Like it or not, the world is on course to replace traditional energy sources based on fossil fuels with renewable sources like wind, solar, and biomass. And because humankind has been harnessing wind power for so long, it is currently the main player in the renewable energy push. However, wind turbines and large-scale wind farms come with their own set of problems that cannot be ignored.
Wind power is indeed a good source of renewable energy possibly worth developing. Nevertheless, we must never make the mistake of assuming that it is a power source we can use with no consequences. No energy source, renewable or otherwise, can be used without generating some sort of negative impact. There is no such thing as an energy panacea.
Concept of Wind Power
One of the basic laws of physics states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. When we are talking about creating energy with renewable resources, we are simply saying we want to take one sort of energy -- i.e. wind or solar -- and convert it into electricity or heat. Wind turbines do exactly that.
The wind turbine consists of a large tower with three spinning blades connected to a generator and a power inverter. As the wind drives the blades, they, in turn, drive a generator that produces electricity. It is very simple technology that has been around for quite some time.
At first glance, it seems as though wind power is a harmless and effective way to generate electricity without consequence. However, wind power does have some inherent flaws:
- Efficiency - The biggest flaw in wind power is its noticeable lack of efficiency. In other words, a single wind turbine that would fit on a typical residential property does not produce enough electricity to allow the house to completely disconnect from the grid. That is why making wind power usable on a large scale requires wind farms with hundreds of turbines. It is simply inefficient.
- Weather Dependent - It should be quite obvious that wind turbines produce no electricity unless the blades are turning. Hence, they do not work well in areas that do not see a consistent, steady breeze. But keep in mind they are also affected by wind direction. The speed and direction of wind directly affect the output of turbines.
- Large Footprint - While the direct carbon footprint of the turbine is near zero, the real estate footprint is not. To make wind usable as renewable power source requires vast amounts of real estate, real estate that is hard to come by in Europe. Placing wind farms in the ocean is one solution, although it adds considerably to the expense of construction and maintenance.
Wind Power Affect the Weather
The point of our discussion is to call attention to that wind power has its own set of problems that need to be dealt with. So let's get some of them, beginning with the fact that large-scale wind farms affect weather patterns. It may seem hard for you to believe, but it's true.
A February 2013 article published by the Guardian talked about wind farms and weather, citing the results of a study out of Switzerland's École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. The study looked at the potential weather-related effects of wind farms by using a scale version in a wind tunnel.
Researchers discovered that the up and down drafts created by wind turbines can superimpose themselves on current air patterns resulting in a noticeable impact on local temperature and humidity levels. In reality, the study confirms something that has been observed in the U.S. for quite some time.
For example, farmers in the state of Iowa have discovered that crops growing underneath wind turbines are protected from summer heat. At the same time, while the air currents from the wind turbines are keeping surface temperatures down, they are also drying out the soil, requiring extra irrigation.
From these small-scale tests and real-time observations researchers can extrapolate possible outcomes that may be realised if countries like the UK and U.S. adopt large-scale wind farm production without regard for environmental planning. Common sense dictates we should be cautious with wind power given the fact that no one really knows the potentially harmful impact it could have on weather patterns.
Wind Power Kills Animals
If we are going to be intellectually honest, we must also admit that large-scale wind farms have a negative impact on the environment inasmuch as they kill animals. Those on both sides of the issue may disagree over the total number of animals killed every year, but they both agree animals die as the result of large-scale wind farms.
As reported by the Spectator in January 2013, wind turbines are "devastating populations of rare birds and bats across the world, driving some to the point of extinction." It must be noted that the Spectator article was not written by a pro-nuclear or pro-fossil fuels author. It was written by a zoologist from Oxford University whose speciality is species extinction. He is also a former supporter of wind power.
In his piece, the author cites nearly half a dozen cases from various parts of the world showing the damage done by wind farms, both offshore and on, citing resources like SEO/Birdlife and the California Energy Commission. If his assessment is correct, wind farms pose a greater environmental threat than many are willing to admit. Consider the following:
- Migratory Bird Populations - The most obvious environmental damage from wind farms is caused by turbine blades killing birds as flocks fly through. According to sources cited by the Spectator, the damage to some types of migratory birds can climb to hundreds of deaths per year, per turbine. That is a lot of birds.
- Bat Populations - On shore, bats are especially vulnerable because they rely on sonar rather than vision. Turbines can be confusing to bat sonar with devastating effects.
- Balance of Nature - In areas where wind farms have had a significant impact on birds and bats, that impact upsets the balance of nature. Insect populations that are normally kept under control thrive, as does the population of rodents and other prey. While it is true that fossil fuels upset the balance of nature to some extent, so does wind power.
