes: Countryside groups claim that because windy places are often beautiful places, then the siting of a wind farm will change the natural attraction of our countryside.
No: There have been no full-scale studies into tourism and wind farms but Chris Stone, a senior lecturer in tourism at Manchester Metropolitan University, has carried out years of his own research and believes that “wind farms do not have any real measurable effect on tourism”. He adds: “In some cases, wind farms themselves have even created tourism as people come to visit the sites.”
DO WIND FARMS HARM PROPERTY PRICES?
Yes: According to a survey by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (2003): “Results suggest that wind farm development reduces property values to some extent at planning stage. Reasons include concerns of the visual impact after completion, the fear of blight and the proximity of residential property to a wind farm development.”
No: The same survey reported that the “negative impact of wind farms on property values appears to decline over time. This may suggest that the impact lessens as wind farms become a more established part of the rural landscape”.
In addition, a survey carried out near the Novar wind farm, situated north of Inverness, reported: “In regard to house prices, almost three in four (72%) say the wind farm has had no effect, with a further 26% saying don’t know’.
“None of the respondents say house prices have decreased as a result of the wind farm. Indeed, 1% say house prices have increased a little because of the wind farm.”
DO WIND FARMS KILL BIRDS?
Yes: Bellamy claims wind farms have killed thousands of birds. Evidence from the US and Spain confirms that poorly sited farms can cause problems through disturbance, habitat loss and damage or collision with turbines. The RSPB, which supports wind power, says it objects only when there is “insufficient information about the risks to birds and their habitats to conclude that there will not be a problem”.
No: It’s all to do with the site. The RSPB’s view is that “appropriately sited” wind farms do not pose a significant problem. HealthLink says turbines have become larger and have a slower rotation, so birds have a greater chance of flying past, while ScottishPower claims that, at their Black Law site, “bird activity has increased”.
AREN’T WIND FARMS TOO NOISY?
Yes: The anti-wind farm lobbyists want everyone to stand below a turbine and listen to the “thumping” sound. Black also states that the noise travel will depend on the wind direction. He adds: “Another alleged issue is subsonic thumping, which could affect wildlife.”
No: The evolution of wind farm technology over the past decade has rendered mechanical noise from turbines almost undetectable, states the BWEA, with the main sound being that of the blades passing the tower. There are guidelines on wind turbines and noise emissions to ensure the protection of residential amenity.
ScottishPower claims that “passing traffic generates far more noise around households than a wind farm, as they are sited far enough away from housing that they aren’t a nuisance”.
By Fiona Russell
5 January 2008
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