Are wind turbines bad for the countryside?

Wind turbines attack! by xkcd

Earlier this week I watched the Four Corners story, Against the Wind, on the alleged health impacts of wind turbines and came away wondering just what the point of the program was. Based on what I saw, my clear impression is there’s no issue here – there’s simply no hard evidence of the supposed health dangers of turbines*. The allegations remind me of the scare-mongering around the dangers of winds turbines to birds, which I’ve discussed before.

But I was horrified (no doubt unintentionally) by the vision of rural landscapes blighted by row upon row of giant white robots stretching along the tops of the hills. An occasional turbine is novel, even an object of beauty, but to my sensibilities a massed army of towers is a scar on the countryside.

I know they’re not being erected in pristine bushland, but the sort of sweeping pastoral panoramas in the regions filmed by Four Corners – with green meadows, stands of trees and occasional rustic buildings – are extraordinarily beautiful. It’s a different aesthetic to natural bushland, but no less valuable for that.

As if we haven’t done enough visual damage by permitting ad hoc development on the urban fringe, now we want to make the country look like Texas’s endless oil derricks. We fight tooth and nail to protect the beauty of streetscapes in the cities (admittedly not always successfully), but the defacing of farming landscapes on a grand scale goes on with hardly a murmur of protest.

It’s true we urgently need to reduce carbon emissions but I don’t think it’s obvious we need to pollute the countryside to achieve that goal. That seems a ludicrous price to pay, effectively substituting one form of environmental damage with another.

Wind isn’t the only option we have to address climate change. Wind just happens to be the cheapest form of renewable power – with subsidy – we currently have available. However that calculation doesn’t account for the long-term damage done to scenic landscapes. Just as historically we’ve done with cars, we’re failing to price the negative externalities.

We’ve only seen the start of the likely damage. At present, wind accounts for circa 0.2% of world energy production. One estimate is the world will have to build 100 times as many wind farms in coming decades as we have today in order to get just 10% of world energy from wind. This would require every locality with wind potential to be cultivated as a ‘wind farm’ (sounds so benign).

What might seem an issue confined to a few out-of-the-way locations at present could be become much more widespread in the future. As of October last year, there were 1,052 wind turbines in Australia, a further 1,043 under construction and 4,304 with planning approval. It’s by no means inconceivable that in the decades ahead huge patches of elevated countryside will be disfigured by towering turbines. By then, what might be seen today as a symbol of a positive approach to the environment could well be seen as repetitive and ugly, like roadside billboards.

The visual impact of wind turbines is a deal-breaker for me (although I know people who aren’t even slightly bothered by them). But for this issue, I might otherwise overlook its key shortcoming – the inability to supply power consistently. As the Financial Review’s Mark Lawson points out, there still has to be an equivalent capacity in other forms of generation for those times when the wind isn’t blowing. Mark Diesendorf from the Institute of Environmental Studies at UNSW argues there are ways around this, but they all add complexity, difficulty and cost.

However rather than debate the merits of various alternatives to coal here and now, I’ll settle for highlighting the need for a better appreciation of the visual impact of wind turbines. All I ask is that this issue have greater prominence in discussions about cleaner energy options. It needs to be factored in. We shouldn’t just assume that anything “renewable” necessarily comes at no cost, because that’s rarely the case.

*Back to the issue of the health impacts of wind turbines, the new issue of the peer-reviewed journal, Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society, evidently has a number of articles indicating there could be more to the story than Four Corners showed (I’ve not read them). Here’s the press release.

14 Comments on “Are wind turbines bad for the countryside?”

  1. Michael says:

    I feel for the people effected by wind turbines, but it seems people who have objections to trucks, large power lines, airport traffic and freeways don’t get much consideration either. There is an urgent need for people to confront the effects of the energy they use. Do motorists care what the environmental effects of drilling for oil might be? Wars, Deepwater Horizon oil spill, fracking, undemocratic governments, tar sands, health problems etc. But not to worry, that all happens elsewhere and doesn’t blight our countryside.

  2. MA says:

    It is unfair to characterize people who are deeply affected by this as people who don’t care about the environment. A way to make ourselves feel better for victimizing them?

    Most are hardworking rural families with children who suddenly find themselves living in an noisy industrial area and unable to sell their properties. An awfully large price for a few innocent people to bear.

