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Wind turbines debate

Alison Hill, Alison Hill

1st March, 2004

Do wind turbines provide an affordable means of harnessing a limitless source of clean power, or are they inefficient blots on the landscape that devastate birdlife and are more likely to exacerbate than reduce CO2 emissions?

Alison Hill, head of communications for the British Wind Energy Association, the trade and professional body for the UK wind industry vs. Alison Hill, vice-chairperson of Country Guardian, the conservation organisation opposed to commercial wind farms

Dear Ann,

We live in an age where we have a greater understanding than ever before that the effects of the way we generate our electricity represent a clear and present threat to our environment and to us. We’re also at a point in history in which we see ourselves moving from the luxury of having almost too much energy to a situation in which we are less certain about our future sources. Wind energy offers a solution to both these crises. Wind power in the UK generates electricity at some of the lowest prices in Europe from a fuel that will never run out and which has a capacity that is equivalent to several times our total electricity needs.

Not only that, wind power brings with it many benefits – both environmental and economic. Every unit of electricity generated from a wind turbine displaces one that would otherwise be generated from fossil fuels, and thus prevents the emission of several greenhouse gases.

Economically, wind energy brings employment and local renewal and could herald the emergence of Britain as a leading player in the green industrial revolution. Change, however, can be traumatic, and wind energy (like all renewables) represents a big change – not just in how this country will be powered, but also in the landscape. Wind power, as with all new developments, has its critics. If there’s one criticism that can be levelled against wind turbines it is that you can see them, and some people don’t care to look at them. But change is not only desirable; in this case it is necessary. We have to make decisions now about where our energy is to come from in the future. Producing no harmful emissions or waste products, wind energy is a cheap and clean source of power, abundant to our island nation and available now. What would you choose?

Dear Alison,

In 1999 the leaders of Britain’s major conservation organisations were among a delegation received by the then environment minister Michael Meacher. The delegation included representatives of the National Trust, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales, the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland, the Council for National Parks and the Ramblers’ Association.

These bodies were representing (and continue to do so) an enormous number of people concerned about our countryside and the spread of giant turbines on our most protected hillsides. Village halls throughout the country have been packed with residents appalled at the prospect of industrial development on nearby hills.

From Romney Marsh in Kent to Blackmoor Vale and Bears Down in the southwest, throughout Wales and Scotland, East Anglia and the north, there is united opposition to most wind-turbine planning applications. The amount of power generated by wind turbines is infinitesimal in relation to the demand for electricity.

There are around 1,030 turbines in the UK. They generate, on average, an aggregate of just 180 megawatts. The winter demand for power is around 50,000 megawatts. How can this puff of power satisfy the demands of an industrial nation dependent on a constant and reliable source of energy? The Royal Academy of Engineering recently confirmed that wind power requires back-up in the form of conventional power stations operating on continuous standby so as to fill the gap in supply when there is no wind. The academy offered evidence suggesting that if enough wind energy were to go into the grid and the coal-fired stations were ‘turned down’, the latter would be operating below their designed output and their CO2 emissions would increase.This view has also been supported by articles in the Danish press and by the German utility RWE.

Dear Ann,

You’ve fallen into a very common trap: namely, disparaging wind turbines for not providing a complete solution to this country’s increasing demand for electricity. Their real role is as part of the power portfolio: securing an indigenous supply, one free from the threats of acts of God, rising prices or the whimsy of foreign nations.

This very point was made by Meacher, who said: ‘Many attitudes are coloured by misunderstandings. Renewable schemes are, by their nature, smaller than conventional power stations, but we must not fall into the trap of dismissing them on the grounds that an individual scheme can only supply a tiny fraction of UK energy needs.’

Viewing projects in the local rather than national context provides far more meaningful and relevant statistics. In Swaffham, in Norfolk, for example, the output of a single turbine meets the needs of 3,000 people – half the town’s residents. Nor is it accurate to talk of united opposition to most planning applications for wind energy.

There are, of course, those who vigorously oppose turbines, and, all too often, their voices drown out those of wind energy supporters. This is, perhaps, best evidenced by the 16 people who write 25 per cent of all letters decrying wind energy that are published in the press. The results of dozens of surveys, often of the people best qualified to make an informed judgement (i.e., those living near existing wind farms), show a consistently high level of support for turbines: on average eight out of 10 people.

How then can this dichotomy be explained, other than as a fallacy engendered by media coverage? Discontent, after all sells. Content is rarely deemed worthy of column inches.

Dear Alison,

It is difficult to follow the argument that industrial-sized blots on the landscape can be justified by a power source that generates ‘a tiny fraction of UK energy needs’, particularly as the government is pushing wind power on the grounds that it will achieve substantial reductions in CO2 emissions. According to the meter at the base of the single turbine referred to at Swaffham, that turbine generates electricity at 30 per cent of its installed capacity.

