Wind Farms as a Blight on the Landscape

by Mark Duchamp 
Conservationist,  Calpe, Spain) 

Moving away from "dirty" energy-producing technologies into cleaner ones is a must, considering we are 6 billion consumers on this planet, poised to number 9 billion before the century is over. Several avenues are open to mankind, most of them leading to a better environment; but two would make things worse:

In the first category: -

1) More funds into R&D to accelerate the switch to the hydrogen economy. 
2) More funds to develop innovative ideas in the field of renewable energies
     (floating tidal generators, for example)
3) Switch from coal-burning power stations to "cleaner" gas-fired ones.
4) Move decisively into solar energy, developing roof tiles that would act as collectors. 
5) Put a high tax on conventional, wasteful electric bulbs, and bring down the price of energy-saving
     ones through mass buying by public administrations. Ditto for other appliances. 
6) Give the proper incentives for home and building insulation.
7) Tap geo-thermal energy where available, using it to mass-produce hydrogen
     (Iceland is already moving in that direction)
8) Promote combined-heat-and-power systems, to reduce energy waste. 
9) Favour distributed generation and demand-response programs 
    (see California Energy Plan, available upon request)

In the second category: 

1) Unleash forces that constitute a peril to all forms of life, like nuclear energy. 
2) Further impair what is left of the natural environment - wilderness, biodiversity, and agricultural
     landscapes - to produce small amounts of clean electricity backed-up by coal-burning power
     stations spinning in stand-by and emitting gases for nothing.
     I am talking about the deceivingly named wind "farms":

Here are the facts: One single combined-cycle gas-fired power plant of 1000 Mw capacity, relatively clean as to emission of greenhouse gases, and not built on pristine landscapes, normally and reliably produces 800 Mw at all times, day and night, year-round without interruption. To produce the same amount of electricity using wind turbines, which on a yearly basis work at 30% of their capacity due to the fluctuating nature of the wind, one would need:   3,555 wind turbines of 750 Kw capacity each, or 2,666 wind turbines of 1 Mw capacity each, or - 1,333 wind turbines of 2 Mw capacity each.

Any of these numbers - 3,555/2,666/1,333 - involves degrading considerable extensions of countryside with obtrusive 300 to 500 foot structures, their associated tension lines, their access roads, their irremovable rock-embedded concrete bases, their electric transformer sub-stations, etc. As a wind plant may include anywhere from 1 to 400 or more turbines, say 50 on average, we are talking about 71/53/26 plants, respectively - to produce the same amount of electricity as one single gas-burning plant wisely built in an industrial zone.  One being erected near Carcassonne, France, is 175 meters high.

So the first negative effect of using this renewable energy is to multiply the number of industrial plants by anywhere from 26 to 71 times. The second is to erect these industrial structures in heretofore-preserved landscapes, because wind turbines are normally established where the wind blows strongest: on highly-visible hill-tops, mountain slopes or shore lines. There, they stand to be seen from at least 20 miles around on a clear day. Meaning that a single wind plant has the potential of degrading the scenery of 1256 square miles (20 miles x 20 miles x 3.14 ). Multiply this by 26, 53, 71 plants and you may affect 32,000, 66,000 or 89,000 sq miles of countryside for an amount of electricity you could produce with a single conventional plant built out of sight. To compare this with something tangible: The UK covers an area of 94,251 sq miles.

But Downing Street wants to erect about 20,000 turbines by 2020, to produce 20% of British electricity. So we are talking about potentially spoiling 502,400 sq mi of countryside (1256 x 20,000/50), i.e. 5 times the size of the country. So, either wind plant density will have to be 5 times greater than my original premise, or each plant will have to include 5 times more turbines - or a combination of both. In whichever case, quality of life in the UK will be impaired for all: countryside residents, commuters, travellers, vacationers, seamen, and tourists alike.

The United States, Canada, Germany, Spain, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, among others, have similar plans. Two hundred years of careful land management segregating industrial zones from residential, agricultural and wilderness areas are being discarded everywhere, in the hype surrounding wind power. The face of the world is about to change forever.

All of this for zero benefits in terms of climate change. In a report released the 30th of August 2002 by the UK's Royal Academy of Engineering: -

"The Energy Review places great faith in wind energy and proposes installing 22,000 MW of turbine capacity by 2020. However, Met Office data shows that the country's wind record is not dependable ­ the most likely power output in real life is less than 7,000 MW. To ensure the supply it would have to be backed up by 16-19,000 MW of conventional generation plant, adding an extra £1 billion to the cost."

To back up wind-produced electricity it is indeed necessary to keep fossil-fuel power plants spinning in reserve, ready to produce electricity instantly when the wind drops - or blows too hard. (California learned that lesson at great cost - this explains their about-face regarding wind farms). But the stand-by mode is particularly inefficient in terms of gas emissions; and much like automobiles idling at a red light, these plants will emit considerable amounts of gases for nothing. And they will be kept idling 24 hours a day, just to be ready to takeover when wind turbines stop. ---- So much for wind power being "clean".

We must add to these the gases massively produced during the construction of the wind plants themselves: to manufacture the steel and the plastics for the turbines, high tension lines and other infrastructure; to make the asphalt for the access roads, the cement for the concrete bases of tens of thousands of giant wind towers; plus all the fossil fuels burned by the earth-moving equipment, the trucks, the vehicles in general. In this regard, let us not forget that hundreds of wind "farms", in order to be integrated to state, regional or national grids, will require thousands of kilometers of new tension lines, hundreds of thousands of new pylons, many substations, etc. And paramount is the fact that the "farms" and related infrastructure must be built in addition to, and not in lieu of, conventional plants, because of the intermittency of the wind and the need for back up. So all the gases produced for their construction come on top of those produced for the construction of conventional plants, for a total amount of electricity produced that is hardly increased, but mostly displaced.

