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Dossier: Wind power

  • Written by  Mark Rowe
  • Published in Energy
A wind turbine is shrouded in early-morning mist at Whitemoor in Cambridgeshire. The £1million turbine produces electricity for 4,000 homes A wind turbine is shrouded in early-morning mist at Whitemoor in Cambridgeshire. The £1million turbine produces electricity for 4,000 homes Shutterstock
18 Apr
With 1,200 wind turbines due to be built in the UK this year, Mark Rowe explores the continuing controversy surrounding wind power and discusses the extent to which it can supply our future energy needs

Thanks to Raymond Briggs and his mournful post-nuclear tale, ‘when the wind blows’ was once a phrase with a rather sinister connotation. Today, for many people anxious about climate change, it’s an echo of hope, suggesting that the answer to our fossil fuel addiction may – in part, at least – be blowing in the wind.

Can things really be that straightforward? The scientific research generally backs the case for wind energy – few papers exist that definitively kick it into the long grass. But it can be a difficult – and heated – knot to unpick. As the independent Bristol-based Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE) concludes in its own objective SWOT analysis of the issue, ‘casual assertions that unambiguously state wind power is good or bad without any supporting evidence should be judged accordingly… the reality is frequently more complicated than that’.

This tension was neatly illustrated late last year when UK wind generation hit a record 4.2 gigawatts (GW) at the same time as a political row broke out. The new energy minister, the Conservative John Hayes, marked his own card by announcing that the countryside was ‘peppered’ with turbines and that ‘enough was enough’, prompting a swift rebuke from his Liberal Democrat boss, Ed Davey, the energy and climate secretary.




We’ve come a long way since the UK’s first commercial wind farm was built in Delabole, Cornwall, in 1991. According to the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), in 2010, onshore wind supplied 7.1 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity in 2010, or 28 per cent of all renewable electricity output and just under two per cent of the total electricity generated in the UK; offshore wind provided 3TWh.

By 2020, Renewable UK, the industry body, reckons that wind power alone will displace more than 50 million tonnes of carbon – a third of the UK’s current annual carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation, and ten per cent of the UK’s total CO2 emissions for all forms of energy. The latest capacity for onshore wind is 5.6GW; for offshore wind, it’s 2.7GW, enough to power 4.6 million homes.

All of this puts the UK eighth on the global league table for wind-energy capacity. ‘Wind provides an escape route from our dependency on expensive, polluting imports of fossil fuels from unstable regimes abroad, which we can’t control either in terms of cost or in terms of security of supply,’ says John Lang, a spokesman for Renewable UK. ‘The more wind we harvest, the more we can escape the fossil fuel hook.’

The latest turbine census shows 352 onshore wind projects and 3,570 turbines, with hundreds more planned; offshore wind currently has 796 turbines spread across 18 projects. That’s a lot of turbines. And for a number of people, enough – as Hayes said – really does mean enough. The UK may be criss-crossed with pylons, and dotted with the carbuncles of gas, coal and nuclear power stations, but it’s wind turbines that really get people’s backs up.

The village of Llanfynydd, in south Wales, temporarily changed its name in protest against a 30-turbine wind farm. The new name Llanhyfryddawellehynafolybarcudprindanfygythiadtrienusyllafnauole – briefly became the longest place name in Wales. Translated, it means ‘a quiet beautiful village, a historic place with rare kite under threat from wretched blades’.

Wind farms are positioned in the white heat of battle – they’ve somehow become the epitome of the political, economic, social and industrial interests that are shaping our faltering attempts to tackle climate change in any meaningful way.



Even the green lobby has some sympathy for those who view wind farms as blots on the landscape. ‘Visual intrusion is the one objection to wind power that is genuine and isn’t going to go away,’ says Mike Birkin, wind energy campaigner for Friends of the Earth. ‘The noise of objectors is out of proportion to their number, but that isn’t to say that they don’t have a point and that there aren’t better places to put [the turbines].’

