“Grand and Elegant” Isn’t Enough

The false economy of onshore wind turbines

Apparently quite a few people get a relatively warm “fuzzy” when looking at these indubitably grand and elegant structures.


And they are a bit surprised that I don’t share in this feeling. As a ex-structural engineer, who greatly enjoys grand and elegant structures of all kinds, its a reasonable expectation. So: why don’t I like wind farms?

Because onshore wind farming is:

  1. Ecologically disastrous.
  2. Environmentally destructive.
  3. Economically unsustainable.

Wind farming is ecologically disastrous

This is the strongest reason why I don’t get a warm fuzzy of any kind when I see wind farms scattered across rural landscapes. Instead I think of the cost to the environment, in terms of animals, people and land.

Onshore wind farms are vast, misplaced, industrial complexes…

Animals

Wind turbines are killing thousands of birds and bats. Birds , particularly birds-of-prey and bats are unable to cope with the unnatural size, placement and movement of wind turbines (each of which typically sweeps an area of about an acre, some even more). As a consequence, they are being killed in the hundreds-of-thousands by the vast, misplaced, industrial complexes known as wind farms.

People

Wind turbines radiate human-harmful sonic waves. Legislation has allowed wind turbines to be built up to 250m from existing homes, without any monitoring of the invisible effects of sonic waves upon residents, who have unwittingly become the equivalent of ‘lab rats’ in a vast, industrial experiment. Many unfortunate people, living up to a mile or more away from turbines, have experienced disastrous effects upon their health.

Land

Wind turbines destroy vast tracts of precious countryside. Visually, many people consider these massive industrial machines to be a blight upon the countryside. Clearly some do not. Yet think for a moment about the level of development of rural land that goes on to facilitate these industrial complexes (as of 2015, the largest UK wind turbine array has 215 turbines).

In particular: massive excavations (later filled with equally massive amounts of concrete — see below regarding the ecological impact of concrete) and vast mileages of road for construction and maintenance vehicles. Such a level of development is never normally permitted within the countryside — let alone in areas of outstanding natural beauty and vital ecological importance, such as peat bogs and rare wetlands.

Wind farming is environmentally destructive

How can something that harvests the natural forces of wind be ecologically destructive? The answer is in (at least) three significant ways.

  1. Carbon contribution.
  2. Rare-earth minerals.
  3. Resource use.

Gas-powered turbines are required to back up wind-power, thus reliance upon carbon fossil fuels is merely displaced, not removed

Carbon contribution

Wind farms are net carbon positive.

That’s right: carbon positive — they add to the carbon in the atmosphere. How so? Because wind, being inconsistent, requires conventional power backup to take its place on a national grid, which cannot cope with massive power-outs. As a result wind-farms are actually placed on the demand, not supply side of the power-generation equation!

Furthermore, only certain kinds of power station are able to rapidly supply the power lost when wind levels subside rapidly (bear in mind, too, that wind blows most strongly at night, when national energy grids tend to have a surplus of power). Unfortunately, the particular type of turbine required to back up wind-power not only relies upon a carbon fossil fuel (gas), but is also particularly inefficient. The latest forms of gas turbine are built to run continuously, at a certain level of output. Fortunately(?), the previous generation of gas turbine can be turned on-and-off relatively rapidly, although they are much less fuel efficient.

Thus, when the real cost of gas-turbine back-up is factored in, wind farms are carbon-positive. If you believe that carbon is fuelling climate change, wind farms are, sadly, not the answer you are looking for. Yet there’s more…

Wind farms require vast resources for their construction and maintenance

Rare earth minerals

Wind turbines require significant amounts of rare earth minerals. Yes, each and every wind turbine requires a considerable amount of rare minerals as an integral element of construction. These are generally sourced a long way from good ol’ Europe, generally either in China or Africa. So that’s alright then (not).

Resource use

Wind farms require vast resources. Wind turbines typically weigh over 100 tons each. Factor in the huge wind loading that these structures need to be able to resist when standing still (e.g. when the rotor gets stuck, or turned off because the wind is too strong. No really.) and, just like a tree must be supported by strong roots, a truly massive amount of concrete (about a thousand tons) must be placed into the ground for every turbine. Now factor in that the manufacturing of concrete is one of the truly-worst-of-all contributors to carbon (and other pollutants) in the atmosphere.

Then there’s the maintenance roads, which typically have to be built from scratch, because wind farms are placed in out of the way locations, where no other buildings and roads — of the kind needed for heavy construction and regular maintenance — exist.