    Once you realize how little wind adds to the power grid and how undependable and expensive it is, you might not be so quick to condemn those people. It does next to nothing to reduce CO2 emissions. It is a con game by some very savvy conmen. It all started with Enron. Why are people so easily led by the wind industry?

  3. RED says:

    Alan, why not take a Sunday drive down to the Latrobe Valley sometime, and have a look at the coal mines down there? Then you will truly appreciate the impact that power generation can have on a beautiful rural landscape.

    • Precisely! I’d argue that every type of mass power generation is ugly!

      Personally I think most wind turbines look quite a bit better than most other options.

      Also as is pointed out in one of the articles you’ve linked to and plenty of other research that has been done, wind power from one source is quite unreliable. Wind power from multiple sources, separated by decent distances, but fed into the same grid is far more reliable and far more predictable.

      <blockquote<Although the output of a single wind farm fluctuates greatly, the fluctuations in the total output from a number of wind farms geographically distributed in different wind regimes are much smaller and partially predictable.

      Modelling has also shown that it’s relatively inexpensive to increase the reliability of the total wind output to a level equivalent to a coal-fired power station by adding a few low-cost peak-load gas turbines that are run on renewable biofuels and are operated infrequently, to fill in the gaps when the wind farm production is low.

      • Alan Davies says:

        All forms of power generation have a landscape impact but do they all have the same visual impact? I think not.

        Turbines need to be spaced and so cover a much larger area than an equivalent capacity power station fuelled by, say, gas or nuclear (obviously I treat coal as irrelevant). They also require a more prominent or elevated location.

        A single 1,000 MW base load station has a max capacity equivalent to 667 individual 1.5 MW turbines. These turbines will have blades of around 77 metres diameter (that’s a very tall structure) and, at six turbines per sq km, will require an area of 111 sq km.

        It is unlikely this land would be contiguous – topographical and land use constraints mean it would probably be in “patches” spread over a much larger area, thus increasing its visual footprint. Each patch would probably be long and thin in order to follow ridges, thus further increasing the average visibility of each turbine.

        Of course 667 turbines can’t produce consistently at their peak capacity. If it’s assumed they deliver on average only 30% of max capacity, a total of 2,222 “geographically distributed” turbines is required to produce as much power as the base load station. That requires 370 sq km of wind farm (with a much larger visual footprint).

        So the base load station will be bulky and high but it’s in one location. A single turbine is getting on toward 100 metres high and located at elevation and there’s 667 of them (really 2,222) spread out to maximise wind utilisation.

        Based solely on the criterion of landscape impact, the base load station wins hands down, I think.

  4. Kieran says:

    I agree with Red and note that unlike coal power generation, wind power does not stink and create emissions that are hazardous to health. Also, unlike coal producing areas, land used to generate energy for wind can be used for other purposes such as grazing.

    I also understand that in the future turbines will get bigger and more efficient, so less will be required, and will increasingly built off-shore, reducing the issue of ‘blight’ (although i personally don’t find them particularly ugly).

    Alan, you argue that wind may not be the most efficient way to produce renewable energy in the long term. What do you suggest as an alternative? I understand that most wind turbines have an operational life of about 3 decades, and I’m sure they will play a very valuable role in providing energy in the next couple of decades, even if other technologies replace wind in the future.

    I also disagree with your argument that ‘the defacing of farming landscapes on a grand scale goes on with hardly a murmur of protest’. Wind-power companies face bitter opposition from activists, often citing spurious research which claims that turbines produce negative health impacts, and locals angling for greater compensation payments or trying to protect their property values. Land owners are compensated, and some recieve significant incomes from turbines.

    This is what the point of the 4 corners program was – there is a powerful lobby group fighting against wind farms, for a range of reasons – because they hate greenies, they’ve been convinced by spurious research (that is given too much time in the herald sun and local media), or they simply don’t like the look of turbines. This lobby group is endangering our ability to take even limited steps to moving towards a greener energy portfolio with the best technology we have at this time.

    • Alan Davies says:

      I don’t see coal as a relevant comparison in this discussion – it’s no longer an option.

      My “hardly a murmur” comment was in the context of the visual impact of turbines. On the information I’ve seen, I don’t buy any of the other objections from landowners. But I’m at a loss to explain why there isn’t more opposition to the visual landscape from people who care about the environment. Puzzling.

