Environmental Issues

What’s So Wrong With Wind Turbines?

Wind turbines

Whenever new wind turbine projects are proposed, at least in the UK, there seems to be very strong public opposition.  Personally I find this rather strange.

After all, many of the people protesting are environmentally aware, and concerned about clean sources of energy that do not damage our world and the species in it.

We Need Energy

Let’s face it – we need energy.  We all use a lot of it.  Almost every aspect of modern life depends on it. Very few of us could even survive without it.

Whichever way we choose to produce this energy there are going to be costs – this is an unavoidable fact.  We all know that burning fossil fuels has already done immense harm to our environment.  The extent of this harm is not yet fully understood, but I suspect it is underestimated by many.

Nuclear power can provide a very large, reliable supply of energy, but it is feared by many.  With good reason.   If, heaven forbid, something does go wrong the consequences are extremely serious for a wide area and for a long time.  And then there is the waste issue.  And the potential terrorist threat.

Speaking of terrorist threats, any very large, central source of energy is always going to be vulnerable.  And not just to terrorism, but to malfunctions, environmental disasters, supply issues, etc.

So surely it makes more sense to have a disseminated network of smaller energy sources.  Then if a problem puts one source out of action, the consequences are not so drastic – there are many alternatives.

And if you are going to have a large network of sources, each making a small but valuable contribution, wind , along with solar, wave, tidal, biofuel, etc., has an important role to play.

At least here in the UK, the weather is frequently windy.



So What are the Objections?

I have heard many objections.  Here are a few of the common ones, though I am sure there are many more.

Wind Turbines Spoil the Landscape

This seems to be one of the major objections.  Wind turbines are, by necessity, usually situated in open countryside on high land.  They can therefore be seen for a long distance around, and many feel they spoil the view.

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Though perhaps not everybody feels that way.  I think they are quite majestic and beautiful – like modern sculptures whose appearance changes with the light and weather conditions.   I would love to look out on a view like the one above. The first thing I would do each day would be to look how fast they were turning to judge how windy it was.

Would you rather look at a power station?  Or a motorway?  Or urban sprawl?  Many of us have far less interesting and attractive views than the one above.

industry

Wind Turbines Only Work When it is Windy

This is of course true.  The day I took the photo above it was calm, and only two of the five turbines were turning.

But technology is improving all the time, and what is needed is reliable energy storage.  Then during the times when more electricity is being produced than is needed, it can be stored for later use.  The same applies to solar – obviously this produces energy during daylight hours, but household use is higher in the evenings.

Many companies are currently working on this issue, and storage technology will improve drastically within the coming years, ensuring that energy can be available when it is needed, not just when it is produced.

Wind Turbines are Noisy

Some people who live very close to turbines have complained about the constant ‘whooshing’ noise as the blades turn.  I can understand that this is annoying and stressful for someone who has lived in the countryside for a long time and been used to hearing only birds and sheep.

But it is surprising how we adapt.  Very many more people live near major motorways, railway lines, flight paths, and in city centres – often by choice.

Wind Turbines Kill Birds

As a biologist and bird lover, this one particularly interests me.  There is no doubt that some birds (and bats) are killed by turbines.  It is impossible to get definitive figures as to how many – studies and reports vary.  But as an example, a study published in 2013 estimated that the number of birds killed by turbines in a year in the USA was between 20,000 and 570,000.

That’s a lot of birds – right?

But the report included (among others) the following estimated figures for causes of bird deaths:

  • Communication towers (e.g for phones)                 4—50 million
  • Fossil fuel power plants                                              14 million
  • Road kills                                                                        50—100 million
  • Agriculture and pesticides                                         130 million
  • Hunting                                                                          100—120 million
  • Power lines                                                                    175 million
  • Buildings and windows                                               350—950 million
  • Domestic and feral cats                                               210—3500 million

Yes – you read that correctly – cats kill up to 3500 million birds each year in the US.  The number in the UK has been estimated to be around 55 million.

I wonder how many of the people protesting on these grounds own a cat.

I am sure they all have windows, drive a vehicle and use a mobile phone.  You get the gist.

Of course these figures are only estimates, but even if they are very significantly wrong, the number of birds killed by wind turbines is tiny compared to other man-made causes.

As with all technologies, we learn as we go along.  Much can be done to site wind farms away from migration routes and make them highly visible to birds to minimise tragic deaths.

And lets not forget that the birds also learn – a study in Lincolnshire showed that pink footed geese changed their migration route slightly to avoid a wind farm.  Let’s not underestimate them.

The RSPB supports wind farms because the threat to birds from habitat loss caused by climate change is very much greater than the threat caused by the turbines.  In fact they have a turbine of their own.



The Contribution from Wind Turbines is Very Small

Perhaps this is because we haven’t really embraced them?  I see far more turbines when driving in other countries.

And nobody is suggesting that they will supply all, or even most, of our energy needs.  The point is to have many different ways of producing energy, each contributing in its own way and helping to prevent over-reliance on any one source.

Wind farm

We Need to Get Real

As I mentioned above, we need energy.

If we don’t want to keep burning fossil fuels, and we don’t want to build lots of nuclear power stations, and we don’t want to rely too heavily on vulnerable supplies from faraway countries, then we need to embrace the opportunities that are available to us.

Surely we should be putting our efforts into making wind power (and other renewable technologies) as efficient, reliable and environmentally friendly as we possibly can.

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