Turbulent turning turbines

By Kwerdenker [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
Last week the coalition government came out with their energy policy proposals.  It can be seen as a small victory for the Liberal Democrats in the government that the worst excesses of Conservative climate-scepticism were pushed aside.  There will not be a new dash for climate-changing gas but a dash for renewables and nuclear.

We actually need a dash for energy saving but that message is never front of mind with politicians, instead we are offered ways to increase energy production or at least maintain it.  The problem with producing and using more energy, or even the same amount, through different methods, is that in the real world all means of energy production have snags attached to them.  Some are rather big snags (like nuclear waste hanging around for a long time).

Wind power and nuclear power both have the inconvenience of being expensive but they impose less ecological damage on the world (which has an economic cost associated with it that we rarely remember).

However, wind power is a land-hungry technology.  A single turbine won’t do much good so we need lots of them if they are to help us meet our carbon reduction targets (and they will only ever be a small part of the solution).  Now the trouble with having lots of wind turbines is that you need lots of land.  And although any land where the wind blows is good enough, some of that land is expensive.  So windfarms tend to be built on bits of land which aren’t very valuable for other uses – like the tops of mountains and remote moorland.

There are lots of concerns about wind energy. Is it too expensive? Can it do the job?  Is it reliable enough? Does it really save carbon emissions? I can’t resist pointing out that despite the fact that on balance wind energy comes out as being a good bet it is still true that ‘you can’t get thin just by eating more lettuce‘.

However, as with many things, it is a bit complicated. We have always known that the carbon emissions from the building of any energy generating operation need to be taken into account.  Think, for example, of the energy that goes into building a barrage across the Severn Estuary – those emissions need to be taken into account in any calculation of the energy value of such a scheme. And so it is with wind turbines.

Hugh Venables [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
A consequence of wind developments being pushed to cheaper land is that these are sometimes peatlands – and peat is a carbon store (a big carbon store).  If you start mucking about with a peat bog, building roads across it, setting wind turbines into it, you start releasing its peat.  These arguments were deployed when the RSPB opposed the building of a massive windfarm on the Isle of Lewis which would also have destroyed important wildlife habitat.

But I am a grateful to a correspondent for pointing me in the direction of a paper published earlier this year which looks more carefully at the carbon balance of building wind turbines on peat.  What researchers from Aberdeen University say is that wind turbines on peat are rarely justified simply on carbon grounds.  And so the message appears to be – avoid building windfarms on peaty soils.

The consequence of that is that they should more often be built on mineral soils, or offshore, or we should build fewer windfarms.  But if we build fewer windfarms the consequences of that are that we need other low-carbon energy sources or, I say again, to reduce our energy use.

Just imagine a world in which instead of counting the cost of everything in terms of money (can you explain to me what money is – really?) we did our calculations in terms of carbon.  How would the world be different?


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23 Replies to “Turbulent turning turbines”

  1. Hi Mark,
    In your summary of on-shore turbine locations I think you missed the biggest locational driver. Having worked on many wind farms/turbine sites (BTW - single turbine sites often get called "wind farms" in the planning process) it is landscape considerations that tend to rule the roost and direct developers and turbines into (a) remote areas where people cannot see them (often the best places for wildlife) and (b) areas with the most intact peat (inaccessible to historical exploitation). Accessible areas with little peat and low wildlife value are usually quickly disgarded on landscape grounds. The irony of regulators requesting that turbines be moved out of sight and so onto wildlife/peat rich habitats is not lost on those who then get comments from the same regulators commenting on predicted wildlife/peat impacts.

  2. Another big miss is the cost of transporting electricity to where it is needed. A recent paper showed that the cost of a cable from the Isle of Lewis had doubled to £750 million. No way were any turbines going to be viable on the island but the company would gain on the government pay out.

