Wind Turbines -A problem in the making or a solution

Wind Turbines – A problem in the making or an effective solution?

By : Saravanan Sugumaran

Wind turbines are increasingly becoming a popular form of renewable green energy to combat the global climate change problem; however some of its critics claim that it actually does more harm to the environment than good.

Photo by: Treehuggers.com

Wind energy in the UK

The United Kingdom, which is the windiest country in Europe, has become a leading figure in harnessing wind energy, constructing large offshore and onshore wind farms across its regions. Since the construction of the first wind farm in 1991 wind energy has become a recognised clean energy generating technology in the UK. In 2007, it even surpassed hydro power as the largest renewable generation source of the UK’s electricity supply. The government’s renewable energy strategy states that by the year 2020, 15% of all UK’s energy should be generated from renewable energy sources. Wind energy is expected to form the lion’s share of these delivering over 600 billion pounds worth of investment and creating about 160,000 green collar jobs.

Why Wind Energy?

  • Abundant and Reliable

“The UK is a very windy country, especially during the colder months of the year, where there is a high demand of energy for heating purposes” explains Mr Graham Ford, Utilities Manager of the Metrological Office in the UK.

The UK is the windiest country in Europe and harnessing this form of energy would be the most reliable method of renewable energy production. Wind energy provides a secure and inexhaustible form of energy. Even during the less windy days, wind turbines are able to use the excess energy produced to sustain itself allowing for a more constant energy production. Technology is also currently being developed to store excess wind power into hydrogen which would be used to power fuel cells in power stations and vehicles.

  • Clean Energy

All energy systems have an impact on the natural environment. However, the environmental impacts of renewable energy technologies are considerably lesser than the energy systems they displace such as the burning of coal, oil and fossil fuels. Wind energy in particular is very clean. It exhausts very few pollutants for every unit of energy it produces. It also does not produce dangerous waste nor does it contribute to global warming.

  • Job Creation

According to yes2wind, a popular wind turbine lobbying group, the wind industry could potentially bring thousands of new jobs to the shores of the UK; many of them using offshore engineering skills used by the declining gas and oil industry. With a growing number of offshore wind farms, up to 36,000 jobs are expected to be created. Amidst the current financial crisis that has rocked the UK, the reduction of unemployment and retrenchment figures could be beneficial for the economy and the future development of the wind energy industry.

  • Safety Element

The harnessing of wind energy is a rather safe process as compared to other forms of renewable sources like nuclear energy. Though the wind turbines are usually very large in size, they are usually placed in areas without human occupancy. Most onshore wind farms are located at the country side and do not possess a viable threat. Even the ones near the urban areas are unlikely terrorist targets.

  • Cheap

According to Mr Adam Bell an environmental operative from Embrace my Planet; a UK based movement to support renewable energy efforts; wind energy is one of the cheapest renewable energy technologies. It is competitive with the new ‘clean coal’ fired power stations and cheaper than nuclear power. The cost of wind energy varies according to numerous factors; however an average for a good onshore wind farm can cost 3-4pence per unit.

Average onshore wind farm – [3 – 4 pence/unit energy]
Average ‘new coal’ warm – [2.5 – 4.5 pence/unit energy]
Average nuclear power plant – [4-7 pence/unit energy]

What’s wrong with it?

As the UK government dives deeper into the realms of wind energy harvesting by approving plans for more onshore wind farms, the number of opposition groups to wind turbines has steadily increased. Anti-wind turbine groups such as Country Guardian, has listed the number of wind turbine protestant groups to around 231. These protestant groups offer support and a voice for the residents who have been affected by wind farms and wind turbines. Some of the problems listed by the affected residents and experts in these protestant groups include:

  • Lack of Wind

One of the main problems encountered is the period when there is a lack of wind. In order to meet to meet the EU target, 50 gigawatts of renewable energy generation is needed. However, during dry spells of no wind or a lack of wind, if intermittent supplies are unavailable, the result is that the UK would heavily depend on coal and oil to compensate for the large amount of renewable energy that needs to be generated in place.

  • Inefficient

Some experts have suggested that the wind turbines only perform at 30% of their expected output rate. A modern wind turbine is reported to only produce 70-80% of its desired energy outcome. Most private owners say that the transfer of energy from the blades to the turbines causes a further significant loss of energy. However wind turbine manufacturers claim that the wind turbine can generate electricity of more than a thousand homes over a year.