Wind farming is economically unsustainable

Has any industrial wind farm ever been built without the promise of expensive, ongoing public subsidy? (Subsidies that are paid both when the wind blows and, incredibly, also when turbines are turned off because a system is over capacity!) Certainly none of those being built around the UK countryside right now would have been built without government political and capital intervention.

In fact, these industrial complexes would right now be better known as “subsidy farms”! But that will change when prices go up, wont it? Unfortunately, that’s “pie-in-the-sky” thinking. Right now, when more and more UK pensioners are experiencing fuel poverty, the need is for “meat-on-the-plate” solutions — not ones that rely on prices going even higher!

Denmark was one of the European pioneers of wind farms, investing heavily at the start of the new millennium. This means they are now amongst the first governments to discover that the promised 25-year turbine life cycle, made by the wind industry, upon which pubic subsidies are based is (cough, cough) just a little bit short. How short? Eleven years in and many of their wind turbines are apparently failing badly.

But… if… what… how… ?

Q: “If all that is true, how could such shenanigans have been allowed to happen?”

A: Short answer: It’s amazing what is possible when we allow ourselves the luxury of being uninformed!

Longer answer: Let’s examine the wind industry’s prime movers and their motivations.

The Green movement

It’s no secret that the wind revolution has been fuelled by the Green movement’s ideological claims regarding climate change. To those who believe in that ideology, wind is an irreplaceable, “sustainable” commodity, whatever price it takes to harvest it — and “curses upon anyone who says otherwise!”

Because wind appears to be environmentally-friendly, it is ergo Green. Grand and elegant wind turbines are one of the most precious poster-children of the Green movement and it’s now much too late to admit that this particular Little Emperor is wearing very few clothes at all.

Personally, I’m all for preserving the environment. I’m a conservationist, by nature and conviction. But I’m ultra-skeptical about all forms of political ideology and it seems to me that many people simply can’t see the pragmatic, environmental wood for the ideological, Green trees.

Or wind turbines.

Landowners

Upland hills are great for three things (living in Wales, my family and I know this really well): rain, wind and sheep. Sadly, with wool barely registering as a commodity on world markets, it’s hard to make money from sheep. And hill walkers may help a bit with camping and b&b, but nothing compares to the amount of money that landowners (who are not the same thing as farmers, by the way) can make from subsidy, ahem…sorry, wind farming.

Populist politicians

We trust politicians, right? Especially the ones that avoid difficult choices in preference to populist policies? Right. Wind farms make it look like the government is doing something to address climate change. What does it matter if those solutions don’t really address the issue? It’ll be years before anyone realises and those politicians will be happily ensconced as non-executive directors of all kinds of corporations (and living far, far away from any wind turbines) by that time.

Industrialists

Because of public subsidies, industrialists are, right now, making money “hand over fist,” as the saying goes, by manufacturing and running hugely-subsidised wind farms. With the current arrangement, they get all of the reward, while the public bear all of the risks.

In summary

It’s hard to escape the conviction that wind farms represent folly on an industrial scale. The result of wishful thinking merged into a kind of globalised confidence trick.

Instead of considering that uncomfortable possibility, since conspiracy theories are for geeks, while “ignorance is bliss,” here are some top-tips that should allow anyone to go on enjoying those “grand and elegant” structures, atop those distant hills.

  1. Don’t research these things; believe mainstream media.
  2. Trust Green ideology.
  3. Don’t doubt the motivations of politicians, wealthy landowners and industrialists.
  4. Don’t worry about the birds and bats being slaughtered: you probably won’t ever see them yourself. Nor pensioners suffering fuel poverty.
  5. Do not give credence to stories of unfortunate residents whose lives have been blighted by the construction of wind turbines adjacent to their home, without any consultation, subsidy or ongoing health checks.
  6. Enjoy wind farms as magnificent (albeit grossly expensive) sculptures sitting atop green hills.
  7. Above all, definitely forget that you ever heard me say that wind farms are: environmentally disastrous, ecologically destructive, economically unsustainable!

View from Pen-y-Fan, Wales. No wind farms here. That’s how I like my countryside.

Disclaimer:

I’ve not included many cross-references to sources, because this is a personal explanation of why I dislike and distrust wind farming. The research is out there and not hard to find, if you’re open to finding it. And if you don’t want to do any extensive research, there’s always Wikipedia, which admits, but wrestles with trying to ameliorate most of the information referred to here.


Originally published at johnbc.wordpress.com on June 7, 2014.

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