      As to alternatives, offshore would be a great way to address the issue if it’s viable. I expect solar would have a smaller impact on landscape than wind (the Moree solar farm has a theoretical capacity of 150 MW and occupies 12 sq km – oh,and it’s rather flat, too). Gas and nuclear (and geothermal if it really is a goer) would have a much smaller visual impact.

      Overall though, I think gas is the obvious immediate alternative to coal. Not zero carbon and not renewable, but much cleaner than coal, cheaper than renewables and we have a lot of it in Australia. It’s only a short term fix but it gives us time to work on other options like solar, geothermal and offshore wind. It’s probably too politically difficult ATM but I see a role for nuclear, too.

      • I’m becoming more cautious about gas generation of late. At a recent peak oil speak I attended the speaker pointed out that because natural gas is mainly comprised of methane, only about 2% has to leak during the mining, taping, transporting and then generation process for it to release emissions that will lead to equivalent levels of warming as simply using coal. The 2% leakage figure is apparently quite a likely scenario during this process.

        Unfortunately I can’t remember the name of the speaker, I remember that he was an engineer that had in the past worked for Shell, but had since left to research and speak about peak oil and climate change issues.

        However, I’ve found this article in NY Times that talks about the issue. I’m sure there is plenty of other information out there. The good news from the NY Times article is that whilst methane traps far more heat than CO2, it also dissipates from the atmosphere much faster.

        • nick says:

          agree with julian above, gas is not as clean as generally supposed and the scale of the problem is sufficient that visual impact of wind turbines while it is an issue, cant possibly trump the other priorities here..

  5. Noam Shifrin says:

    I wonder whether there has ever been a power generation method which as little to no visual impace, no adverse health effects and fulfils energy generation requirements?

  6. Factory says:

    Most (all?) farmland is commercial, land values are far more affected by how much profit the land can return then how pretty it is. (perhaps where it borders on residential land?)

  7. T says:

    I’m not particularly bothered by wind turbines but I don’t live in the country… but I get why some people would have a problem with.

    Would be good if we could focus on more solar energy. They are creating more and more powerful solar panels – they’re even inventing micro solar panels that can cover surfaces like windows. Imagine if every surface of every building could capture energy from the sun? That would be something… maybe one day.

  8. Johnyboy says:

    ha ha ha. I have to disagree again about the relevance of coal. I think coal has many advantages that other forms of energy do not have. The key thing about it is the expertise we have in using coal. Its along history of developement. Alot of the safety issues have been worked out unlike gas, you do not need the extensive training and knowledge. I do know that gas is dangerous unlike coal. You can pick up a piece of coal and there is no problem.

    When there is gas leak. You got problems baby.

    I know of people injured when fittings for the pump connector failed at the petrol station. What happened? This person had his hand swell up 4 times. Everytime i see the big red hand advert with the prices going down for woolies or coles or safeway ( I can not remmeber), I think of this poor fellow. It might of been an isolated incidence. If you get LPG going on your skin. Its very cold and you get tissue destruction.

    I think for valid comparisions to be made, we need to compare coal with the latest coal fire stations. There is coal gasifcation which means that the coal is burned more efficiently. Then there is promise of storing carbon somewhere. I am not familiar enough in the uses of products burned from coal. I think the debate we have here lacks information on these things.

    Though these seem far fetched , I think that as drilling technology progresses it might become viable to store coal somewhere.

    Then is technology with plankton that can eat up huge amounts of carbon.

    After all the fanciful ideas. I think the prevention is better then cure.

    The government need to puting in policies for buying energy efficient products for government departments. I think this will be driver that will move things alot faster. These include the most efficient white goods to cars. The government has to buy the cars that are lighter and most importantly safer to make the rest of us safer.

    The transporting of shipping containers needs to change. We need lighter shipping containers that weigh less. These will directly reduce the emissions from trucks. We need to reduce the weight of all the house hold goods . I hate to say. I know what i am talking about. Transporting goods is expensive. Less wight. Less emotions.

    Thats why I keep going back to the planning. Its wrong. Its there to keep the rich rich. That simple.

    The solution is to use newer stronger lighter materials that material science has created.
    ha ha ha ha. Im so dam smart.

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