Rarely a week goes by without another falsehood being peddled about the wind industry, with the UK media a particular source of misinformation and scare stories. Christopher Hopson compiles his top ten least-favourite fallacies.
1 Wind energy makes global warming worse
Myth: A study led by a team from the University of New York has shown for the first time that wind farms can worsen climate change by pushing up temperatures. The US right-wing television network Fox News ran a report on its website titled “New Research Shows Wind Farms Cause Global Warming”. The US team studied satellite data from west-central Texas, which is home to four of the world’s largest wind farms. The study found that over a decade, the local temperature at these projects rose by almost 1°C, particularly at night, compared with nearby areas without wind farms.
Fact: Local temperature effects have no bearing on global climate change. CO2 is the biggest factor behind climate change, and the largest source of man-made carbon emissions is coal-fired power stations. In the EU in 2010, wind energy avoided the emission of an estimated 126 million tonnes of CO2 by displacing energy produced by coal, oil and gas. The US study acknowledges that the change in local temperature was small compared with the overall change in the land surface temperature, and says more studies are needed, at different locations and for longer periods.
2 Using wind energy adds to CO2 emissions
Myth: Wind power could actually produce more CO2 than gas, and is inordinately expensive and ineffective because of the need for back-up power stations, warns Civitas. The British social-policy think-tank argues that turning back-up gas-fired power stations on and off, to cover spells when there is little wind, produces more carbon than a steady supply of energy from an efficient modern gas-powered station.
Fact: The Civitas report cites as evidence the findings of retired Dutch physicist Kees le Pair, a long-time critic of the wind industry. Ruth Lea, the report’s author, is an economist with links to several right-leaning think-tanks, and has been a critic of the UK’s climate policies, especially the promotion of renewables.
All forms of power generation require back-up, and no energy technology can be relied on 100%. Variations in wind farm output are barely noticeable over and above the normal fluctuation seen in supply and demand. Therefore, at present there is no need for additional back-up because of wind energy. Gordon Edge, director of policy at the trade association RenewableUK, points out that modern gas-fired plants are not required to provide back-up for wind. Instead, wind is “integrated” into the existing system to act as a fuel-saver, enabling Britain to harness a free electricity source when it is available. Additional investment is required, but Edge points out that “credible analysis” makes clear it will cost less for consumers than relying on fossil fuels, which are rising in price all the time. “This report, based on outdated and inaccurate information, does nothing to advance the debate,” he adds.
3 Wind energy is heavily subsidised
Myth: More than 100 UK Members of Parliament wrote to Prime Minister David Cameron this year demanding cuts to the £500m ($773m) in annual subsidies for the wind industry. They claim that in financially straitened times, it is unwise to make consumers pay, through taxpayer subsidy, for inefficient, intermittent onshore wind.
Fact: Public subsidies for wind power are dwarfed by the tax breaks enjoyed by fossil fuels. OECD figures show that coal, oil and gas in the UK were subsidised to the tune of £3.63bn in 2010, while onshore and offshore wind received only £700m in the year to April 2011. All renewables in the UK benefited from £1.4bn in that period, according to the Department of Energy and Climate Change. In the 37 countries that the International Energy Agency analysed, coal, oil and gas received $409bn in 2010, compared with $66bn for renewables.
4 Turbines are a serious threat to birds and bats
Myth: Spinning blades and fluttering wings are clashing more frequently as greater numbers of turbines are being installed.
Fact: The anti-wind lobby exaggerates the threat to birds. The American Bird Conservancy notes that wind turbines kill just 0.088% of the 500 million birds killed each year by pet cats in the US. A UK review by the Centre for Sustainable Energy says that for every bird killed by a turbine, 5,820 are killed by flying into buildings — typically windows.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) says: “We have not so far witnessed any major adverse effects on birds associated with wind farms.” However, it stresses that there are “gaps in the knowledge and understanding” of how turbines affect bird and bat populations. UK wind farms are always subject to an environmental impact assessment, and RenewableUK members work with the RSPB and English Nature to ensure that designs and layouts do not interfere with sensitive species.
5 Turbines use lots of rare-earth minerals
Myth: China, which supplies more than 90% of the world’s rare-earth metals, has imposed controls on mining and exports after more than a decade of extraction depleted its resources and harmed the environment. Western media have investigated the environmental destruction in Inner Mongolia, which contains more than 90% of the world’s known reserves of rare-earth metals, specifically neodymium, the element needed to make turbine permanent magnets. Sceptics suggest this shows that the wind industry is not as environmentally friendly and sustainable as it makes out, and that its sources of rare-earth metals could dry up in future, leaving it with higher costs and production difficulties.
