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Addressing public concerns about wind power

Addressing public concerns about wind power
CSE research paper aims to raise level of debate
11 May 2011
Wind turbines are beautiful to some, monstrous to others; but shouldn't we be able to debate the issues in an informed and constructive way?

CSE has today published a research paper that addresses some of the misconceptions surrounding wind energy.

‘Common concerns about wind power’ draws on peer-reviewed articles and government-funded analysis, and was written in response to requests from community groups for factual information about the subject.

Separate chapters look in detail at a range of issues including efficiency, energy payback times, subsidies, shadow flicker and epilepsy, noise, bat and bird mortality, and effects on property prices. It also has a section on nuclear power.

Simon Roberts, CSE Chief Executive, said “Of all renewable energy sources, wind power occupies a unique place in the public consciousness and generates strong opinions, both for and against. For the most part the debate is emotive and unhelpful, with both sides cherry-picking convenient facts to support their entrenched position whilst ignoring evidence to the contrary.

“Our research paper aims to present pertinent research in a more balanced manner and we hope that it will make the debate less polarised and generate informed and constructive discussion.

“CSE’s view is that wind power is a necessary part of the energy mix that is required to meet our carbon emission reduction targets and help tackle climate change. However, wind power is not appropriate everywhere, and we believe it is the duty of local communities themselves to decide where there is a place for it through engaging responsibly with the best available evidence, and through working together to assess their own locality.”

Original article:
Extracts from report:

1. Wind turbines and energy payback times

Concerns about the amount of energy (and subsequent
CO2 emissions) involved in the manufacture, construction
and operation of a wind farm are often voiced as an
argument against its installation. It is true, of course, that
some energy will be required over the whole life cycle of a
wind farm. This includes the manufacture of materials; the
transportation of parts to the site; construction of the
turbines and supporting infrastructure like foundations; site
operations and maintenance; and, finally, in
decommissioning the site. However, this is true of all forms
of energy generation.

The issue, therefore, lies in whether the plant will generate
sufficient useable energy over its lifetime to justify the
energy involved in its installation. In the case of wind farms,
all the evidence suggests that this is the case: the average
wind farm is expected to generate at least 20–25 times1 the
energy required in its manufacture and installation over its
lifetime, and the average energy payback time for a wind
farm is in the region of 3–6 months.1,2 These figures
compare favourably with other forms of power generation

2. Wind turbines, costs and subsidies

It is often argued by organised groups opposed to wind
energy – and repeated in the national press – that wind
power is both expensive and is heavily subsidised by the
taxpayer. In fact, onshore wind is already cost-competitive
with conventional large-scale generation. And while it is
true that all forms of renewable energy generation benefit
from specific government support, it must be recognised
that all forms of large-scale generation – whether low
carbon or conventional – receive some kind of state support
(in the form of subsidies, capital grants and allowances, etc).
It is the case that, so long as the ‘externalities’ related to
power generation from conventional fuel sources (from the
plant itself or from the fuel supply chain impacts) are not
included in the cost of those activities, government support
will be needed to incentivise the low carbon but capital
intensive forms of generation.
3. Efficiency of wind turbines

It is sometimes alleged that wind turbines are inefficient and
‘only work 30% of the time’. This figure is based on the
‘load factor’ for onshore wind farms, but is erroneously used
to imply wind power is inefficient. This is wrong – load factor
and efficiency are not the same; in fact, conventional
power stations in the UK run with an average load factor of
50–55%, but these are not described as running “half the
time”. Wind farms actually generate electricity around 80–
85% of the time, and power is converted to electricity very
efficiently, with none of the thermal waste inherent in fossil
fuel plants. So, wind power is an efficient way to generate
electricity, employing a free energy source that is also renewable.
4. Intermittency of wind turbines

Weather patterns can be forecast with some degree of
accuracy, but there is no denying that wind power is an
intermittent source of energy when focusing on isolated
sites. This notwithstanding, the problem of ‘dispatch’,
whereby supply of electricity is tailored to meet constantly
changing demand, is not new to the industry. Large
unpredictable swings in the system are already balanced on
a daily basis, and the grid is prone to critical failures for
which significant reserve capability already exists. On
balance of the evidence, there appears little need to expand
this overall reserve in response to increased wind capacity.

The uncertainty of supply when considering wind is a
problem of availability that presents novel statistical
challenges to the transmission operator when compared
with conventional generators, but not one that cannot be
forecast and integrated effectively into the national grid. It
should be made clear that these challenges do require a
moderate financial cost, although the external benefits of
reduced total CO2 emissions from electricity generation and
the resilience provided by a distributed network of wind
farms should not be underestimated.
5. The need for onshore as well as offshore turbines

It is argued that because there is a superior wind resource
off the coast of the United Kingdom that all efforts should
go into offshore wind power rather than onshore.
However, various reports maintain the importance of
continuing onshore wind’s expansion alongside the
development of offshore wind.

