September 11, 2010
Massachusetts, Opinions

Wind farms: not so green

By Eli B Martin, The Harvard Crimson, 10 September 2010

At first—or even second and third—glance, wind farms appear to be an optimal solution to our growing climate and energy crisis. They produce entirely domestic, self-sufficient power, they are frequently built in underemployed, rural areas, and they emit not a drop of pollution. It would seem as though the target of producing 20 percent of our electricity from wind energy by 2030 should be only the starting point. And yet, wind energy is not as perfect as it might appear; a closer inspection reveals that it does not meaningfully reduce our reliance on non-renewable energy sources. As such, we must be very careful in considering how to best pursue a push toward “green” electricity.

The question of efficiency is critical to any informed discussion of wind energy. Wind turbines produce less energy than their “maximum capacity” rating would have us believe. Due to the fluctuation of wind currents—not exactly a novel discovery—turbines actually produce around 26.9 percent of the energy they could in theory generate. This is known as their “capacity factor.” By contrast, conventional power plants tend to have a capacity factor of 40 to 80 percent. This has one obvious ramification: Wind farms are less efficient and cost-effective than non-renewable sources of energy.

Although this conclusion is hardly shocking, the unpredictability of wind power presents a much more serious problem. Because wind power can never be completely reliable, we will always need other, more reliable forms of energy to serve as a backup for “wind reliant” buildings and infrastructure. According to Eon Netz, a grid manager in Germany and subsidiary of E.ON energy, the amount of backup power required for wind energy stands at around 80 percent, roughly in line with wind’s aforementioned capacity factor. This means that wind energy will actually sustain, not replace, our reliance on non-renewables and even lead to further proliferation of conventional power plants. Indeed, as the world increasingly becomes reliant on gas as opposed to coal and oil, the ability to turn gas supply ‘on and off’ at will complement perfectly the exponential use of wind energy, which cannot be stored for later use. Promoters of wind energy estimate that the backup power issue will not become serious until wind energy accounts for 20 percent of our electricity, yet this is precisely what many in the U.S. are aiming for right now. Of course, the capacity factor of wind energy will likely improve over time with advances in technology, but due to its reliance on wind currents, a scenario in which turbines are ever able to rival the reliability of a coal plant is hard to envisage. If we are, indeed, so desperate to become a green economy, then wind power is not a viable solution right now.

Aside from the problems with wind energy’s output, wind farms frequently end up being a blight on nature. Many farms are situated in remote and rural areas. In the United Kingdom, one of the world’s most aggressive pioneers in this field, major wind farms are disproportionately found in the countryside. More specifically, an unfortunate correlation appears to be developing between the positioning of sites and their proximity to national parks or official “scenic areas.” Northern and eastern England, Wales, and Scotland, all of which contain some of the most wild and picturesque scenery in Europe, are all home to a large number of wind farms. This is no accident: Scotland is easily the “windiest” place in Europe. Its Highlands, where many wind farms are either already built or being proposed right now, have a population density of eight inhabitants per square kilometer. By contrast, the south and Midlands of the U.K. (two areas which help make England the most crowded country in Europe) are practically bereft of wind farms. A wind turbine is also no laughing matter; industrial models are over 300-feet high and cause not only serious noise pollution but also damage to both the surrounding terrain and wildlife (including birds).

Fervent environmentalists are good at laughing off such complaints as trivial compared to the need to reduce our use of destructive fossil fuels. But this objection actually cuts to the heart of the issue of why we invest in wind energy. If our intent is to protect nature and the environment for future generations, then building massive turbines in some of the truly unspoiled areas left in the world makes little sense. In short, wind farms mar beautiful places but, as we have seen, do little to actually help save nature in the long run.

This is not to suggest that we turn our backs on wind power. Clearly, the technology of turbines will improve over time. But until the capacity factor of turbines comes closer to rivalling that of conventional power plants, we ought to seriously consider putting their proliferation on ice. Until then, they really won’t do much to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Meanwhile, governments must do everything they can to hinder the spread of wind turbines to remote areas, where local people are either motivated to make a huge profit by having the turbines erected on their own land or mistakenly hope to reduce their fuel bills. Above all, wind energy is far from the sole renewable. While solar energy enjoys similar capacity factor issues, other sources, such as hydropower, biofuels, and even clean coal, remain viable, less obtrusive, and potentially more efficient forms of clean power. Wind farms are simply not what they are cracked up to be.

Eli B. Martin ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Lowell House.

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