Fact: The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) report on critical metals in strategic energy technologies shows that the European wind industry is not a significant user of rare-earths. “The share of the neodymium and dysprosium that will be used by the European wind-power sector in the 2020-30 time frame will remain at 1% of world supply if realistic supply assumptions are used,” says Justin Wilkes, policy director of the European Wind Energy Association. The JRC report says that in 2020, the European wind industry will use between 326 and 635 tonnes of neodymium — equivalent to 1.8-3.5% of the world’s supply in 2010. In 2030, it is forecast to use 192-730 tonnes (1.1-4% of the world’s 2010 supply). In 2020, the European wind industry will use 22-44 tonnes of dysprosium (1.9-3.6%) and in 2030 it will use 13-50 tonnes (1.1-4.2%).
6 Turbines cause noise and health problems
Myth: Living near wind farms can lead to a greater risk of heart disease, panic attacks and migraines, according to New York paediatrician Nina Pierpoint, who has carried out a five-year study of people living near turbines in the US, the UK, Italy, Ireland and Canada. She believes turbines are dangerous because the low-frequency sounds (infrasound) they emit interfere with the ear’s vestibular system, which controls our sense of balance.
Fact: RenewableUK says that in more than 25 years and with more than 68,000 machines installed around the world, no member of the public has ever been harmed by the normal operation of wind turbines. Geoff Leventhall — a consultant on noise vibration and acoustics, and author of a report for the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the effects of low-frequency noise — says: “I can state quite categorically that there is no significant infrasound from current designs of wind turbines.”
7 Wind turbines discourage tourists
Myth: Donald Trump claims that proposals to build an 11-turbine offshore test facility are a threat to his luxury golf resort north of Aberdeen, Scotland. The US property tycoon warns that Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond will be known as “Mad Alex — the man who destroyed Scotland” because its “pristine countryside and coastlines will forever be destroyed and it will go broke” thanks to “horrendous monstrosities” that will “destroy Scottish tourism”.
Fact: There is no evidence to suggest wind farms adversely affect tourism. In fact, the UK’s first commercial wind farm at Delabole, southwest England, received 350,000 visitors in its first ten years of operation, while 10,000 visitors a year take the turbine tour at the Ecotech Centre at Swaffham, eastern England. A Mori poll in Scotland showed that 80% of tourists would be interested in visiting a wind farm. Developers are often asked to provide visitor centres, viewing platforms and rights of way to their sites. A 2011 poll for tourist body VisitScotland found that 80% of UK respondents said their decisions about where to visit would not be affected by the presence of a wind farm.
8 Wind farms spoil the landscape
Myth: One of Britain’s largest conservation groups, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), broke ranks with other environmental groups to attack the rapid development of onshore wind farms. It criticises the “cavalier approach” of many developers when dealing with local concerns. The CPRE has big worries about wind farms due to be built next to national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and sites of special scientific interest.
Fact: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. However, studies regularly show that most people find turbines an interesting feature of the landscape. On average, 80% of people support wind energy. UK surveys conducted since the early 1990s near existing wind farms have consistently found most people are in favour of wind energy, with support increasing among those living closer to wind farms.
9 Wind power is expensive
Myth: Critics claim that Europe’s focus on wind power is crippling energy users with additional costs, as it is not a cost-effective way to reduce CO2 emissions. Civitas calls wind energy unreliable and believes it requires back-up gas-powered stations to maintain a consistent supply. Economist and UK government adviser Dieter Helm also casts doubts on the economic value and affordability of offshore wind. Helm, who is a professor at New College, Oxford, suggests gas generation could be a more affordable low-carbon alternative.
Fact: The cost of generating electricity from wind has fallen dramatically over the past few years. The cost of most renewables technologies “has declined, and significant additional technical advancements are expected”, says the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
10 Wind farms harm property values
Myth: Homeowners living near UK wind farms could see their property values plummet after a legal case in which a couple from Lincolnshire, central England, were told they would get a huge council-tax refund because their home was said to have been rendered worthless by a turbine 1km away. It means many other families living in the shadow of turbines could see the value of their homes crumble, as the government pushes ahead with plans to build more wind farms over the next decade.
Fact: RenewableUK says there is no evidence that wind farms affect house prices. Researchers at the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory spent three years examining nearly 7,500 homes in ten communities near 12 wind farms in nine states. They found no evidence that property prices were affected by the view or the distance between the home and the wind farm.
Christopher Hopson, London
This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Recharge and the author, Chris Hopson. It was first published in Recharge on 8 June 2012. www.rechargenews.com/energy/wind/article315027.ece