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Debunking the myths: Countering the Common Objections Levelled at Wind Turbines

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  • We've all heard, and probablybelieved, an urban myth or two."The average person swallowseight spiders a year." "Anti-hair loss products actuallywork." But what about themyths circulating the globeconcerning wind power?Wind turbines are absurdlyexpensive. They're not veryefficient. They harm localcommunities. The problemwith myths is that peoplerarely question them - theystart off as good stories andget passed along. The publicaccepts them as true becausethey could be true - theysound about right, so theydon't question further. Butwhat happens when you real-ly look into these problems -when you actually start to find out howmuch truth there is to these rumours? Wevecollated four key myths about wind energyand consulted experts for their views onwhether there is any truth behind them.

    Myth 1 Intermittency and inefficiency Due to issues such as intermittency, windenergy is just not that efficient, claimdetractors. We've all heard the arguments:

    the need for back-up power plants won'tonly be costly, it will cancel out any emis-sions savings the windfarm might have

    afforded in the first place. The UK EnergyResearch Centre has done some extensiveinvestigation into this one. It brought out anew report at the beginning of April whichhas already been hailed by the British WindEnergy Association (BWEA) as putting the"final nail" in the myth that intermittencywill prevent wind from being integrated intothe UK's National Grid in large quantities.The most comprehensive assessment onintermittency ever undertaken, its basic

    message is that intermittency need not pres-ent a "significant obstacle" to the develop-ment of renewable sources. It states: "None

    of the 200+ studies reviewedsuggest that introducing sig-nificant levels of intermittentrenewable energy generationon to the British electricitysystem must lead to reducedreliability of electricity sup-ply." It adds that full back-upfor individual renewablesources is not necessary -what extra capacity is neededto secure supplies will be"modest and a small part ofthe total cost of renewables".While the output of fossilfuel plant will need to beadjusted more often to copewith fluctuations in windoutput, the resulting losses

    will be "small" compared to the overall sav-ings in emissions.

    So why does this belief persist? DavidMilborrow, technical consultant to BWEA,suggests that the intermittency argument isa "psuedo-technical" one used by opponentsof wind. "In a nutshell, they don't acknowl-edge the vast amount of work that has beendone on this topic." Pointing out that suchreports are often international collabora-

    40 reFOCUS May/June 2006 1471 0846/06 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

    Wind energy

    Despite the large and growing support for wind turbines inmany countries, myths surrounding wind turbines do still remainin the media and public domain in some regions (for example, inthe UK in particular) with negative comments about their visualimpact, intermittency problems, and harm to wildlife amongother objections. Alice Ross takes a closer look at some of thecommonly quoted myths and whether they hold any water...

    DEBUNKING THEMYTHSCountering the Common Objections Levelled at Wind Turbines

    Wind farms ugly? Many say the consequences of climate change are far uglier

  • May/June 2006 reFOCUS 41

    Wind energy

    tions, done by third parties, he explains:"The enemies of wind are not arguing withthe protagonists for wind, they are oftenarguing with neutral bodies like transmissionsystem operators and utilities and highlyrespectable consultancies who have looked atthese issues." But the view that intermitten-cy is in fact a technical problem persists, hesays, precisely because it is so easy to under-stand. "My guess is that this simplisticnotion that what happens when the windstops blowing - oh gosh there'll be a need forvast amounts of back up - appeals to a non-technical public. So my guess is that's whythey tend to latch onto this issue."

    Myth 2 Wind power is unreasonably expensive The UKERC report has something to say onthis as well. It found that if wind power wasto supply 20% of Britain's electricity, inter-mittency costs would be 0.5 - 0.8p per kilo-watt an hour (p/kWh) of wind output,which comprises 0.2-0.3 p/kWh from short-run balancing costs and 0.3-0.5 p/kWh fromthe cost of maintaining a higher system mar-gin. These costs shared between all electrici-ty consumers in the UK would amount tobetween just 0.1 and 0.15 p/kWh each.With domestic electricity tariffs of between10 - 16p p/kWh, this means intermittencywould account for just 1% of total electrici-ty costs. Not so huge after all.

