Facts about wind power

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Frequently asked questions

Can windfarms reduce CO2 emissions? Marginally. Developers and the British Wind Energy Association claim 0.86 tonnes of CO2 saved for every megawatt hour of electricity generated by wind. DEFRA, BERR (DTI), Ofgem, the Carbon Trust, and Government do not accept this and use a figure of 0.43 t/MWh. The Government press release on the recently approved Fullabrook Down wind farm used a figure of 0.37t/MWh – consistent with that employed by the Sustainable Development Commission (2005). The use of the figure 0.43t/MWh for calculating the lifetime savings of a wind farm is supported by the Advertising Standards Authority. The ASA has upheld several complaints from the public against developers for providing misleading information to the public. These exaggerated claims represent serious mis-selling by the wind industry.

Wind turbines do not generate in light or very strong winds. True. Below 8-10 mph wind speed they do not generate and cut out for safety reasons above 56 mph. Maximum generation is reached around 30 mph. 75% of UK winds are below 18mph. Thus onshore turbines usually produce only 18 to 26% of their potential electricity (called the ‘load factor’) depending on the site. The figure for offshore sites is only marginally better despite early optimistic statements to the contrary.

Wind farms only produce power for 25% of the time. False. They generate some power for 70-75% of the time but just a trickle when wind is less than 18mph.

Wind is free but extracting energy from it is not. True. The electricity produced cannot be stored and feeding it into the national grid is complex and costly – a bill ultimately paid by the consumer.

Do wind farms need back-up? Yes. Coal or gas-fired power stations maintain uninterrupted supplies of electricity when there is little wind. So any savings in CO2 emissions by using wind energy are significantly reduced by power stations running inefficiently on standby – a problem that will increase sharply as the wind carpet increases.

Surely the wind is always blowing somewhere in the UK? False. Detailed studies by Oswald Consulting Ltd (Dec. 2006) comparing Met. Office wind data with the actual electricity generated showed that there are significant periods when the whole of the UK is essentially becalmed – especially os in very cold weather. So too many wind farms means power cuts unless there is back-up.
Can’t wind replace nuclear? No. Nuclear power stations produce constant power (known as ‘base-load’) essential for our Western life-style for 24/7 all the year round. Wind is an unreliable ‘bit player’ on the energy scene. It would take 1,500 wind turbines spread over 20 km2 to produce the same electricity as a 1,000 megawatt nuclear power station – even then it could not provide base load.

Turbine lifespan is 20-25 years. False. This is claimed by developers but many are replaced after just 9-12 years (called repowering) with yet larger turbines. Gearboxes are their Achilles heel.

Isn’t wind heavily subsidised? Yes. The Government devised a system called the Renewables Obligation under which a megawatt of electricity from wind earns the developer from two to three times the sum of ‘conventional’ electricity. The public pays unknowingly for this in its bills. According to Ofgem this cost customers over £1.2 billion in 2009/10 adding to domestic and industry costs.

Wind power, the environment and health

• Wind farms are often sited on uplands which contain some of England’s last tracts of wilderness greatly valued by wildlife and people. Such areas are a major breeding, over-wintering or migration area for birds, including declining species such as the Hen Harrier, Merlin, Skylark and Lapwing. These will be directly threatened by inappropriately sited wind farms.

• In 2001 Government gave greater protection to Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs). So it is perverse to allow windfarms in or adjacent to AONBs or National Parks. English Heritage and The Council for National Parks emphasise the importance of the ‘setting’ of such landscapes.

• Modern turbines requires a base of at least 1000 tons of reinforced concrete and steel, plus the materials needed for service roads. They can often pay back the CO2 this releases in 6-18 months. However, on peat-rich sites pay-back is years due to CO2 release due to drying out and oxidation after drainage ditches are cut. This reduces yet further any wind farm contribution to climate change.

• There is now a growing body of evidence that audible and ‘infrasound’ emitted by wind turbines (frequencies of 20 cycles per second or less, below the lowest note on a piano) can cause stress-related illness. Currently, Environmental Health and Planning Officers have to rely on an outdated 1997 report (ETSU-R97) and are ill-equipped to measure normal sound emissions and infrasound levels. Wind farm noise affects some people much more than others.

Energy Saving and Efficiency

UK electricity usage has grown steadily at 1.5% a year since 1990 but has slowed in the recession. By 2020 it is expected to increase by another 15%. Wind power cannot satisfy this growth let alone reduce overall usage. Worldwide, demand for electricity is expected to double by 2050.

Can CO2 emissions from electricity generation be reduced? – Yes, by using less, through incentives for increased efficiency, more investment in energy saving technology, the development of other ‘green’ energy generating systems (tidal, wave, solar, hydro, biomass, heat pumps), or investing in nuclear power stations which produce almost no CO2. ‘Clean coal’, where CO2 is captured and stored instead of entering the atmosphere, may become a reality in the medium term, but is unproven.

A recent upgrade to the Building Regulations made far too little attempt to increase the energy efficiency of new houses – of which 3 million are planned by 2020.

• If every home reduced its electricity use by 10% the CO2 saved would be about 8.4 million tonnes per year. The Carbon Trust Business Action Plan (Jan. 2nd 2008) could save 11 million tonnes of CO2 a year. These two actions would save 20 million tonnes of CO2 - over twice the Government’s annual target (9.2 million tonnes) for 2010 - and no wind farms would be needed at all.

Alternative renewables have long-term potential but remain a well short of full development and deployment. Domestic micro-generation in which each household or locality has its own renewable electricity supply may well play a role – supported as required by the National Grid.

Government Policy

Only recently has the Government begun to develop a “joined-up” energy policy linking fossil, nuclear and renewable sources. It is placing undue reliance on natural gas imports from unstable countries now that the UK’s gas is running out. Existing nuclear and coal-fired power stations are approaching decommissioning. The new nuclear building programme just announced could greatly reduce the need for intrusive and divisive wind farms.

• To encourage private investment the Government has manipulated local planning procedures and is now seeking to allow the use of Compulsory Purchase Orders to gain access to wind farm sites.

Economic Issues

Tourism accounts for £1.3 billion (18%) of Cumbria’s GDP and 30,000 jobs. A DTI (BERR) Small Business Council report (2006) estimates that wind farms in tourist areas are likely to reduce visitor numbers by up to 15%. A high price to pay for a poor return.

Don’t wind farms create jobs? No. Studies from Spain and the UK show that whilst there may be some local jobs in the 6-18 month construction phase, there is a net loss of jobs at a rate of 2 to 3 for every ‘green’ job created. Maintenance generates about 2 jobs for every 10 turbines,

• Sweden, Spain, The Netherlands have reduced wind subsidies. Norway didn’t provide any. Germany realises that wind power is a “bottomless subsidy pit”. Wind works in Denmark ONLY because it has power lines to Sweden, Norway and Germany for grid balancing – not so in the UK.

• The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (March 2003) found that 60% of their members reported a 5 to 50% fall in property prices in a windfarm area depending on type of property, proximity and visual impact. Some recovery in prices was reported after a few years.
Wind power is one of the most costly methods by which to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, as pointed out by the Government’s Audit Commission, 180 times as costly as nuclear power.

Issued by FELLS ©.