  3. I would agree that we need to put much more effort into using energy more efficiently. We are still incredibly wasteful - in the last couple of weeks for example I have visited three different local authority buildings in different parts of the country in which heating was on although the buildings were standing empty and out of use. Not just frost protection but toasty warm! It is not just local authorities but industry, service industries and of course our private homes. Wherever you look you can usually find examples of energy being consumed to no useful purpose.
    We will always need to make difficult decisions about where and how we obtain our energy but if we could make serious inroads into using it more efficiently it would perhaps ease the pressure to erect wind turbines on peaty soils, extract oil from Canadian tar sands, drill in the Arctic or any of the other ways in which we harm the environment in the pursuit of a few more gigajoules.

  4. Well Northants has alot of turbines and even more applied for, but I'm begining to wonder if they are truly a wortwhile energy source, I've lost count the number of times I've driven past wind turbines in windy weather and they are motionless yet I can deliver into a couple of firms near Crick and their single turbines are spinning in the breezes, is there a reliabilty issue with multiple turbines? I'm also starting to think they do have an impact on bird migration, and yes I know there are studies out there saying both yes and no. But as a birder this autumn migration from my perspective has been poor compared to previous years...selfish or what on my behalf. But as I ticked in your survey I DON'T FLY, my last trip on a plane was in 1997 when I went to America, if I go to Jersey I go by boat, more enjoyable and some great birding from the back deck to be had! Holidays in foreign climates on my wages aren't feasible FACT
    Sadly previous governments (not just Labour) has left us in this situation of an energy crisis, even with the consultation of Sizewell C being started if it gets built we are still going to have a shortfall of energy until the plant comes online. When we had oil in the North Sea, Maggie sold it cheaply to the Germans, instead of building a reserve for this country. At peak consumption some of electric supply comes down the line from France, did you know that? Coal with clean coal technology is ignored? Why? Is there anywhere information availiable that says how many days in a year ALL the turbines in the country are or are not working, and when they are working exactly how much electric is being produced, both lowest and highest? Another flaw with both tidal,wind and solar is once they have generated electric it has to be used, no-one has come up with a solution to "store" the power generated during low demand time so if they generate the most during off peak times alot of energy is being wasted!
    I have to take issue with your survey Mark, the question about newspapers, no box to tick for "none of the above", and question 9 I could only choose one option where in question 8 I could choose multiple answers....small niggle

  5. I'm with Jonathan regarding waste. Surely, the day must come when the illuminations of Picadilly Circus, Times Square etc are outlawed.
    In my workplace (a school), banks of computers are left switched on 24/7, lights are left blazing away by teaching staff when they leave work. The school is obsessed with "business and enterprise", but seems to teach the kids nothing about caring for their own futures.

    What chance do we have against such crass stupidity?

  6. The subsidies to wind power provided under the Renewables Obligation and Feed in Tarriff schemes have resulted in a huge number of proposals for turbine arrays in Scotland. There are currently plans to install turbines on some of the best peat lands in the country: in Shetland, Sutherland, Caithness and the Monadh Liath mountains among many locations. The scale of these developments is quite hard to convey: some of the proposed wind farms are literally city sized. (Have a look, for example, at the already consented Viking wind farm in Shetland, which will consist of 103 turbines 475 feet high.)

    It is difficult to see how subsidies for wind farms on peat can be justified. They will probably not (according to the Aberdeen team) reduce carbon emissions. Their impact on bird life through collisions, disturbance and habitat destruction will be negative. And they will industrialise some of the most beautiful wild landscapes anywhere in the world.

    The subsidies are also undesirable from the point of view of economic inequality, as they represent a transfer from all electricity bill payers (including the poorest households) to landowners and the shareholders of energy companies.

    Part of the problem is the misleading use of the word 'renewable'. Why should a method of electricity generation which relies on destroying carbon containing peat be classed as 'renewable' any more than the methods which rely on destroying other carbon containing fuels?

    The subsidies for wind farms on peat must stop before this wildlife and landscape goes any further.

    1. David, the term renewable has nothing to do with carbon. It refers to the origin of the energy source that drives the turbine. Coal, oil, gas, uranium and thorium are all finite resources of the earth. Solar power and changing air pressure should be good for a few billion years yet.

      Mark, I did your survey and did not answer the labour or conservative question. If I was restricted to that choice I would not vote, or maybe I would stand myself! Hope you will be publishing a summary of the responses.

