Contrary to mainstream belief, wind turbines are neither effective nor, in many cases, good for the environment.
Claims of wind power being pro-environment often do not consider the damaging effects these projects can have on wildlife and ecosystems, thus hiding the “true cost” of such initiatives.
Wind power projects can threaten birds that fly within their vicinity and trigger a decline in their population; it can harm marine life due to noise pollution, and affect the growth of plants in the region where it is located. Driven by subsidies granted by the federal government, the growth of wind projects has triggered concerns about the cumulative impacts they have on the environment.
There have been growing protests against wind power projects across the world. In the United States, people have opposed setting up wind turbines in Lake Erie due to concerns about the environmental impact of the project.
In New Jersey, protestors have asked to pause the development of an offshore wind farm which they claim has led to dolphins and whales washing ashore.
In Norway, climate activist Greta Thunberg has protested against a proposal to build two wind farms on the Sami reindeer grazing grounds. The Sami are the only indigenous people recognized within the EU and say that their tradition of herding reindeer will be put in danger due to the wind farms.
Danger to Birds and Whales
The blades of wind turbines can be fatal to birds. When the first commercial wind power plants were established in the United States, they had not considered the impact the project would have on birds and other flying creatures like bats. Not only are birds harmed by colliding with the wind blades but flying bats can be affected by changes in the air pressure resulting from blade rotations.
The proliferation of wind turbines is believed to pose a significant danger to the population of golden eagles which are already said to be in decline in certain regions.
An Associated Press analysis found that a significant number of eagles were dying while fewer criminal cases were being pursued—suggesting an intentional “trade-off” between bird deaths and implementing of clean power generation.
“They are rolling over backwards for wind companies,” said Mike Lockhart, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, according to the outlet. “I think they are killing a hell of a lot more eagles than they ever anticipated.”
Dozens of permits for wind projects that are either approved or pending are estimated to result in around 6,000 eagles getting killed off over multiple decades.
A 2013 paper estimated the mean bird annual deaths in the United States due to collision at wind facilities to be 234,000. With roughly 50,000 megawatts of installed capacity in the country, this comes to around 4.68 bird deaths per megawatt.
The Biden administration has set a target of deploying 30,000 megawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2030. At 4.68 bird deaths per megawatt, this could result in 140,000 additional birds dying annually.
The installation of wind turbines as well as the noise created by their operation can have a harmful effect on whales.
Last year, an official from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) warned against setting up wind projects off the coast of New England because it would threaten the population of right whales in the region.
In 2011, there were around 478 of these creatures, a number that came down to 350 in 2022. In January, Rep Jeff Van Drew (R-N.J.) demanded an end to offshore wind activity in New Jersey after an “unprecedented” number of whales washed ashore in the region.
Climatic and Environmental Changes
Wind projects alter the habitats where they are located, changing the vegetation and other landscape features of the region. Setting up a wind farm necessitates the creation of open spaces. Vast open spaces tend to raise the speed of wind. Such minute changes can result in an uptick in temperatures and a reduction in humidity levels.
Higher temperatures at night can cause plants to release more CO2 than usual. This carbon dioxide is essential for the growth of the plants. By releasing the CO2, plant growth can thus get affected. In farming areas where wind turbines are established, this could mean lower crop yields.
A 2018 study found that wind power can impact the climate by altering the atmospheric boundary layer. “We find that generating today’s US electricity demand with wind power would warm Continental US surface temperatures by 0.24 degrees Celsius,” it said.
Warming effect was found to be strongest at night, with the nighttime warming effect observed at 28 operational US wind farms.
A study from 2010 discovered that “impacts from wind turbines on surface meteorological conditions are likely to affect agricultural practices as well as communities living in residential area around the farms,” it said.
Neither Cheap Nor Reliable
In addition to the huge environmental costs, wind power is not as cheap as usually claimed. Wind power electricity is said to be cheaper than alternatives like coal and gas by usually citing a measurement known as the levelized costs of energy (LCOE).
However, LCOE does not tell the full story. It only calculates the cost of electricity generation when the power source is actually generating electricity. LCOE does not include all the costs involved in producing electricity 24×7 continuously, which is necessary for an electric grid to be reliable.
For instance, wind power plants do not generate electricity when windy conditions are absent or their power generation reduces when winds are slow.
In such situations, coal and gas-powered plants have to cover for the lack of output. Gas and coal power plants that are kept at stand-by tend to have higher operational costs than if they were to run 24×7. As such, these expenses have to be taken into consideration when calculating the true cost of wind power.
In a 2023 paper, Wade Allison, a mathematician and physicist at Oxford University, calculated the cost of wind power electricity generation at 100 percent efficiency. He found that if the wind blows at 10 meters per second (about 22 mph), the power generated comes to 600 watts per square meter.
As such, to deliver 3,200 million watts of electricity, the same output as Hinkley Point C, which is a planned zero-carbon nuclear power station in England, there would be a need for 5.5 million square meters of turbine swept area.
However, the actual performance of wind power is much worse since the calculations are based on 100 percent efficiency, he stated. The average wind efficiency of turbines is only between 35 to 45 percent. This means that wind power turbines, on average, can only convert 35 to 45 percent of the trapped kinetic energy to electricity.
“If the wind drops to half speed, the power available drops by a factor of 8. Almost worse, if the wind speed doubles, the power delivered goes up 8 times, and as a result the turbine has to be turned off for its own protection,” the paper states.
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