- Marine Life - The discussion of wind power has moved offshore as a means of solving the issues of wind power onshore. However, even offshore turbines can affect marine life due to the sounds they generate. The low-frequency vibrations caused by turbines travel through the water and cause problems for migration, feeding, and reproduction.
Wind Power on a Small Scale
All of this is not to say that wind power is evil and should be abandoned at all costs. It is simply to suggest that we need to be cautious about implementing wind power on a large-scale without taking the time to research and understand the real world impact. It does not make sense to trade the damage of fossil fuels for another technology that could be equally damaging.
In the meantime, small-scale wind power is a feasible alternative that can help property owners reduce their dependency on the grid. In so doing, it also reduces carbon output and the amount of fossil fuels needed to generate our energy. Property owners who have the space can install a smaller wind turbine for supplemental electrical generation.
To make doing so attractive, the UK has made it possible for landowners to take advantage of feed-in tariffs for electric usage. A feed-in tariff is less expensive than many other standard tariffs and has an added bonus: it allows owners to sell excess energy back to their suppliers thus saving even more money on their electric bills.
Small-scale wind energy is obviously subject to local laws and ordinances. Equipment and installation is also subject to Department of Energy regulations. For example, homeowners who want to take advantage of feed-in tariffs must have their equipment installed by a government certified installation company. No DIY projects are eligible for the tariff.
Comparing Electricity Prices
As the debate over wind power rages, there is something you can do to reduce your electricity costs while you are waiting for a consensus to be reached. You can compare electricity rates online and switch to a new supplier that can offer a better deal. Believe it or not, you could save hundreds of pounds per year by doing so.
Currently there are 18 power companies in the UK all competing for your business. The roughly 20% of UK residents that take the time to compare and switch generally pay between £250 and £300 less (annually) than those who do not compare. Best of all, comparing and switching is not hard to do.
There are dozens of comparison websites that make the task extremely simple. Just take a few minutes to compare, read all the information available to answer your questions, and then choose a deal. Most of the websites even allow you to switch online.
The UK and most of Europe is rushing headlong into the idea of large-scale wind power to replace fossil fuels. This may be a correct strategy; then again, it may not be. Those who are in charge of energy policy need to slow down, step back, and make an honest assessment of the viability of large-scale wind power.
If it turns out that we can truly harness the wind effectively and efficiently, so be it. However, if wind power turns out to not be the panacea some believe it is, we would be better off abandoning it and looking for other alternatives rather than continuing to chase a dream.
There is lots of information regarding all the aspects of the wind power discussion from both points of view. Below are links to just a few websites where you can find such information. Keep in mind that there are very few truly unbiased sources. Keep an open mind as you read the material.
The Guardian Energy - The Guardian has a dedicated section of their website devoted entirely to energy. This is the front page of that section, where you will find all of the energy-related headlines of the day.
Institute of Engineering and Technology - An independent research organization devoted to providing information on technology, energy, etc. This page is the gateway to their energy section.
Renewable Energy Foundation - An independent charity with the mission to promote a national energy policy that is both ecologically sound and effective. The group has no political affiliation or corporate ties.
Earlier we mentioned comparing electricity prices online and switching if you found a better deal. The following links will take you to websites offering a comparison service. If you take just a few minutes to see what they have to offer, you may very well save yourself quite a bit of money.
Go Compare - Compare gas and electricity separately or under a dual fuel option here. You can comparison shop for both residential and small business service.
Money Supermarket -This site lets you compare and switch in a number of different ways. You can look for pricing based on dual fuel, separate utilities, prepayment meters, fixed tariffs, etc.
Confused.com - You can quickly get an online quote here and make the switch when you are ready. The site works with all the big names including British Gas, E.ON, NPower, and OVO.
Compare the Market - Both residential and business consumers can shop for their gas and electric here. If you have a bill handy, the process is very simple, although you can still shop even if you do not have a bill at this time.
Tesco Compare - Offering energy comparisons through their partner, The Energy Shop. They claim 50% of the customers who signed up through them in the first month of 2013 saved an average of £270 annually.
uSwitch.com - On this page you can browse a list of suppliers and compare them side-by-side or enter your postcode and let the website search for the best deal for you. If you would like to speak to a representative, they provide a free telephone number as well.
Money.co.uk - This site offers side-by-side comparisons for residential gas and electricity, business utilities, green suppliers, and more. You can see information about incentives, average prices, price promises, and more.
Totally Money - With just your postcode, this site lets you compare prices and get quotes easily. If you are ready to switch you can do so right online.
Money Saving Expert - The guide found here offers a lot of great information on finding cheap gas and electricity. They have dozens of other guides as well covering everything from insurance to bank accounts to mortgages.