Tilting at Windmills: Are Wind Turbines the Answer to Sustainable Energy?
Until recently I lived in southern Sweden, a flat landscape with plenty of farms, lots of coastline and a healthy amount of wind. While traversing across this broad rural landscape or crossing the Øresund Bridge into Denmark, I was often struck by the collections of white monolithic wind turbines that soar majestically above green fields and extend in daring rows into the sea. They stand watch like soldiers in a brave battle against the wastefulness of man and the senseless ecological violence of carbon-based energy. I was proud to live in a part of the world forward thinking enough to erect these green giants, these eco-friendly futuristic engines of change. How smug I felt that my adopted country of residence was clever enough to harness something as natural and primal as the wind and use it for lighting our porches and charging our iPods. How calming and comforting (I dare say beautiful!) these massive “windmills” are.
So why are some people, like would-be Don Quixotes, attacking and demonizing such a practical and seemingly faultless energy source? This strikes me as cynicism of the downright maddening variety.
But maybe the naysayers have a point. After all, what do I know? What do any of us, as laypeople; really know about this particular brand of nascent green technology? So, I decided to do a bit of research as to what has soured certain individuals’ grapes to the extent that they would condemn such an apparently guiltless and clever invention.
The advantages of wind power seem almost too glaringly obvious to mention. The operation of wind turbines produces zero emissions and comparatively negligible amounts hazardous waste and does not deplete natural resources. Not to mention job creation. As we cut back on fossil fuels, jobs in that sector will be lost and the creation of new, sustainable energy-related employment is certainly attractive.
Now on to the criticisms.
America, for one, has struggled with some of the ecological or environmental discrepancies involving wind turbine power stations built in perhaps unwise locations, like the habitats of certain sensitive wildlife. However, most of the U.S.-based complaints seem to stem from more aesthetic concerns, and this smacks more of old school conservationism, based on human enjoyment of the environment, rather than practical concerns such as health and sustainability. Nevertheless, as with many stumbling blocks on the road to ecological balance, there are concerns of varying degrees of importance and legitimacy.
Alleged or potential disadvantages of wind turbines:
- Unreliability – Without large-scale energy storage, wind is neither an entirely dependable nor constant source, due to its inherently fluctuating nature. This is comparable to solar power on cloudy days: the proverbial “fair weather friend.”
- Energy consumption – The manufacturing and transportation of turbines takes resources and power. However, this is soon recouped by the clean energy the plants subsequently produce and is considered by some experts to be a minimal price to pay for what the wind power plants provide in return.
- Danger to wildlife – Birds and bats are killed when they fly into the spinning turbine blades. This has been a bona fide concern. However, according to he American environmental website powerscorecard.org “The most controversial significant negative environmental impact of early wind turbines is the impact on bird populations, an issue largely resolved by new turbine designs.” Furthermore, according to a research paper by National University of Singapore professor Dr. Benjamin K. Sovacool, “wind farms killed approximately seven thousand birds in the United States in 2006 but nuclear plants killed about 327,000 and fossil-fueled power plants 14.5 million.” Therefore as power source, wind is at worst the least of three evils, at least as far as birds and bats are concerned.
- Cost efficiency – Economic viability may be questionable, but this depends on the location of the turbines. For obvious reasons, population centers may not always be located next to extremely windy areas. This is a logical assumption, but at the same time does not necessarily coincide with reality. Specific examples include: Whitelee in Scotland and the planned London Array, two U.K. projects projected to supply large amounts of urban electricity in the near future.
- Appearance – Are they eyesores? This also depends on where the turbines are located and ultimately on individual tastes. Personally, I like the collections of towering white giants that can be seen proudly standing in verdant fields or rising from the blue waters off the coasts of Scandinavia. Besides looking pretty cool, they also make me feel considerably better about energy production than do large, unsightly factories with chimneys belching brown foul-smelling smoke into the sky.
The newest and most legitimate concern may be noise pollution and its potential health-related problems. Until now, it was assumed that noise that can’t be heard couldn’t cause any harm. Heretofore largely dismissed as negligible, the low frequency noise output of turbines has very recently come under some harsh scrutiny via a new scientific study.