The claim that it generates sufficient power for 3,000 people is disingenuous. This figure only refers to domestic consumption, which accounts for only around a third of total demand. Two thirds of consumption is by schools, public buildings and industry. The supply generated by turbines is unpredictable and can cause havoc with the system. This has been highlighted in Denmark.

Electrical power must balance unmet demand at every second of the day. If balance is not achieved there is either an automatic disconnection of supply (to prevent physical damage to generating plant) or blackouts. A conventional plant has to be on standby at all times. These power stations are designed to operate at a certain level of output; if they run below or above that level they generate, like cars, more CO2.

This defeats the purported object of wind turbines. If asked, planning officers will confirm that whenever there is a planning application they receive hundreds of letters of objection from people living near proposed sites. Week after week, correspondence in the local press opposes the despoliation of this country’s uplands by ugly machinery. At present the spotlight is on Devon, where a local GP has publicised the way low-frequency noise has caused sleeplessness and headaches for people living around the Bears Down Wind Farm.

Dear Ann,

Why split hairs over just what fraction of UK electricity supply wind power can meet? The whole ethos of renewables and energy efficiency is that ‘every bit counts’ in the fight against climate change. Nor is any power technology 100 per cent efficient. The operational capacity of wind turbines is similar to that of coal-fired plants – with the bonus, which you seem to forget, that the fuel is free and will never run out. Agreed, wind does not blow all the time; but no more constant are this country’s demand for electricity and the supply of the fuel that meets that demand. Until wind power provides 20 per cent of the UK energy supply, the National Grid is on record as saying that wind’s intermittence will have no effect on the supply of the power it generates. A conventional plant is always needed on standby, to cope with the possible failure of conventional large generators. The need to ‘back up’ additionally for wind is modest in comparison, while the extra emissions generated pale into insignificance against the overall savings. Extensive investigations have shown that low-frequency noise from wind turbines is well below the accepted thresholds of perception, even on wind-farm sites themselves. However, the British Wind Energy Association is taking recent claims about noise pollution seriously and has reconvened its Noise Working Group. No one seems able to provide either the evidence that led to your GP’s report or the report itself. In the meantime, it is worth noting that there are over 50,000 wind turbines around the world, some of which have been in place for 20 years, and that there are no other documented cases of wind-farm-related noise-pollution illness.

Dear Alison,

The wind industry appears to be alone in believing that climate change can be affected by wind turbines. Professor Michael Laughton, a visiting professor at Imperial College London’s Department of Environmental Science and Technology, said: ‘Both short- and long-term intermittent thermal plant operation in response to demand and market conditions lead to increased part-loading and the ramping up and down of existing generating sets that were not designed for such operations. ‘…Such modes of operation are inefficient, and give rise to increased carbon dioxide emissions per unit of electrical output. Industry sources already claim that increased emissions due to intermittent operation arising from the introduction of [the new pricing agreement] the NETA more than cancel out the gains from renewable energy.’ Not my words, but the reality. The government has said it wants 20 per cent of Britain’s energy to be generated by renewables by 2020. To meet this target, professor Ian Fells, chairman of Northumberland’s New and Renewable Centre, says that we would have to install 20 two-megawatt wind turbines a week for the next 16 years. Where would they go? Turbines are located in the windiest of locations, which are landscapes that attract tourists. Parts of Wales, Scotland, Cumbria and Cornwall are already blighted by them. In a survey carried out by the Scottish tourism organisation VisitScotland, a quarter of visitors said they would be put off returning to areas by wind turbines. When the television programme BBC Countryfile[itals] conducted a survey of over 35,000 people, 55 per cent said they would not want a turbine near them. And a district judge ordered previous owners of a house near Askam in Cumbria to pay compensation to the couple they sold the property to because they had not mentioned that a wind farm was about to be built in the neighbourhood. The judge ruled that the value of the property had been significantly diminished by the construction of the wind farm. Are these not hairs worth splitting?

Dear Ann,

Misrepresentations are the biggest challenge facing the renewables industry. Yes, part-loading a plant does result in increased emissions from reduced efficiency – to the tune of 1 per cent when wind provides 20 per cent of power. Yes, the NETA has severely affected the operation of power plants, mothballing some 4,500 megawatts of thermal-fired capacity and making it too expensive for many nuclear installations to generate. But to blame wind power for the failings of the market system is really stretching the point. If wind power alone was used to achieve the government’s target that 20 per cent of UK electricity comes from renewables by 2020, it would require the installation of some seven and a half turbines per week; the vast majority would be deployed offshore. The VistScotland study interviewed a self-selected sample of 180 people. By contrast, a Mori survey secured almost twice as many responses in an area where wind farms co-exist with high-quality landscape. Of those surveyed, 91 per cent said wind farms made no difference to their recreational experience. There were twice as many people who said they would be more likely to return than those who said they would stay away because of wind turbines. The BBC Countryfile vote is hardly surprising, given the extremely prejudicial programme that preceded it. One house, near one wind farm, is not a trend. For every professor Laughton or Fells, there are many more people whose testimony shows that wind power can deliver a cleaner future. But the findings of select committees and special inquiries are never quoted by wind-farm opponents, quite simply because they do not say what the critics of turbines want to hear. Whose evidence will hold the necessary weight?