    Commenting on the EU-wide situation,EWEA CEO Christian Kjaer is keen to stressthe huge developments over the last twodecades. "At a given site, a single modernwind turbine annually produces 180 timesmore electricity and at less than half the costper kWh than its equivalent twenty yearsago," he explains. This means that the powerproduction costs of wind-generated electrici-ty have fallen steadily as the technology hasdeveloped. In addition, Mr Kjaer warns thatthe time is "fast approaching" when far moreelectricity capacity in the EU will have to bebuilt. Thus far, it has been cheaper for theconsumer to, for example, put more coal intoan existing plant that has already been paidfor by the taxpayer, than to commission awhole new windfarm. But by 2030, the totalnew build requirement in Europe will be 761GW. That's more than the entire European

    power capacity in existence today. And thisin turn will have an impact on wind energy'scost effectiveness. Once it is no longer meas-ured against the cost of adding to an existingpower plant, the question will be whether itis more expensive to build a new conven-tional power plant or to build a windfarm.Developers are finding that a new windfarmmay well be cheaper. As an example Kjaercites Canadian firm Hydro-Quebec, whichhas contracted with wind developers toinstall 1,000 MW of wind power until 2012at an average tariff of Eurocents 4.08 /kWhover a 20-year lifetime. Because this sumcovers not only the costs of investments,operation and maintenance, but also the riskpremium for the developer, overall the costsof the turbine installation and maintenanceshould be well below the Eurocents 4/ kWhin fixed 2007 prices at other Canadian sites.He explains: "With the current fuel prices,that would be difficult to achieve with any

    other generating technology, and the fuelprice risk of the conventional alternativewould be significantly higher."

    Myth 3 Windfarms kill birds Daniel Pullan, windfarm expert at the RoyalSociety for the Protection of Birds (RSPB),offered some comments on the often quotedbird-kill issue. "From the evidence, from sci-

    entific research and monitoring of wind-farms over the last 20 years, the lesson fromthat is that if windfarms are put in the rightplace, they're not necessarily a problem forbirds at all," he explains. "We're very carefulonly to oppose those windfarms which wefeel could be potentially problematic forbirds. I think there are a lot of cases whereit's not an appropriate argument to run."This is a view backed up by internationalsurveys. The 2004 EWEA FACTS reportestimates that 33,000 birds are killed annual-ly by wind turbines operating in the US, anaverage of 2.2 fatalities for each of the15,000 turbines. In Spain, a study showed0.13 dead birds per year per turbine.Compare this to between 100 million and1,000 million birds that are estimated to dieeach year from colliding with vehicles, build-ings, and other structures, with wind powerresponsible for 1 out of every 5,000 - 10,000avian fatalities, and it's easy to see the relativeimpact is low.

    Myth 4 Windfarms ruin local communities This argument tends to take the form that byvirtue of being a visual blot on the landscape,not to mention the noise, tourists will bedeterred and the local economy harmed. Butwhat has been found is that resistance tendsto be highest in communities when propos-als are made, and lowest once the windfarmsare actually built. A team led by Dr CharlesWarren at St Andrews University uncoveredthis "reverse-Nimbyism" effect, wherebylocals found that they had believed the mythsof windfarms only until they saw the reality.For there is no evidence to suggest it harmstourism. An oft-cited 2002 MORI pollfound that 91% of visitors to a windfarmarea in Scotland said that the windfarmswould have no impact on their decisionwhether or not to return. Noise is one of themost common misunderstandings. AlisonHill, Head of Communications at BWEA,spoke of the organisation's work explainingwind energy to the public, taking peoplearound the country to visit windfarms forthemselves. "Without fail, jaws would dropwhen they got off the bus. "I thought theywere meant to be noisy." That is possibly themost common thing our organisation hasheard." She adds, "If the windfarm has beenwell designed and developed following

    Research suggests there is no evidence that windfarms have a negative impact ontourism

  • BWEA's guidelines, the only realreason to object to it is for theway it looks. And as I've heardmany people say, the conse-quences of climate change andenergy insecurity are far uglier."

    The Campaign to Protect RuralEngland's website says that it is infavour of wind energy in theory,but that "the visual impact oflarge wind turbines can be a formof pollution which damages thelandscape". If only someone hadargued this about the MilleniumDome. And this is often preciselythe point - people don't bother tocomplain about buildings they seeas inevitable, like skyscrapers, butwind turbines, because relativelynovel, are still seen as avoidable.But if we all accept their necessity,and their value in society, we willcome to value the way they lookas well.