The debate appears to be particularly acute in Scotland, with anti-wind protest in the Borders, Ayrshire, the Highlands, Caithness and Aberdeenshire. The Griffin wind farm north of Perth became operational last year, generating enough power to supply 80,000 homes, but prompted critics to lament its position ‘in the centre of a golden triangle of superlative scenery’.

‘There’s a feeding frenzy in Scotland; it’s far worse than in England,’ says Linda Holt, a spokeswoman for Scotland Against Spin. ‘The planning system is far more permissive. There need to be clear no-go areas but we don’t have any at the moment.’

Last year, a Scottish government study found that the 50-year negative impact of turbines on the country’s economy could be anything between £1million and £169million, which, far from resolving the issue, leaves all options on the table, including a net benefit for sectors such as tourism.

‘There’s a rural–urban split,’ says Holt. ‘If you live in the city and see turbines in pictures or drive past them, you might buy into arguments about them being green, clean and aesthetic. But they are very dominant and intrusive to live near. The shadow flicker is terrible.’

Scientists concede that there’s little chance of overcoming this issue. ‘The visual intrusion of onshore wind will hamper its development in the UK; there’s a limit to how much can be built in the countryside,’ acknowledges Dr Robert Gross, director of the Centre for Energy Technology at Imperial College London, even though, he adds, ‘the opinions [on wind energy’s shortcomings] that we tend to hear in the newspapers aren’t particularly aligned with the reality of the situation.’



Opponents of wind farms don’t just cite visual or environmental impacts. ‘We are very critical of the industry and its current policies,’ says Dr John Constable, director of the Renewable Energy Foundation. ‘The difficulties and costs of deploying wind farms at scale have been underplayed.’


The biggest disagreements centre on the cost of wind energy, with prices rising by 20 per cent since 2008 due to rising overheads for key raw materials. According to data from DECC, onshore wind energy costs about 15 per cent more than gas, while the cost of offshore wind is currently half as much again.

‘Offshore wind has turned out to be much more expensive than we thought,’ says Gross. ‘But in the long term, I’m optimistic that by 2030, we would have found innovative, more efficient ways of doing offshore wind, perhaps with the development of deepwater turbines.’

Subsidies are another issue that truly rankles with critics, even if they can tie statisticians up in knots. ‘The subsidies are very real and very large; they are highly uneconomic,’ Constable asserts. ‘In the UK, subsidies amount to around 40 per cent of the income for onshore wind and between 66 and 70 per cent for offshore wind.’

Yet the CSE is emphatic that evidence doesn’t show subsidies propping up the wind energy industry, pointing to research carried out by the University of Sydney’s School of Physics. By and large, the study found, subsidies have funded research and development, as well as the significant capital needed to bring emerging technologies to the market. However, many researchers say that we must also factor in ‘externalities’ – the wider social, environmental and economic costs associated with energy production, such as pollution, fuel spills, accidents, health costs and climate change. ‘Where the industry responsible doesn’t fully cover these externalities, it’s effectively subsidised by society through taxation,’ says the CSE. According to the CSE’s own research, these could double or triple the true cost of coal and oil.



So just how does wind stand up against competing energy sources? The Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science looked at the sources’ levellised costs, which take into account investment, fuel, operation and maintenance costs, and relate them to total energy supply over the economic life of a power plant. Under this definition, the levellised cost of onshore wind was comparable with that of gas and nuclear power, and cheaper than that of coal and all other forms of renewable energy.

As for our fuel bills, the UK government’s independent Committee on Climate Change calculates that by 2020, renewables will add about £110 a year to them; yet the committee pointed out that while annual energy bills rose from £605 per household in 2004 to £1,060 in 2010, the vast majority of the increase (£290) was caused by an increase in the wholesale price of gas. Around £75 (16 per cent) was due to clean-energy costs.

A large amount of political distortion goes on around this,’ says Birkin.

