Industrial Wind Turbines are a polarizing topic – yesterday’s blog received a lot of feedback and discussions with friends make it clear people have strong opinions concerning this topic. I personally believe that it makes no sense whatsoever to tackle one environmental problem by creating another one, as is the case with Industrial Wind Turbines (IWTs).
It has become very obvious as well that a lot of misinformation and confusion exists regarding IWTs. Many people have expressed shock and disbelief when I express my reservations about their benefits. I feel therefore that it is important and useful to summarize some of the information upon which I have based my opinion.
Most of what is written here sumarrizes the information on physicist John Droz Jr.’s web site Wind Power Facts, The Problem with Wind by Eric Rosenbloom and Wind Concerns Ontario, an alliance of citizens’ groups concerned about the safety of IWTs.
Key Elements for Successful Energy Generation
There are six requirements for commercial energy generation that must be met in order for it to be successful. These elements have been used to evaluate the viability of potential sources of electrical generation since Edison first worked towards his dream of providing electric lighting to every household in America. I’m only going to discuss five of the six, as the sixth gets into grid demand elements (go here for that discussion).
1 – It must provide large amounts of electricity.
2 – The electricity generated must be reliable and predictable.
3 – It must be capable of responding to changes in demand.
4 – The generating facility must be compact.
5 – It must be economical.
Guess what? IWTs do not provide a single one of the requirements for successful energy generation. On the other hand hydroelectric, coal, nuclear, natural gas, and oil meet at least five of the six essential criteria.
Let’s go through the list as it pertains to IWTs:
1 – this is the one element that IWTs could satisfy theoretically, but does not from a practical standpoint. In order for wind farms to produce large amount of electricity, there would have to be SO MANY of them and they would cover such a large area that by comparison, a single nuclear or natural gas facility would have a much smaller overall environmental impact. There is also no way to economically store wind power for a calm day, so no matter how much you can generate today, the wind still has to meet demand tomorrow.
2 – IWTs cannot provide reliable and predictable energy because often the wind dies when we need it most. On hot summer days when there’s no wind you and all your neighbors turn on the AC. Wind can’t respond to the increase in demand that is directly related to its reduced output. As a result, a conventional electrical generating plant must remain on standby to avoid blackouts during times when the wind cannot meet demand. This requires that the conventional system is kept operating regardless of wind generation, with result that CO2 outputs continue, offsetting the benefits from wind energy generation.
3 – Due to its unpredictability discussed in item 2, wind can not be counted on to provide power on a human-defined schedule.
4 – IWTs need a thousand times the space needed by a conventional facility to produce the same amount of energy. Due to their height, they are highly visible over an area several thousand times greater than the visual impact from a conventional facility. Another “feature” of wind power is that most of the windiest sites (and available land) are a LONG way from where the electricity is needed. This results in thousands of miles of huge unsightly transmission towers and cables, at an enormous expense to consumers.
5 – If it is so economical, then why is wind energy generation throughout the world subsidized with taxpayers’ dollars? And why, after their installation to the grid, do ratepayers often see substantial increases in their electrical bills? Because in order for wind energy generation to be profitable, developers must increase rates and/or be subsidized. The cost of installation and maintenance on wind farms is astronomical!
But let’s say for the sake of argument that all of these limitations can be overcome in time…what are the other limitations and costs of wind generated energy?
Other Technological Considerations
Wind turbines’ generating capacity are typically overstated by the corporations promoting them. They typically only produce less than 25% of their stated maximum capacity. Furthermore, their generating capacities are significantly reduced by environmental conditions. In high winds, ironically, the turbines must be stopped because they are easily damaged. Build-up of dead bugs has been shown to halve the maximum power generated by a wind turbine, reducing the average power generated by 25% and more. Build-up of salt on off-shore turbine blades similarly has been shown to reduce the power generated by 20%-30%. In Northern climes, ice build up can damage the turbines and reduces their power generation significantly.
As has already been discussed, IWTs require a huge area to operate. That means that large open spaces that include mountain top ridges, prairies and the ocean are required fro their installation. These “farms” are industrial developments – they don’t just pop up over night. They require the construction of new roads for transportation of huge towers, generators and turbines to the site, materials including tens of thousands of pounds of cement and gravel, and high tension wire delivery systems,. The result is the permanent destruction of natural habitats.
Once commissioned, the turbines generate noise. Specifically, low frequency noise that has been demonstrated to adversely affect wildlife and human health. In humans, Wind Turbine Syndrome has been described as a constellation of symptoms including, but not limited to insomnia, nausea, vertigo, headaches, bloody noses and heart palpitations. People experiencing these symptoms often must escape from their homes to sleep elsewhere and regain their sanity. People exposed to low frequency noise from IWTs are abandoning their homes.
Go here for more on the science on the effects of low frequency noise on human health.
A 2002 study in Spain estimated that 11,200 birds of prey (many of them already endangered), 350,000 bats, and 3,000,000 small birds are killed each year by wind turbines and their power lines. In California alone, it is estimated that 10s of thousands of birds are killed annually by IWTs.
Unlike for birds, bat kills are not simply the result of collisions. In this case, the changes in air pressure caused by the turbine actually cause the bats’ lungs to hyper-expand, bursting all the tiny blood vessels found there. The animals drown in their own blood as a result. Bats are important pollinators and help keep insect populations in check. They are considered by many biologists to be a keystone species – one that the disappearance of which would cause the extinction of many more.
The bottom line is that wind turbines produce too little energy, too unpredictably, to offset carbon dioxide production by conventional energy generating systems. The environmental impact of their construction and operation negates any positive contribution they could have.
Put all the resources and energy that is being thrown at wind energy and use it to improve existing technologies that actually work and to support research into new and efficient renewable energy technologies.
See these links to get more indepth information on the effect of low frequency noise.