The evidence demonstrates that the capacity of both
onshore and offshore wind needs to expand if ambitious
renewable and carbon reduction targets are to be met. The
cost-competitiveness of onshore wind mean its continued
expansion can continue, and while offshore wind still needs
significant government support, its development will be a
core component of the UK’s longer-term renewable
generation capacity.
6. Wind power and nuclear power

Nuclear power has been used to generate electricity since
the 1950s, and purports to be a tried and tested method of
power generation. The use of nuclear power stations has
been hailed in recent years as the most efficient way to
produce electricity without relying on traditional fossil fuels,
thus creating a relatively ‘carbon-free’ grid. While not
strictly renewable, the potential stockpile of nuclear fuel
available for extraction means its supporters describe
nuclear power as a viable means to meet the world’s
energy needs for hundreds of years at least, based on the
fraction of physical fuel (enriched uranium) required by a
nuclear plant in comparison by bulk with coal or gas.

However, nuclear power’s status as a low-carbon source of
electricity is doubtful: while it compares favourably to
traditional fossil fuels such as coal, the logistical chain
required for extracting and processing uranium, plant
construction and plant decommissioning create a carbon
footprint for nuclear power that is significantly greater than
renewable sources. In addition, the nuclear power industry
in the UK and abroad has been traditionally beset with
problems involving the start-up, operation and
decommissioning of nuclear plants, resulting in economic
inefficiency and threats to public health. Despite decades of
experience, the unique problem of storage and disposal of
hazardous radioactive waste remains a concern for the
nuclear industry, with the cost and potential health
implications to be borne by future generations for centuries
to come.

Even without the concerns already raised, the long start up
time required to make a nuclear power station operational
means that nuclear power is irrelevant to the UK’s target to
cut CO2 emissions by 2020. The cost of electricity per unit
generated by nuclear power is currently no better than
onshore wind power, without taking into account the
future costs of cleaning up when a plant is finally
decommissioned. In comparison, the generation of
electricity from wind power poses an insignificant threat to
public health, requires a fraction of the start up costs and is
a true renewable energy source.
7. Public acceptance of wind turbines

Attitudes toward wind power are fundamentally different
from attitudes toward wind farms, a divergence that has
created what is sometimes called the ‘social gap’. Despite
the move to renewable energy sources having broad public
support (wind included), implementation of wind farm
projects is often met with stiff opposition at a local level.
Although some opposition is based on misconceptions about
wind power in general, local resistance to wind farms is a
complex interconnection between a position of being ‘for
the greater good’ and negativity toward what is seen as an
unwelcome imposition on the visual landscape to which
residents have a strong emotional attachment.
The pejorative term ‘nimby’ (from ‘not in my back yard’) has
regularly been levelled at residents when negative opinions
about planned wind farms have been raised. This term is
inaccurate, unfair and has no explanatory value, serving only
to increase antagonism if it achieves anything at all.
Understanding the issues involved, namely what lies behind
the concerns and preconceptions of residents, is crucial if a
community is to accept and even welcome the installation of
a wind farm nearby.
8. Wind turbines and property prices

As the number of proposals for wind farms across the UK
increases, detractors fear that nearby residents will see their
property values drop. Given the negative press that wind
turbines often receive in the mainstream media, it is not
surprising that this becomes a concern for local residents
during the planning and development of a wind farm. In
fact, a great deal of research in the UK and abroad shows
that there is no devaluation in property prices nearby once
a wind farm is operating. These fears are driven largely by
the “anticipation stigma” found to exist during the
planning and construction of wind farms, often bearing
little relation to the actual community opinion or local
property markets.
9. Wind turbines and safety

All sources of energy supply, wind power included, can
present a hazard to human health: fuel extraction and
transport; construction and maintenance of plant and
distribution networks associated with energy production;
and the operation of such facilities; present a risk to human
health, both to industry workers and, in rare instances, the
public. In the energy industry, fatalities are measured in
such a way as to show the cost/benefit for the energy
produced, i.e. deaths per unit energy generated. This is
usually given as deaths per gigawatt year (GWey). Wind
energy enjoys one of the lowest fatality rates per GWey of
any energy source, considerably lower than that for fossil

However, there is no escaping the fact that deaths occur
due to the installation and use of wind turbines. These are
almost overwhelming related to industry workers, although
there are rare incidences of members of the public being
killed: as with any industry, wind energy must strive to
minimise or eliminate any fatalities where possible. When
appraising wind energy, it must be remembered that wind
continues to provide one of the safest forms of electricity
generation available, without the additional environmental
burdens that can impinge on public health, such as
pollution or hazardous by-products.
10. Wind turbines, shadow flicker and epilepsy

An effect known as ‘shadow flicker’ is caused when the
rotating blades of a wind turbine cast a shadow on an
observer. As the blades move they cause shadows on the
ground or nearby dwellings to move too, giving rise to a
flicker effect through windows and doors where the
contrast between light and shade is most noticeable. An
observer oriented so as to be looking in the direction of the
sun’s disc through the wind turbine’s open face will also see
a flicker effect as each blade transits the sun.