Dear Alison,

'Electricity generated from wind power is expensive, and the government’s Renewables Obligation, Climate Change Levy and Renewable Obligation Certificates are adding to the costs that consumers must pay for their energy. These mean consumers have to pay an extra 5.13 pence per unit for the proportion of their power that the government says must be sourced from renewables; that's more than twice the wholesale price of the electricity to which they are added.' British Gas wrote to one customer saying that the government’s Renewables Obligation meant it had to significantly increase its purchase of renewable electricity, which costs around two and a half times as much as ordinary wholesale electricity. This is the current price. What is to come? No doubt, the wind industry will say that the additional costs are worthwhile; they are certainly not cheap. Major concerns about the ‘security and stability of the power system’ in Ireland led to the Irish electricity regulator taking emergency measures to reduce the amount of wind power going into the country’s grid. Acting upon advice from the UK’s National Grid, the regulator has stopped new wind farms connecting to the Irish system. Like the UK, Ireland is not in the fortunate position of being able to ask for back-up from neighbouring countries. A recent report commissioned by the British government said it could cost over £1billion to upgrade the national grid to cope with wind power in England and Wales by 2010. Who is going to pay for this? Evidence of large numbers of birds killed by turbines in California and Spain is also emerging. A lawsuit is seeking redress for the illegal killing of thousands of eagles, owls and other raptors. The Observer reported in January that a red kite has been mutilated by a turbine in Wales, and the proposal to build hundreds of turbines on the Isle of Lewis is experiencing huge opposition because of the threat to birds. There is also growing concern about the number of bats that are being killed. How many animals have to be sacrificed before this carnage is stopped? Dear Ann, The Renewables Obligation and the Climate Change Levy do add to the cost of electricity, but they will allow renewables to compete over time. Cars, mobile phones and computers were all expensive when first introduced, but are now not just affordable, but viewed as necessities by many people. As we approach 2010 the price of Renewable Obligation Certificates will drop as more renewably generated electricity becomes available. Meanwhile, as generation costs for conventional technologies have been increasing with rising fuel costs, wind has been steadily decreasing in price. It is already cheaper than nuclear, is in some cases competitive with coal and it is on track to match gas. The national grid is old and many UK power plants are well beyond their due retirement age. Britain needs ‘rewiring’, irrespective of the need to accommodate wind and other renewables. Maintaining and augmenting the system, as well as accommodating new capacity – whatever and wherever it is – will cost money. As electricity is undoubtedly a national need, why shouldn’t the costs be socialised, with all playing a part in paying for them – just as happened with the original system? Several lifetimes could be spent rebutting the erroneous statements, misrepresentations and general distortion of facts that are the speciality of wind farm opponents. This ‘he said, she said’ over details misses the bigger picture: cleaning up our act and moving towards renewables is not an option to be debated; it is an obligation under EU and UK legislation and this country’s Kyoto Protocol commitments, as well as a basic social responsibility. We cannot continue to generate electricity in the way that we have. Why not work together to make the change to renewables happen in the best possible way for the benefit of all? What price can be put on securing an electricity supply that won’t cost the earth? Dear Alison, The wind may be free, but the cost of harnessing it is not: not only in financial terms, but because of the effect that turbines up to 400 feet high have on the lives of people living nearby. Why would most of the principal conservation organisations oppose them if the amount of electricity generated was significant? Why do local authorities reduce the community charge for people living in the footprint of turbines? Why do estate agents all over the country tell homeowners that wind farms will reduce the value of their homes? Owners of pubs, bed-and-breakfast establishments, and walking and riding organisations all oppose planning applications for wind farms because of their negative effects on tourism. The anxiety that local people suffer during the often extended period of time it takes for wind-farm planning applications to be determined is inexcusable. Wherever there is a new proposal it attracts opposition. It is not a question of ‘misrepresentation’. We have all seen the effects of turbines on the tranquillity and peace of hillsides. No longer can you sit on Plymlimon in the Cambrian Mountains, enjoying the isolation and listening to the skylarks. To walk or ride byways through turbine sites on windy days is terrifying, the vast blades flailing and thumping as they rotate. Generally, people are reasonable. If wind-farm technology produced a substantial amount of electricity they might accept it, but distinguished scientists and engineers responsible for running wind systems in Denmark and Germany all say output is insignificant. We are being used as part of an experiment that has failed. What price is put on the quality of life and the livelihoods of those of us who have to live with wind farms?

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2004


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