Breaking News: Wind Turbine Syndrome
Someone was always bound to discover something to rain on the parade of monolithic white windmills that now “march” across many parts of the Europe and America. Enter Wind Turbine Syndrome (WTS), a disease named to collectively refer to symptoms thought to result chiefly from the low frequency noise produced by large wind turbines. According to an article in the August 2nd edition of the U.K.’s The Independent, Dr. Nina Pierpont, a prominent pediatrician from New York, has discovered a series of symptoms, which she has christened visceral vibratory vestibular disturbance, or VVVD. The symptoms Dr. Pierpont claims are related to Wind Turbine Syndrome include anxiety-related disturbances such as “internal pulsation, quivering, nervousness, fear, a compulsion to flee [and] chest tightness,” as well as increased heart rate, nightmares and the cognitive development of children. Pierpont attributes such disturbances to the “abnormal stimulation of the inner ear’s vestibular system by turbine infrasound and low-frequency noise.”
WTS is a bit reminiscent of psychosomatic environmental illness or what was termed “Twentieth-Century Disease” (way back in the 20th century), in which patients react to low levels of what they perceive to be toxins or pollutants. Naturally, the British government denies Pierpont’s claims and its position is backed by acousticians at the University of Salford in Manchester as well as the British Wind Energy Association, which maintains that “Wind turbines are quiet, safe and sustainable.” But Pierpont also has her backers and considerable medical evidence to support her claims.
The winds of change continue to blow
Another kind of wind turbine entering the private market is a small, low speed model designed to power individual homes. The soon to be on the market Honeywell Wind Turbine is produced by EarthTronics and will be available at Ace Hardware stores in the U.S. for a price tag of $4,500 (€3,125). Reasonably light weight at 95 lbs (43 kg) the Honeywell stands only a demure 6 feet tall (183 cm) and so should not cause too much of a stir with the neighbors. This could be a viable option for private citizens – especially those in rural, windswept areas – who wish to avail themselves of wind power, but are not close enough to existing wind farms. It may even save them a lot of money in the long term, despite the initial layout, installation and maintenance costs. For U.S. residents, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the new federal stimulus bill) would help defer those costs since it offers an uncapped 30% tax credit. It should be noted that these small turbines are not similar to the large variety used on wind farms, studied by Pierpont and attributed to WTS.
Meanwhile in the U.K., Whitelee Wind Farm, Europe’s largest on land wind farm, was recently opened to provide for the energy needs of Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, which is located just 15 km (9 miles) away. According to a May 20th, 2009 article on renewableenergyworld.com, Scotland’s goal is to have 31% of its energy needs come from renewable sources by 2011 and as much as 50% by the year 2020. Wind farms like Whitelee will probably provide most of that energy.
With all the different, often conflicting assertions about wind power out there, it’s hard to know exactly how good (or bad) it ultimately is as a green power source. In my opinion, the drawbacks are minor, especially when compared to the plainly unsustainable status quo. As far as Wind Turbine Syndrome, the most current – and to me the most worrying – of snags, if it turns out to be true, perhaps a healthy distance between people and wind farms could be established, where the noise wouldn’t affect anyone except the odd grazing sheep or cow, which we should probably stop raising, anyway. It might also be smarter to simply consume less energy. I know no one wants to, but come on people, stop being greedy, gluttonous consumers and tone down your luxurious energy-gorging lifestyles. I myself have generously started unplugging my laptop at night. Self-sacrifice is now my mantra. Why, next time I see a wind turbine (if I don’t fall to the ground clutching maniacally at my inner ear’s vestibular system) I may even deign to blow on it. Every bit helps!
By Graham Land
Wind Power on Power Scorecard
World Wind Energy Association
windaction.org (wind power skeptic website)
BBC video report on Whitelee wind farm
BBC video and article of Whitelee
“Who Owns the Wind” article from Science and Spirit magazine
Article: “Wind Turbine Noise Solutions”
Environmental effects of wind power wiki