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Wind Turbines: really green?

Editorial Staff

They were claimed to be the solution to fossil fuels. Acres of land and sea have been devoted to the alien structures that make even power-grid towers seem inconspicuous. Now about two decades into what was the future, has the promise of Wind Turbines turned into reality? Are there unintended consequences and are they good or bad?

At the heart of the 14,000 abandoned turbines claim is the Kamoa Wind Farm in Hawaii. It was one of six abandoned wind farms in Hawaii that featured in a report in the UK's Daily Mail in March 2012. The article presses for balance, pointing out that even in a place like Kamoa, the wind farm lasted 25 years and the giant windmills where then left to rust where they stood, "a technology that is supposed to be about saving the environment is instead ruining it." That article analyses the US experience - "thanks to the subsidies, it hardly mattered that some of the untested turbines were so sub-standard they barely even worked. " What broke the USA's "windrush" was that oil prices fell so much that oil powered electricity became significantly cheaper and, without subsidies, the wind farms became not only uneconomic to run but uneconomic to mothball or, even, dismantle. The Daily Mail said "No one who has driven past one of America’s mega wind farms today can fail to be struck by how few have blades that are turning, even in strong winds. The truth is that even fewer may be producing electricity than it appears. Many are switched to a mode in which the blades continue to turn just to keep oil moving around the mechanism, but no electricity is produced."

In the UK, reality set in and subsidies for on-shore wind-farms was ceased. But in January this year, the wind-farm industry reacted to the cancellation of a nuclear powered electricity generating plant in Wales by saying that, if subsidies were reinstated, it was ready to build just under 800 new on-shore wind farms. Pretty much the entire UK energy industry stands in that group - at least in part because electricity supply companies are required to ensure that at least 14% of their supply is from "renewable" sources. However, the response of the government was to continue to support only offshore wind farms, a course of action that, being announced in March, had the benefit of following on from the coming on stream, in February this year, of the UK's largest offshore wind farm. That, at Hornsea off the Norfolk coast, was said by its Danish developer, Ørsted, to have the capacity, if increased in size, to make up for the shortfall from Hitachi and Toshiba's nuclear departure - and to do it at a fraction of the cost and faster than the land-based farms the electricity companies had lobbied for. Of course, the offshore development still had subsidies. The Hornsea One project would cover a sea area greater than the land area of the city of Hull. The turbines for the next phase will be taller than "The Gherkin" a central London tower block.

Just a month after the UK's announcement, there was a surprise. An article in Green Tech Media said the idea of "subsidy-free onshore wind gains traction in Europe." Vestas, also a Danish company, said that it would develop subsidy-free on-shore wind farms in both Denmark and the UK. The article says that subsidy-free wind farms are becoming a feature across Europe as companies sign "power-purchase agreements" - thereby in effect under-writing at least part of the cost. It was not the first in the UK: a year earlier, German developer Energiekontor said it had used a PPA instead of subsidies to fund a development in Yorkshire, England. There have been other similar deals across Europe.

But that still leaves the fundamental question: building the wind farms is one thing but how long will they survive and what will happen to them when they die? Are huge chunks of metal to be left to rust and fall into the sea? So far, there does not appear to be any consideration given to the environmental impact of end-of-life of the monstrous devices. And monstrous they are: the scale of the latest wind farms is such that they present a genuine hazard to aircraft: the next generation is expected to be far taller. They will dwarf even the largest buildings in any European city. Large areas are no-fly zones for aircraft leaving or heading for airports and the situation, in the already busy skies across the North Sea, can only become worse with at least three large scale projects slated for commencement.

The UK and Germany, reportedly, installed, between them, some 85% of the total new EU wind power generation.