Wind energy: Good or bad?
By Philip Ebels
It is not all roses in the world of wind energy. Against those who believe it is the key to a future of renewable, clean energy, there are those who believe it is "the work of the devil" - in the words of British eurosceptic MEP Godfrey Bloom. It is a lively debate and there is a lot at stake.
Like Bloom, the European Parliament's most ardent opponents are British conservatives and eurosceptics. Even the UK Independence Party and the far-right British National Party have taken against wind turbines, which, they argue, are too expensive, do not - or not notably - reduce greenhouse gas emissions and desecrate rural landscape.
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"It is a ludicrous technology," says Scottish conservative MEP Struan Stevenson, chairman of the parliament's intergroup on climate change, biodiversity and sustainable development and author of the booklet The Rape of Britain.
Rape, he said in a speech held in the summer of 2011, is "an accurate description" of what the wind industry is doing to his country. Wind turbines, he says, not only "despoil the landscape," they also "violate the principle of fairness by transferring vast amounts of money from the poor to the rich" and "abuse the health and welfare of people and animals which have to live near them."
Wind turbine syndrome
Aside from raging politicians, there is a seemingly significant grass-roots movement of people who just do not like the sight of wind turbines or living near them.
Artists Against Windfarms, for example, aims "to save and celebrate our threatened landscapes." The European Platform Against Windfarms groups more than 500 local anti-wind organisations in the fight "against the damaging effects of wind farms on tourism, the economy, people's quality of life, the value of their properties and, increasingly often, their health."
The website talks of people who have difficulty sleeping or suffer from headaches, all from living near the rotating giants.
A new study released in January by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, however, found that "there is no evidence for a set of health effects ... that could be characterised as 'Wind Turbine Syndrome'."
Less difficult to deny is the health risk posed to birds. SEO/BirdLife, Spain's main bird conservation organisation, found in January that 6 million to 18 million birds are killed every year as a result of colliding with the rotating blades of a wind turbine.
Its mother organisation, BirdLife International, takes the softer line that "energy from the wind can be harnessed without harm to Europe’s birds and other wildlife ... provided the most sensitive locations are avoided."
It is true that the wind industry today relies heavily on government subsidies. Poor taxpayers' money would thus find its way into the pockets of energy fat cats. It is also true that the wind industry, estimated at €70 billion per year, still only sparsely contributes to meeting global energy demand.
Wind energy advocates say it is only a matter of time before the industry is able to stand alone.
"Onshore wind energy is already able to compete with nuclear energy," says Dutch Green MEP Bas Eickhout, "and the development of the technology is progressing at a gigantic pace."
According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a research company, "the best wind farms in the world already produce power as economically as coal, gas and nuclear generators; the average wind farm will be fully competitive by 2016."
Eickhout says that traditional energy industries receive more financial support than renewable energy industries do. "There is a fundamental unfairness in the market," he says. "Governments pay for much of the infrastructure of the traditional energy industry, like when a harbour needs dredging to allow for larger coal shipments. It has been that way since the Industrial Revolution, it is our mindset."
A dirty fight
Anti-wind campaigners may have rejoiced when on 9 January Civitas, a think-tank, published a report claiming that "wind power, backed by conventional gas-fired generation, can emit more CO2 than the most efficient gas turbines running alone".
But pro-wind campaigners were quick to denounce the report as a piece of biased pseudo-science and, in the words of Gordon Edge, director of policy at RenewableUK, the work of "anti-wind farm cranks."
There is much debate about the carbon footprint of wind turbines.
The anti's - often sceptical about the need in general to cut emissions - point at the emissions caused by the manufacture of the machines and by the back-up stations that take over when wind does not blow.
The pro's say that such back-up is rarely needed and that the amount of emissions still falls far behind any traditional means of generating energy.
Both sides accuse each other of rigging research to back up their claims.
"It is the big energy companies themselves who pay for the environmental assessments of their wind farm projects," says Stevenson. "So there is no way that those assessments are going to be negative."
Eickhout suspects the nuclear lobby to be behind some of the anti-wind research. "They are getting nervous," he says. "Their window of opportunity is closing, ever since Germany decided to completely phase out its nuclear energy programme."
It is a fight that will only intensify, Eickhout adds, as low-carbon energy industries scramble to get the most out of a post-fossil fuel future: "I will not be surprised to see negative news appearing about other types of clean energy in the future."