Considering the extra, additional, unnecessary gases produced during the construction of the wind plants, and tension lines to connect them to the grid, plus the gases produced by conventional plants idling in stand-by throughout the life of the "farms", it is abundantly clear that no real savings will be achieved in greenhouse gas emissions.

The Engineers' report also warns:

"The Energy Review sets a target of generating 20 per cent of our energy from renewable sources by 2020. While this is a laudable aim it is over-optimistic and fails to address the fundamental problem with all renewable sources: ­they are intermittent.  Experience on the Continent, especially in Denmark, has shown that grid stability can be adversely affected when the penetration of intermittent renewables reaches about 15 per cent".

This, and other considerations such as the financial burden for the State, the negative impacts on people, tourism and the environment, prompted the new Danish cabinet to announce the end of subsidies to the wind industry.

As if ruining the landscape, hence our quality of life, for no real benefit and at great cost, was not enough:

"Major support for research to develop the hydrogen economy is urgently needed. The Energy Review appears to accept fuel switching, probably to hydrogen, as inevitable in the long term, but it is unwilling to recommend early action or signal that this is the Government's preferred solution" (also from the Royal Academy of Engineering report)

It is obvious that public money spent to subsidize harmful and useless wind farms cannot be made available to R&D on real solutions, like hydrogen. So the current wind power boom has yet another negative side effect: it slows-down our conversion to the hydrogen economy. Thanks to subsidized wind energy, we shall be burning fossil fuels for more years than necessary - just the opposite of what Greenpeace, WWF etc. are hoping to achieve when they promote wind power.

Other ill-effects of wind plants include: noise, fires (by short circuit or lightning - about 35 turbine-generated fires per year in California), negative impact on tourism (discounting the initial novelty-driven visitors, and school-children led by their educationists) soil erosion, contamination of ground-water by lubricants and cleaning-liquids, animal habitat destruction - and/or disruption - and the further reduction of priceless wilderness areas in the world.

Finally, we have the bird problem:

It has been estimated that 4 to 5 million birds die every year worldwide due to collisions with overhead cables and transmission towers (and their guy-wires). These are non-moving obstacles. No estimate has been ventured as to how many will be killed by 500,000 giant propellers beating the air from Seattle to Sydney. A few field studies have been made, and their reports quickly shelved. For instance: we know from the California Energy Commission that the 7,000 turbines of Altamont Pass killed 60 golden eagles and 300 redtail hawks in 1989 (not to speak of the smaller birds). In Nasudden, Norway, researchers Winkelman and Karlsson counted 49 birds killed by a single turbine during one night of migration. Extrapolating that figure to 500,000 turbines spread around the globe, we would get 24,500,000 dead birds... in one night. I know the limits of extrapolations, but it is important to vizualise the magnitude of the problem.

That, and other evidence from Spain and the Netherlands, lead us to the conclusion that millions of birds will be killed by wind farms yearly. Sadly, emblematic species such as eagles, falcons and ospreys, endearing ones such as storks, cranes and swans, and delightful ones such as migrating songbirds, will be greatly thinned-down. Some species will disappear altogether.

In conclusion:

Wind plants are harmful in a number of important ways, beneficial in none, and they cost dearly to taxpayers and consumers, more still to residents in terms of property values. They are uneconomical and useless. But they are highly profitable to their promoters because they are subsidised. So much so that industry leaders have joined forces to lobby at the political, media and ecological levels, silencing the opposition with money - taxpayers' money reaped from the subventions. I know of a bird society that receives donations from electricity companies amounting to 25% of its annual budget.

Taxpayer's money has been used in that manner to build an apparent consensus in favour of the wind industry. Politicians, for one, all agree on this money-laden venture, which on top gives them a favourable "green" image. Ecologists, too, promote wind farms, in the delusion that greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced. As a result of such a broad-based consensus, strengthened by active propaganda and intrigue by the wind power lobby, contrary opinions are not considered worth publishing by the media -- which in turn favours ignorance, and perpetuation of the blind consensus that is working to the detriment of both nature and mankind.

So it looks like wind turbines will continue to spread around the globe with disastrous effects on birds, on the scenery, and hence on everybody's quality of life; and for no savings whatsoever in greenhouse gas emissions. To the contrary, more gases will be produced in the end as subsidies paid to the wind industry cannot be used to accelerate our conversion to the hydrogen economy: Politicians feel no pressure in that respect, basking as they are in the green image provided by their aggressive wind power policy, and with all the wining and dining associated with efficient lobbying by a cash-rich industry --at taxpayer's expense.

California and Denmark, which have the longest experience in the field of wind power, no longer bank on wind for their future. Isn't it time for us to wise up too? before 500,000 irremovable concrete bases the size of a swimming pool are poured into the landscape from Vancouver to Auckland? before countless pylons are added to the landscape? before the horizon is marred everywhere by giant metallic structures beating the air, and the birds? and for no benefit whatsoever in terms of climate change?

It is time we study carefully the new California Energy Plan. It contains many answers.

Mark Duchamp 
Calpe, Spain 
email < >

FastCounter by bCentral

Return to Climate Change Guest Papers Page

Return to "Still Waiting For Greenhouse" Main Page