The Earth Times Asks: Should We Embrace Wind Power?

By David Hewitt - 06 Feb 2012 11:32:34 GMT
The Earth Times Asks: Should We Embrace Wind Power?

Wind farm turbines in Cornwall, UK via Shutterstock

Continuing The Earth Times' series of debates on the hottest topics in the fields of the environment and conservation, we explore the arguments for and against wind power. Tackling the issue are Jonathan Pyke and Mark Duchamp.

Jonathan Pyke is the coordinator of Action for Renewables, which campaigns for the expansion of renewable energy in the UK. It works with the public, the energy industry and environmental campaigners at both the local and the national level. For more information, visit the Action for Renewables website or follow its latest news on Twitter: @Act4Renewables.

Mark Duchamp is the executive director of the European Platform Against Windfarms (EPAW), which works to question the effectiveness of wind farms as a tool for solving a range of environmental problems. Mark is also the president of Save the Eagles International and serves as the chairman of the World Council for Nature (WCFN).

Q: Under the European Union climate change targets, around a third of all the UK's electricity will have to come from renewable sources. What role can wind power play in achieving this?

Jonathan: Wind is contributing over 6GW of energy already. Out of all renewable technologies it's the one we've got the most experience in, so the bulk of generation is going to come from on and offshore wind. But there's also a big role for solar photovoltaics, biogas and tidal generation too, as those technologies establish themselves.

The EU climate change targets are crucial, but this is also about increasing the security of energy generation as well as the cheapest and most technologically developed renewable energy source. In terms of cost, onshore wind is competitive with coal and gas, and with a quarter of the UK's coal stations shutting down over the next five years, we will need to replace that generation. Many people suggest we should ignore wind in favour of nuclear, which vastly overestimates how quickly new power stations can be built. A few years ago, early estimates suggested that the next generation of nuclear power stations, like Bradley and Hinkley Point, could be online by 2018; but now it's unlikely they'll be up and running before 2025. Wind can be deployed considerably faster, helping us plug that gap with something more sustainable.

Mark: There are no studies showing that wind farms achieve measurable savings in fuel imports or CO2 emissions. But there are at least five reports that demonstrate the opposite to be true: no savings at all, and some even suggest wind farms may increase the use of fossil fuels. The latest report on that is from Civitas. I refer you to our press release.

Q: How accurate is the argument that wind turbines have to be 'backed-up' by alternative sources of power, eg nuclear or coal, due to the irregularity of wind?

Jonathan: It's not accurate and I think it stems from a misunderstanding about what wind energy is for. It's better to think of wind as the back-up for gas, allowing us to make much better use of our existing fossil fuel power plants than relying on gas alone. There's no need to burn gas when the wind is blowing, which National Grid can predict extremely accurately. So comparing it to nuclear or coal is misleading because wind serves a different purpose; every time it blows there's a substantial decrease in carbon emissions, volatile fossil fuel costs, water for cooling, manufacturing and pollution. The 'back-up' argument just isn't valid.

Mark: It is not an argument, it is a fact. In Spain, the government paid over 1 billion euros in 2010 to compensate gas fired power plants for the losses incurred in backing up wind farms. An explanation of the intermittency/back-up problem can be seen here.

Q: Is opposition to wind farms mainly about 'Nimbyism'? Should, as Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour Party in the UK, said, opposition to wind farms be a 'social taboo'?

Jonathan: I'm not keen on the 'Nimby' expression because people object to wind farms for all sorts of reasons. A lot of the time it stems from not being given the opportunity to talk it through over time, as well as not having access to properly sourced and peer reviewed information, especially when it comes to health impacts. Developers are doing these things but there's always room for more and the most successful wind farms are often the ones where a really committed sustained effort has been made to understand and respond to people's objections. There will always be a small vocal minority against any change or development, but stamping down on dialogue and objections rules out any opportunity to engage with a community. Increasingly, however, a small core is political and ideological. There are people who don't believe the global scientific consensus that as humans we are contributing to the change in our climate, therefore we shouldn't green up our energy sources. In this case, while I don't think it should be a social taboo, if you're prepared to ignore the overwhelming majority of peer-reviewed and agreed science as some kind of greenwash conspiracy theory then I'm not convinced that should be taken seriously as a reasoned platform for decision-making.

Mark: I am not a nimby, there is no wind farm, existing or planned, within 20 km of where I live. I started to fight wind farms ten years ago, when I discovered they were killing scores of golden eagles yearly at Altamont Pass, California. This being said, I defend Nimbyism. As Terrence Blacker said an article in The Independent: "The truth is that the values a nimby defends were, until very recently, those which most environmentally-minded people would support." Additionally, research carried out at the University of Barcelona found that local protesters often address issues of bad planning that are ignored or discounted by authorities or developers. This study found that Nimbys could prevent the destruction of rural amenities and often work against public policy which defends private interests.

Q: Is there a difference between a good wind farm and a bad wind farm?

Jonathan: I think they're improving, which means yes. There's a high profile wind farm in the States called Altamont, which was built in the early 80's. It happened to be in the migration path of a number of eagle species, and each year there have been very high numbers of dead or injured birds. That's an example of a bad wind farm! The flip side of that is that the experience made sure that rigorous environmental regulations were put in place and modern farms are sited in places that won't disturb birds or other animals, and I'm pleased to say nothing like that has happened in the UK. The industry is always striving to improve siting to make sure that wind farms are in the best possible place for all concerned. In the case of birds, the RSBP is a supporter of renewable technology, including wind, so if they see a potential problem, it's taken seriously. But if wind energy really was that damaging to birds, why would the RSBP support it?

Mark: The onus is on governments to prove that there are "good wind farms" that help save on fossil fuel imports and on pollution. They haven't even attempted to do it, and for good reason: nowhere on earth have wind farms been shown to cut down on either. See why in my second answer.

Q: To what extent should local communities be given a say in wind power? Or should the issue of wind farms be pushed through by central government?

Jonathan: Absolutely not. Again, I think a lot of the opposition to wind power, especially in local communities comes from a feeling that things are out of their control, that they don't have all the facts, and people don't react well to that, but as I said before, the wind farms that have had the easiest development, and the best relationship with their neighbours are the ones where the developers have really spoken to and worked with local people right from the start. And some of the most exciting projects have been community-owned schemes, where local people actually own one or more of the turbines. In Fintry in Scotland they've used the community benefit scheme to save over £600 on each annual bill by installing energy efficiency schemes in over three quarters of the homes in the village. But it does need leadership from Government, and clear demonstrations that they are committed to supporting the wind industry and renewables more broadly.

Mark: First, governments should do their homework (see my first reply). Then, a nationwide public debate should be engaged (that is how democracy should work). In the meantime, a moratorium should be called.

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