Because of the geometries involved, shadow flicker is an
easily modelled property and can be accounted for during
planning and development of a wind farm; indeed, UK
government planning regulations stipulate that this must
be considered. Due to the size and speed of modern
commercial wind turbines, there is no risk of shadow flicker
causing photo-epileptic seizures in vulnerable persons.
11. Wind turbines and noise

Wind turbines rely on mechanical operations to generate
electricity. The movement of the blades through the air
inevitably creates noise, and the increasing size of mediumto-
large turbines (typically 2.3–3.6 MW rating, standing
65–105m tall) has prompted concern that they will generate
an unacceptable level of noise for nearby residents.
In the UK, this phenomenon has been studied by a
government working group, and detailed guidelines form
part of UK planning regulations to prevent undue noise
pollution. These, coupled with the quieter design of modern
turbines, mean that the noise levels generated by wind
farms are comparable to outdoor background noise. Studies
have found topography and changing wind patterns at
night can accentuate this noise in specific locations, but
understanding this process means it can be correctly
assessed during planning to ensure that properties that
might be prone to these effects are not affected.
Experience of wind farms in Europe has shown that
residents’ negative perceptions of noise are reduced when
they enjoy a direct financial benefit from the turbines, and
also diminishes with time post-construction.
12. Infrasound from wind turbines and ‘Wind Turbine

The subject of low-frequency sounds typically inaudible to
the human ear (infrasound) has been posited as a hidden
causative agent behind reported ill-health suffered by some
individuals living near wind farms. This is based largely on
the promotion of a small number of biased case studies by
one self-published lobbyist which has garnered significant
media attention, despite the overwhelming consensus in
the peer-reviewed literature that there is no evidence such
a thing as “wind turbine syndrome” exists. Repeated
efforts have been made to measure the perceived effects of
infrasound from wind turbines, with no positive results.
Guidelines for environmental noise already exist both
nationally and internationally. They take low-frequency
noise into account, and are based on robust evidence from
decades of research, and these continue to be refined.
The continuing coverage that “wind turbine syndrome”
receives, obscures the much-better understood issues
surrounding environmental noise, and the continued
distraction hinders treatment for the small number of
individuals who genuinely suffer from anxiety, stress and
attendant health problems brought on by the perceived
existence of negative environmental agents with no
discernible physical cause.
13. Bat and bird mortality in relation to wind turbines

Construction of large-scale wind farms first took place in
the 1980s in California, and other similar locations in the
USA and Europe. Unfortunately, the contemporary design
of the smaller commercial wind turbines (with open-lattice
towers), the greater number of such turbines required on a
single site, and their placement across areas used by
ecologically sensitive raptor populations have all conspired
to cause an elevated rate of avian mortality, particularly
affecting important populations of rare species. These
unfortunate events form the basis of the current
misconception that new wind farms will cause
disproportionate harm to bird populations.

In fact, wind turbines are responsible for less than 0.01%
of avian mortality caused by humans, with by far the
largest cause of deaths being standing buildings (more
precisely, the windows), power lines and domestic cats.
Considerable variation exists in the number of birds killed
annually across different wind farms worldwide, and the
industry now undertakes extensive surveying of avian
populations and migratory routes to further minimise any
detrimental effects before commercial turbines are sited.
Modern, large-scale megawatt turbines in use for the past
ten years have been found to result in a significantly lower
rate of fatalities in most areas where they have been
subsequently introduced. In terms of electricity generated,
wind is substantially safer than fossil fuel energy when
avian deaths per unit of electricity generated are compared.

Although avian mortality has received the greatest
attention by far over the preceding three decades, there is
increasing concern that bat fatalities may occur on a
proportionally larger scale, and are potentially more
damaging to the smaller number of species involved. The
migratory patterns of bats are not well understood, but
considerable variation in fatality rate also exists between
different wind generation sites, as found with birds. Bats
are typically adept at avoiding moving objects, and it is
thought that the unexpectedly high mortality at some sites
may be accounted for by altered behaviour during
migration, and by the occurrence of ‘barotrauma’ caused
by rapid air pressure reduction near the edge of the turbine
blade as it moves through the air. In any case, it is clear that
more data must be collected on bat populations if the wind
industry is to repeat its success with reducing avian deaths.