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Common concerns about wind power

by Dave Elliott

Wind power is expanding in the UK, offshore especially (now at 5.8GW), but also on land, with 11.4GW installed so far despite the government’s block on Contracts for Difference (CfD) support for on-shore projects, and occasional objections on the grounds of adverse local impacts. So it is good to see the second updated edition of an excellent well-researched study of local impacts and issues from the Centre for Sustainable Energy, with evidence-based analysis drawing on peer-reviewed and publicly-funded studies covering all the aspects in some detail.

The overall message is clear – most of the objections are overblown, some are just based on myths or dubious data, although not all are. For example, the CSE study says we should treat perceptions of noise nuisance seriously, since some people are more sensitive, and ‘it is evident that residents who feel wind developments are forced upon their local setting will judge any subsequent noise accordingly’. Visual intrusion is more complex – it’s a subjective issue. While national polls have indicated overwhelming support for on-shore wind projects (typically 74%), that can fall when it comes to nearby projects. Even so, in a YouGov poll, only 24% said they would be unhappy living near an onshore wind farm, falling to 17% for a community-owned wind farm. Nevertheless, local minorities can react strongly to some projects.

Leaving that aside, most of the other common ‘impact’ issues are dispatched relatively easily: ‘The evidence overwhelmingly supports the view that wind turbines do not cause house prices in the surrounding area to fall’ and ‘the theory that infrasound from wind turbines might be causing real, physiological effects on nearby residents has so far failed to produce any empirical evidence or, indeed, even a plausible mechanism’.  The report also notes that ‘wind energy enjoys one of the lowest [human] fatality rates per GWy of any energy source, considerably lower than that for fossil fuel’. But it takes ecosystem and wildlife impacts seriously, although it notes that ‘birds colliding with building windows and the predations of domestic and feral cats are the leading causes of avian mortality due to human activity, and both far exceed anything caused by wind turbines’. However, sensitive siting is clearly important to reduce impacts as much as possible. Flicker and radar issues are also looked at – they can, it says, both be dealt with via siting and/or ameliorative measures.

In terms of operational and economic issues, in some cases the CSE report seems quite conservative and dated. For example, it says ‘contrary to popular belief, wind power does not need ‘one-for-one’ back up to allow for its intermittency – indeed, the fraction of reserve capacity needed is under one third of the installed wind capacity’.  That’s fair enough, but not all this capacity has to be ‘reserve’ fossil plants. As many recent studies have shown, there are other backup/balancing options including storage, other renewables, smart grid demand management and supergrid imports, balanced by exports of surpluses.

The report also has some quite low estimates for Energy Return on Energy Invested – put at between 18:1 and 20:1. Some studies put it much higher, at up to 80:1. But either way, that’s better than nuclear, at maybe 15:1. Some fossil fuels can do better, but when non-energy material resources are included in an assessment of total emissions, wind comes out best, with lifetime greenhouse gas emissions of 5–10% of those from fossil fuels.

In terms of operational efficiency, the CSE report says that wind turbines in the UK ‘typically produce electricity for 80% of the time or more, and only experience downtime for 3% or less of their operational lifetime. The periods of highest average capacity factors (38%– 44%) tend to coincide with times of peak electricity demand. This means that a large percentage of demand during peak times can be met with a low-margin cost source of renewable electricity through wind’. That’s fine for onshore wind, but it could have been noted that offshore wind capacity factors now seem to be headed for 50% or even more.

Wind plants at any location do, however, cost something to build, and to back up, and the report is quite cautious about the long term economics, assuming that subsidies will continue to be needed. That is not clear – the subsidies are there for the moment in part to reflect the fact that fossil fuels do not pay their full environmental cost. If they did, and also did not get subsidies themselves, then less subsidy would be needed to make wind (and other renewables) competitive. In fact though, some wind projects are now said to be competitive in some locations without subsidy, in part due to falling technology costs, so, even taking backup costs into account (now put at maybe an extra 10%), this CSE view seems dated: ‘As renewable electricity generation increases, subsidies will form a greater proportion of consumers’ energy bills, although this cost will still be outstripped by increasing fossil fuel costs. Since renewable energy expansion goes hand-in-hand with national strategies to reduce household energy demand, the small increase in bills due to renewable subsidies will be offset by lower energy consumption’. That’s the government’s line, though CSE also says ‘it is unlikely that future reductions in energy consumption will be able to compensate in a similar fashion for future increases in fossil fuel prices’.  However, it adds ‘as wind power comes to replace significant amounts of conventional generation, the wider external costs of conventional energy that society bears at present will lessen’. So we get there in the end!

The CSE report does not have any overall conclusions on wind power, but in a chapter  comparing wind with nuclear power it says  The flexible, modular approach that wind power and other renewables offer means that technology and policy can be fine-tuned or redirected as the situation requires, without entrenching UK energy sector in a costly and potentially risky enterprise that would draw on resources for years to come and saddle future generations with intractable problems they did not ask for. Time is running out before CO2 levels in the atmosphere reach a limit that will make it difficult to recover from, but this threat should not be tackled by exchanging one hazard for another’. It is hard to disagree, with, as the report shows, the direct and indirect costs of wind being mostly very low and overall pretty clearly being far lower than those for nuclear. The report is free on-line.

The focus of the CSE report is mainly on land-based wind, which is timely given that there have been indications (from Climate Change Minister Claire Perry) that the government might relent (at least slightly) on its opposition to providing support for on-shore wind, so that some might be available, ‘particularly for areas of the UK that want to deploy it’, though presumably not in the Tory shires!

Offshore wind, by contrast, has been strongly supported by the government. The CSE report looks briefly at it, noting its generally low impacts. Wind farms far offshore certainly don’t have visual intrusion issues.  However, there have of late been suggestions that offshore wind may be killing whales. One report even claimed that the sheer loudness of the turbines can also maim and kill fish’. Here’s a balanced assessment. Interestingly, it’s proving relatively easy to decommission off-shore wind farms when the plants reach the end of their useful life. That can hardy be said of nuclear plants. And this is interesting too – offshore wind projects can enhance the local ecosystem.

With costs falling and impacts generally low, the case for wind, both on and offshore, is clearly strong and, in terms of dealing with its variability, system balancing benefits can be obtained if power outputs come from projects covering wider geographical areas, e.g. Europe-wide. See my next post.

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