  • Noise

Many residents have complained about the loud noise levels of wind turbines. This has caused many wind turbine manufacturers such as Vestas and Dong Energy to reduce the noise levels in the wind turbines by adding insulation around the generators and building specially profiled blades that reduce the noise levels. As most of the wind turbines in the UK are near farms, many farmers have complained that the loud noises from the wind turbines drive the cows mad by giving them headaches and unexpected behaviour patterns.

Quietrevolution, a UK based wind turbine manufacturer acknowledged that most older generation wind turbines do produce a lot of noise and that most manufacturers are looking into ways of reducing the noise. Quietrevolution, which develops and supplies elegant renewable energy solutions have created a new kind of wind turbine, tagged the beacon which is set to be a visionary new form of wind turbine generation.

The ‘Beacon’, a 40 metre high ‘Y’ shaped structure that supports five vertical ‘triple-helix’ wind turbines  can also transform to become suspended video screens or colour change lighting displays  and is set to be planted among major roads in the London metropolitan area.

  • Safety Concerns

Wind turbines are very large and there have been reported cases of its blades falling off. Also if the weather becomes too cold, there has been reports that ice can form and cause the blades to freeze up or discharge small ice pellets. Manchester City Football club cancelled its initial operations to build a wind turbine because of this. As a result of the ice formations and safety concerns, wind turbines needed to be constructed on big empty lands, at least half an acre in size. This has caused much speculation on the feasibility of building big wind turbines.

There has also been concern that the big swinging blades of the wind turbines might kill birds which has prompted animal activists and bird watching groups to protest. Though, no actual incident has been reported by the protestant groups, the possibility that it might happen seems to be a major concern.

  • Affects Landscape

By building most of the on shore wind turbines on the country side, many have complained that the towering 60-120 foot wind turbine can be an eye sore and that affects the beauty of remote country side. There has also been concern that the construction of wind turbines can contribute to land degeneration.

Story 2:

Microgeneration – Should I get my own wind turbine?

Domestic wind turbines are strongly recommended by the English government and apparently gaining popularity, but how effective is one and where do you get one?

As onshore and offshore wind farms gain popularity in the UK, the idea of having a domestic wind turbine is also gaining popularity. According to a recent Reuters report, some 80,000 homes now use domestic wind turbines as renewable power generation units to provide energy for its residents.

The Energy Saving Trust, a government funded organisation to promote sustainable energy use reported that domestic wind turbines could supply up to 4% of Britain’s electricity needs and reduce carbon emissions by 6%.

In 2006, Davis Cameron, leader of the Conservative party had a wind turbine installed in his home as a first step towards ‘Microgeneration’. Microgeneration is defined as the generation of zero or low carbon heat and power by individuals or communities to meet their own needs.The wind turbine which was designed by Eclectic, an English based company cost 3000 pounds and it was widely anticipated in London.

Eclectic Wind Turbine chosen my Mr Cameron

However upon its completion, the wind turbine was not very welcomed by his neighbours who thought of it more as an eye sore. The power the wind turbine produced annually also was only sufficient to power a colour television.

“Domestic wind turbines is very much a new technology with continuing updates to its design and features” said Mr Peter, a representative of Eclectic. He also said that domestic wind turbines are small and the power output they produce on a good day is still relatively little.

“The older turbines might have some problems with the maintenance work and it might not be as productive as the newer ones, but with the continuous advancement in technology, they are getting better and more reliable” Mr Peter said, when asked about the future of domestic wind turbines.

However his opinion was not shared by Mr Donnachadh McCarthy, the first man to have ever installed a domestic wind turbine in his home in London. Mr McCarthy, who is an eco journalist and an environmentalist expert on climate change, said that his wind turbine only produced 2kWh of energy a year. “That is like boiling a pot of tea less than 13 times a year”.

Mr Maccarthy standing infront of his carbon neutral home

Mr McCarthy who has successfully transformed his London home to be carbon neutral also added solar panels and other renewable energy generators along with his wind turbine. “I was hugely disappointed with the wind turbine” Mr McCarthy said even refusing to allow photographs of his wind turbine to be taken because he thought “that it was a bad example to follow”.

McCarthy also went on to say that domestic wind turbines are not the solution for London, instead “the government should encourage the people to get solar panels or other forms of renewable energy rather than a domestic wind turbine”.

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