  7. Concerns about wind energy.
    Is it too expensive? Yes
    Can it do the job? No
    Is it reliable enough? No
    Does it really save carbon emissions? No
    ... on balance wind energy comes out as being a good bet

    The Parrot is dead. Long live the Parrot.

    More entertainment:



  8. New Scientist recently reported a Spanish solar array that was storing heat in molten salt to provide energy 24 hrs/day.

  9. It is not just the energy value used in site construction it is also as in the case of nuclear the vast cost of decommissioning and cleaning up nuclear sites. Sellafield in Cumbria has already had to extend their target for a decommissioning date by 15 years at a vastly inflated cost and we are talking about tens of billions of pounds here.
    'An "intolerable risk" is being posed by hazardous waste stored in run-down buildings at Sellafield nuclear plant, a watchdog has found'. Link here http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cumbria-20228176

    Already at Sellafield there are the equivalent of 27 olympic swimming pools of high level waste being stored with no one seemingly knowing what to do with it. Can anyone really trust any government controlled department to run something safely and efficiently ? Apparently the japanese company Hitachi are to become involved in a big way in UK nuclear energy, but does Japan have a good safety record regarding the nuclear industry? I do not think so !!
    The problem is that the people of west cumbria are in many cases prepared to ignore any risks which are offset by many good jobs.

    1. Actually Japan until Tusnami had the best safety record in regards to nuclear power, even putting Germany and France to shame. Hitachi involved in Britains nuclear reactors/plants, I thought and may stand corrected, that EDF, French, was awarded the contracts to build nuclear facilities. The events in Japan effected the decision, but saying that if the same happened in Europe, how many of the workers would go on a suicide mission and certain radiation poison to prevent a complete meltdown as in Japan. As for storage and disposal, there was supposed to be scheme in Scandanavia, I can't for the life of me remember if it was Sweden to shove the waste into a granite cave system were it should be "safe" but it was also supposed to be used for carbon storage in a carbon capture project too, but both stories have disappeared from public forum. The only other option for nuclear waste is a lead lined coffin, deep enough and in an area of "geologically sound" soil/ground and guess where in the UK the safest area is deemed suitable....Northamptonshire! There was a site in the mid 90's that was going to take it, an airfield on the Oxfordshire/Northants border, near the M40.

  10. Liberal Democrats and their answer to unprecedented-wetness climate disastrophism:


  11. I quite like the look of wind turbines in certain landscapes, and they are one of the prime reasons for most of my birding peers to have given up on careers in conservation in exchange for surveying desolate moorlands or bits of the North Sea. Despite this I cannot help thinking that the wind turbine industry is just a distraction from the main problem we face in our insatiable appetite for finite resources, and wind energy will never be the silver bullet that saves us from the probable devastation of climate change. When some boffin comes up with a revolutionary reneawable energy source in ten years time, I can't help but wonder if we will be looking at the arrays of turbines off the North Norfolk coast and be shaking our heads saying 'what were we thinking?'

  12. The jury's out on wind power as far as I'm concerned, if nothing else for the potential effect on raptors. However, since Sellafield has been mentioned, I think the aesthetic issue is overplayed. Stand on St Bees head and look south, and there before you should be one of the best, if not THE best, land- and seascapes in the kingdom, with the Scafells rising above the sea. Slap bang in the middle of it is Sellafield, while further up the Solway are, or were, Chapelcross and the Anthorn radar station. It's enough to make you weep. Imagine a wind farm in place of them and they wouldn't be half as ugly.

  13. Re the peat issue...often over looked is the fact that the UK has a formal obligation to "maintain and enhance" its blanket bog habitat (all of it-not just the bits in protected sites) under the EU habitats directive. Under article 17 of the directive we have to report on the condition of the UK's blanket bog every 6 years.
    The habitat has been un-favourable in the last to reporting cycles. One of the key factors in assessing condition is the extent of the habitat. Every time a turbine is built in blanket bog the habitat reduces, every crane pad reduces the habitat, every trackway reduces the habitat and all the cable routing reduces the habitat.
    Where is this massive loss of habitat being recorded? On the official BARS site?