According to the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) and the International Energy Agency, the global annual subsidy for fossil fuels is US$640billion; for renewables the price tag is just US$65billion, a large chunk of which props up the corn-based ethanol industry in the USA. Figures for nuclear are more difficult to tease out because, as GWEC secretary general Steve Sawyer points out, state governments assume unlimited liability for nuclear plants. ‘When people see the bald numbers for wind energy it’s difficult to convey these nuances,’ he says. ‘Subsidies for conventional energy are so deeply embedded in tax codes that they are difficult to pinpoint, while the subsidies to wind energy are on the front pages of the newspapers.’



The other 12-bore shotgun levelled at wind energy is efficiency. When the wind drops, turbines stop spinning; when it blows too hard – more than 130km/h – they stop spinning again. 

Critics frequently argue that wind farms are only active 30 per cent of the time. 

But according to the CSE, facts and terms get confused. The 30 per cent figure, it points out, is based on the load factor – the actual output measured over a period of time, divided by what could have been produced had the generator run continuously at peak capacity over the same period. By comparison, conventional power stations run with an average load factor of 50–55 per cent. In reality, the data suggest that wind farms generate electricity around 80–85 per cent of the time.

Intermittency is, perhaps, what the critics really mean – when the wind drops, the country will still require energy, a shortcoming that raises the possibility that any benefits of clean energy are negated by the need to keep conventional fossil fuels bubbling away as a back up. ‘If the UK needs about 60 gigawatts of power and the country is pushing for 30 gigawatts to come from wind, that doesn’t mean we only need 30 gigawatts of conventional power,’ says Constable. ‘You still need 60 gigawatts to guarantee supply at peak times. That imposes a cost on the consumer.’

‘Intermittency is not a deal breaker,’ counters Maddy Gunn, a wind policy officer at the CSE. ‘We see the results on the ground. It isn’t such an issue. It works.’

In reality, it seems that intermittency is unlikely to be a major issue for wind farms – as long as wind is judiciously rolled out as part of a wider mix of renewables and linked to beefed-up electricity interconnections across Europe. A WWF-UK report, Positive Energy, argued that a greater interconnection between the UK and Europe could reduce the amount of gas back-up plants required in the UK by up to half.

‘Wind farms can’t do all the things that gas-fired power stations can,’ says Gross. ‘Gas can be quite flexible and respond to demand situations. But the significance of the fluctuation issue for wind is exaggerated by the antis. Wind is such a small proportion of our supply that we can cope with it being variable. At the moment, it’s of little consequence.

‘But if we are talking about a much more significant role for renewables then we run into problems,’ he continues. ‘According to government targets, by the 2020s, wind may account for up to 30 per cent of electricity. At that level, we would see impacts. You would have to pay for power stations to start up at short notice to cover the vagaries of wind.’



An emerging issue – and one that appears to have given a jolt to wind energy proponents – is the longevity of wind turbines. A study by the University of Edinburgh for the REF suggests that the load factor for UK onshore wind farms declined to around 15 per cent by age ten and to 11 per cent by age 15. The report conceded that the cause ‘cannot be fully assessed’ but that mechanical breakdowns and related power outages appear to be a contributory factor.

‘DECC has based its renewables projections on wind farms built in 2010 being operational and having the same pay load in 2025 – but they won’t. Investors are just waking up to this,’ says Constable. ‘Wind is a capital-intensive technology. It has a low load factor and a short lifetime.’

An eye-catching feature of the wind energy debate beyond the shores of the UK is that the economic case for wind is more widely agreed upon – although it’s fair to say that more authoritarian states have found it easier to impose their agenda. Globally, wind energy production has grown by 28 per cent, year on year, for the past 15 years.

‘The UK sees the most extreme examples of opposition,’ says Sawyer, who suggests that much of the world looks at the UK debate ‘as a peculiar, landed-gentry phenomenon. It’s not a rational situation.’

