Over recent years the polarising impact of wind turbines seems to have become an every day occurrence in the media.
But why are people so against wind turbines? And why is the UK so hell-bent on persevering with it as a technology?
In the following blog I am going to look at some of the issues that people have with them and whether they do have a future in our energy mix – but first I am going to provide a quick recap on what they are and why we have them.
What is a wind turbine?
On a very basic level a wind turbine comprises of rotor blades positioned at the top of very high towers. They spin as wind hits them, which produces electricity.
The rotor blades are much like the propellers of aeroplanes, however in the case of commercial wind turbines they tend to be much much larger. Blade Dynamics, a company that specialises in making the rotors of wind turbines has recently announced the D49 – with a rotor diameter of 100m, so technology is always advancing and units are getting bigger and more efficient.
The reason for maximising the length of the blades, is that the larger the swept area of a turbine (this is the circle that the turbine produces while spinning) the more wind it will catch and therefore this increases the energy it can create.
The reason for situating the turbines atop high towers, is that wind speeds tend to be higher at altitude and the power contained in the wind is proportional to the cube of the wind speed, so for example if a the wind speed is 3mph then the power is calculated as such 3 x 3 x 3 = 27. If the wind speed doubles to 6mph then the power is 6 x 6 x 6 = 216.
So since wind turbines catch more wind if they are bigger and there is more power in the wind at higher altitudes, companies looking to take advantage of wind energy make their wind turbines huge, for example the one proposed by Blade Dynamics will be 270m tall.
Why are wind farms built in the first place?
Wind farms are just a collection of wind turbines – they are now pretty common across the UK. They are being built as a result of the Government trying to decarbonise our energy industry. In the past we have relied on fossil fuels and nuclear energy to meet our energy demand, and to be honest this is still the case.
But as part of the Kyoto agreement that was signed in 1997, the UK agreed legally binding targets to lower our carbon emissions as part of an effort to combat climate change. I think this then brings the discussion to the first issue that some people feel pretty strongly about!
Why All the Hate?!
Reason 1 – People think that Climate Change doesn’t even exist
In my opinion it probably does – we can see changes in our climate – across the world there are extreme weather situations happening all the time. But climate change still remains one of the most polarising subjects of our time. There are people who will argue till they are blue in the face that the changes in weather are just a natural cyclical event and not the result of anthropogenic carbon dioxide. So these people are obviously questioning the need to decarbonise the energy industry and therefore the reason for having wind turbines in the first place.
This unfortunately is not something I can counter – it is true that you can use science to allegedly prove anything – I once read that men with beards are statistically more likely to get cancer – obviously complete rubbish. This issue is however that even though decent scientists have all written publications on their findings, these scientists sit in both camps – believers and non-believers – so actually how do we know who to believe!
Reason 2 – The landscape gets scarred
I think another major reason that people hate wind turbines is that as I mentioned before they are huge. The wind companies are looking to maximise the energy they can produce so they build them big and people in the vicinity feel that they are a blot on the landscape.
I can’t sit here and argue that they don’t change the way an area looks. I think it is more the issue that people are ingrained to hate change. As a child growing up now, they must see wind turbines when they travel across the country and so these things must now be normal to them. I think this is where we will see a step change in acceptance. As our youth grow up, there will be generational acceptance of wind farms – they are the norm, just as a big coal power plant or nuclear power plant have been for us growing up.
Reason 3 – They are just sat there not spinning
This is the nature of the beast unfortunately – if the wind ain’t blowing, then the turbines ain’t going to be spinning. Therefore people assume they are useless and don’t contribute to our energy mix. This is a bit like a coal or gas power plant having no access to their required fuels – now I know this is ridiculous since we have always had a steady supply of coal and gas, but what if this were to change, the supply was interrupted – we need to have some capacity in our grid that we can use that doesn’t rely on a tangible fuel (e.g. gas, coal or uranium). This means that if everything dropped through the floor – at least there would be some means of making electricity on a commercial scale.
So yes sometimes wind turbines aren’t going to be spinning, but most of the time they are at least contributing something to our energy mix, and let me be quite clear I am not saying get rid of all energy from fossil fuels, I think we need a sensible energy mix and wind in my opinion has an important role to play.
But just for the record in June this year, wind accounted for over 5GW of power – more than 10% of our energy demand – and that number can’t be sniffed at.
Reason 4 – Wind energy is expensive to produce
Currently producing energy from wind costs more than producing it from traditional fuels. This is mainly due to Government grants being paid when the wind turbines are in operation.
The thing is though, in theory once a wind turbine is up, the electricity it produces only requires the wind to blow. If we could introduce economies of scale to drive down the cost of installing the turbines – then surely we are on to a winner – the problem is that to get there we need to increase production to drive down prices so at the moment we are going to have to suck it up and pay higher prices.
On another note, we currently import much of our gas and coal from the world market, but the proportion that we import is going to increase significantly over the next 5 years. As we saw in our extended winter this year, our gas reserves ran dangerously low and we had to spend big to secure additional supplies.
The way it has played out with North Sea Gas in that everyone pretty much now has a gas central heating system. Unfortunately North Sea Gas isn’t there anymore, now you have probably heard about the potential of shale. I think I can say with some certainty that this isn’t an immediate fix. Even if we can access large amounts of gas and the alleged environmental impacts are unfounded, this supply of gas is not going to become plentiful for the next 5-10 years.
Now fuel prices are already ludicrous in my opinion, rising at 10% a year for the last 8 years, and if you think fuel prices are coming down then I think you are probably living in dream world. So how long before the tipping point is reached. Not necessarily by the cost of wind installation coming down (although naturally this will) but rather the price of producing energy from traditional other fuels rising.
As a final thought….
Google recently acquired Makani power, a Californian start up wind Power Company that is trying to harness wind speeds thousands of meters up in the air by tethering ‘wind kites’ to the ground. The theory being: that if these wind turbines sit at such altitude then they can be much smaller in size, because they would then utilise higher and more consistent wind speeds. The Google bods tend to make fairly sensible investment decisions – so it must point to wind having a future, it just might be in a much more evolved form!