    Maybe if you dont record it, you dont have to report it?

    1. "every trackway reduces the habitat"

      And provides an unwanted drainage channel reducing the peat's waterholding capacity, conducting eroded peat away in drainage, lowering the watertable, drying and aerating the peat, exacerbating downslope flood risk.

      No different from shooting access in this respect.

  14. Dare I say energy is too cheap, that's why we are profligate with it. We need to seriously reduce the waste and use the remainder more efficiently.
    The pricing structure is about face with the later units on your bills being much cheaper than a small amount at the beginning. if energy got progressively more expensive the more you used you'd think twice about having those silly lights down your garden path or illuminating the front of your house as if it's St Paul's...and us moth-ers and astromoners would have better darkness in which to work.
    There is a page on Ofgem's website explaining why this 'can't' be done.
    The sea has to be the answer it's a huge heat resource if only we could tap it effectively. Along with the electricity it has the potential to provide through tidal stream and reef systems and big 7MW+ wind will be along shortly so there's little point putting small 1-2MW turbines on land anywhere better to invest the capital in a large offshore scheme. Then we need better interconnectivity through an expanded and fit for purpose international grid...but no pylons in my back yard please.
    Carbon capture for coal may be interim measure but where's the huge amounts of water going to come from - OK we've got too much of the stuff now but we didn't last winter...challenging times and big decisions ahead.
    Nuclear is great but no politician ever factors in the tax payers money required for the always hugely over-budget decommissioning and 100000 years+ of inflation rated storage!
    Leave the peat alone...after what we've witnessed this week all drains above the in-bye should stopped up.

  15. Gas and electric too cheap! Not in my household and on my earnings! I'm on a token meter for both, so are unable to change to cheaper tarrifs/provider. So far my heating hasn't been on except for hot water this year. I'm already in fuel poverty! Current price rises and any further rises will mean living in the dark and cold! Only light in my house on are the ones I'm in the room. By the sounds of it, you can afford the raise in tarrifs you suggest! So if they propose that someone like me was to pay less depending on use/income and property size and the wealthier pay more, would you be in favour? Try waking up to ice on the inside of your windows, you wouldn't be advocating a tougher/higher price structre.

    1. "So if they propose that someone like me was to pay less depending on use/income and property size and the wealthier pay more, would you be in favour?"

      Where I live there are well above average numbers of households struggling with fuel poverty and yet only a mile or so away from those deprived areas homes and businesses are lit up unecessarily even brighter than our famous Illuminations! AND people have windows wide open because their rooms are over heated - WHY?????
      I have no intention of going back to the days when I had to scrape ice off the inside of the windows to see if the cold weather had brought any Redwings in to the garden and remember them only too well. No I couldn't afford any further hikes in fuel prices and try to use the bare minimum of gas & electricity, so on the 'revised' pricing structure hopefully I'd make a saving or only have a small increase.
      Its the waste and the wasteful that need curtailing.

      Hope that helps

  16. Not really, because what got me was for someone to say energy is cheap, it ain't, and it's only going to go up again when the winter kicks in properly, then I have to pay extra to subsidise wind power, for what? They've hardly solve any shortfall in our demand. I fully agree with the amount we waste and how much energy is loss through things like poor insulation, an issue the previous government was adressing by lagging and cavity wall insulation, sadly by the time the scheme was rolled out onto our estate it was subject to the government cuts. Though in a bid to save money our local government switched off the street lights and even though the majority was in uproar about it, me I loved it as do the moths.

  17. On the topic of wind farms on peatlands, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is currently holding a consultation on the question of the subsidies for onshore wind farms.

    This is now coming to a close, but the project manager at DECC (Julie Whiting) told me that they might be able to consider representations received in the next day or two.

    If you believe that building wind farms on peat should not be subsidised through the Renewables Obligation and Feed in Tariff schemes then could I urge you to email DECC today to make this point?

    As with the non native conifer plantations of the 1970s and 1980s, it seems unlikely that the rush to develop wind farms on peat will stop unless the subsidies which are driving this are removed.

    The contact at DECC is julie.whiting@decc.gsi.gov.uk


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