Across the planet, wind energy attracted €50billion in investment in 2011, according to the GWEC. The total installed capacity stands at 238GW; China is the market leader with 62.7GW, followed by the USA (46.9GW) and Germany (29MW). Brazil and Mexico are becoming key wind energy countries, too, according to the council. While Canada’s federal government has distanced itself from the debate over climate change, Quebec, British Columbia, Ontario and Alberta have unilaterally implemented wind energy schemes, sometimes in the same areas where tar sands projects are going on.



In the USA, support for wind energy is ostensibly split across party-political lines. ‘Republicans feel that the federal government is intervening in the markets,’ says Sawyer. ‘Mitt Romney and the Tea Party want “real” energy, not this boutique, namby-pamby European wind stuff, but the irony is that most of the wind is in Republican states.’

The result, Sawyer says, is that ‘Republican governors are fighting like crazy to get Republicans in Congress to support it’. US states in Republican heartlands, such as South Dakota and Iowa, produce more than 20 per cent of their electricity from wind; were Texas a country, it would be the world’s fifth-largest wind-energy producer.

‘Texas wind energy was kick-started by George W Bush,’ says Sawyer, ‘not because of climate change or air pollution, but because it made business sense.’

The example that advocates of wind energy often highlight is the Texan town of Sweetwater. ‘This was a place of dying ranches and tumbleweed,’ says Sawyer. ‘The only raw commodity is the wind, and income from that has built schools and hospitals. It just makes economic sense; rural development is critical.’

On a large – even a gargantuan – scale, wind energy can operate as an important tool for social control and development in countries such as China, where wind energy production surpassed nuclear last year. ‘The Chinese government is anxious to keep rural villagers from migrating to the cities,’ says Sawyer. ‘Jobs in wind energy can keep them in the countryside, and if it means clean energy so much the better.’ Plans are even afoot – triggered by Japan’s post-Fukushima pursuit of renewable energy – to embed wind energy in a futuristic-sounding East Asian super-grid, connecting green energy in China, Korea and Japan using submarine cables.



Under scenarios drawn up by the GWEC, wind energy could make up 23 per cent of global electricity by 2030, although Sawyer says that this depends on the world getting serious about climate change. ‘If that doesn’t happen, then, like the economy and everything else, our figures will go into a tailspin,’ he says.

If a less rosy picture does play out, plenty of critics will blame the wind and wider green movement. ‘I’m not optimistic, current policies have held green technology back by 20 years,’ says Constable, who is convinced many green advocates will come to be heavily criticised in posterity. ‘We could have achieved much more if we hadn’t been so prescriptive.’

The long-term view, he argues, is that the West must develop renewable energy that China buys into, as this is where the major future fossil fuel emissions lie. ‘We need to provide an economically compelling alternative to coal for the Chinese, and we’re not doing that by providing subsidies and rewarding failure.’

Constable stresses that he isn’t against renewables per se.

‘It’s a good idea to clean up the air, but the renewables of today simply aren’t up to the job,’ he says. ‘We have to be cold-hearted about it. The renewables of tomorrow might work. We might do it – we’re a smart people. With a judiciously pitched carbon tax, we might be able to provide an economically competitive alternative to coal.’

On a positive note, Gross feels that it’s within the ability of governments and international agencies to develop larger, cheaper turbines, and to resolve storage issues for electricity. ‘The cost of borrowing has never been lower and that provides the chance to invest in infrastructure,’ he says. ‘Low-carbon energy is all about assets; it’s expensive to build but it lasts a long time and doesn’t need much fuel.’

But, he warns, ‘more pessimistically, I worry that the desire to tackle climate change will wane and we’ll just return to business as usual – gas, unconventional oil and pretty disastrous consequences for the environment. It will depend on the battle of ideas that’s playing out on the political stage.


‘Renewable extremists aside, most energy experts take the view that it’s going to be difficult to do everything with renewables,’ he continues. ‘There isn’t an alternative application for us that isn’t a no-regrets option. Wind energy is intermittent and variable; if you go for nuclear, you expose yourself to being over budget, to delays and to something that is quite inflexible; if we ignore the environmental perspective, then gas is the most cost-effective technology around, but if we go for gas, we have no hope of meeting our carbon targets.’



Something that frequently gets overlooked in the debate over energy production is the notion that humans might reduce their energy consumption. The UK Committee on Climate Change argues that replacement of lights and appliances with the most efficient models could reduce electricity consumption by 19 per cent. The committee’s chairman, Lord Adair Turner, pointed out that ‘if we introduce new polices to stimulate energy efficiency improvement, then bills in 2020 could broadly be contained at current levels.’

As Sawyer puts it: ‘The easiest option is still to change the way we live; to use less. If someone could find a way to incentivise the efficiency argument, we would be well on our way.’

Even so, he feels that the range of possibilities is tantalising. ‘We’ve evidently moved on since the 1980s, when the only technological tool was biomass. The options now, including wind energy, are beyond our wildest dreams.’

Ultimately, Birkin suggests, it may come down to the nature of the blot you want on your landscape. ‘There’s a difference between the downside of wind farms – visual intrusion – and the downside of fossil fuels, which is catastrophic for humanity, wildlife and the planet,’ he argues. ‘With nuclear, you’re passing the problem down the line for future generations; with wind power, the legacy and impact is in your face – it’s now.’



A striking feature of wind farm schemes in Germany is that, according to Friends of the Earth, around 70 per cent of them are community owned. By 2004, Denmark had enrolled 150,000 Danish households in such schemes. Even though many Danish cooperatives have since closed due to the inefficiency of small wind turbines, plenty of people feel that community-led schemes may win around opponents in Britain.

‘Small-scale projects are particularly key to gaining acceptance,’ says Maddy Gunn of the Centre for Sustainable Energy. ‘People are more likely to accept one on their back doorstep if it’s community owned. It gets people’s backs up if developers use the local resource and the local community doesn’t get the benefit. If turbines are community-owned, then the benefits are more tangible – we’ve seen communities use income from wind generation to tackle local fuel poverty or plant an orchard.’

When two applications were submitted in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, the 86-metre-turbine proposal without any community links encountered hundreds of objections and was rejected; a 60-metre turbine funded by a green crowd-funding company in St Briavels and promising a community dividend of up to £20,000 a year was approved with just one objection.

‘In Germany and Denmark, the vast majority of projects are onshore and owned by locals, and they make money out of it,’ explains Sawyer. ‘If you were starting all over in the UK, you would have as many of the developments community owned as possible. A cheque at the end of the month takes the sting out of these things.’

Bird deaths caused by wind farms provide eye-catching images and ammunition for critics around the world. London mayor Boris Johnson has described them as ‘giant bird blenders’.
Last year, the Spanish Ornithological Society concluded that Spain’s 18,000 wind turbines might be killing anywhere between six million and 18 million birds and bats a year. Separately, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has estimated that almost half a million birds are killed each year in the USA. The most notorious location was Altamont Pass in California, where wind turbines are situated on ridgelines frequented by birds of prey, with the inevitable gruesome result.
The Royal Society of the Protection of Birds (RSPB), however, is supportive of wind energy and feels that the figures – even those from its Spanish sister organisation – are based on questionable data and conclusions. ‘Spain has some badly located wind farms, but we don’t think their figures were representative,’ says Dr Ivan Scrase, senior climate change policy officer at the RSPB.
Mitigation measures appear to work. In southern Portugal, where wind turbine arrays are located in a migratory path, a radar system detects the approach of large flocks of birds and switches the blades off.
Overall, however, the RSPB is sanguine about bird strikes. Looking at the wider picture, it believes that the loss of birds to the blades pales in comparison to the wider threats posed by climate change. ‘Our starting point is climate change and that we can’t tackle that without low-carbon energy,’ says Scrase.
‘We have to be upfront – turbines can kill birds and that can be upsetting,’ he continues. ‘But the impact is insignificant, and nothing compared to the damage that will be caused to birds and other wildlife by climate change. Provided that turbines are well located, bird strikes aren’t much of an issue – even though they’re widely cited by critics of wind farms.’

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