Wind farms sustainability: How sustainable are wind farms?
In this article, we’re taking a close look at how wind energy could impact the environment. At times, wind energy has been criticised for being less than sustainable. What follows is a defence of wind energy’s sustainable credentials.
But first, let’s examine sustainable energy, renewable energy and the environmental concerns of wind energy.
Sustainable energy definition
Sustainable energy is energy that's produced and used in a way that meets the needs of the world's present population without compromising the needs of future generations.1
For energy to be considered sustainable, it should meet the following criteria:
Sustainable energy use and production shouldn't cause harm to the environment in the short term or long term.
Sustainable energy should be affordable to the vast majority of the population. Everyone should be able to access it, not just a select few.
The resources used to produce sustainable energy should be natural, easily accessible and renewable.
Whereas sustainable energy protects the interests of current and future populations, non-sustainable energy depletes finite resources and releases toxic emissions that harm the earth's climate.
Sustainable resources examples
Examples of sustainable energy sources include solar energy, geothermal energy, hydropower, and, the focus of this article, wind energy.2
The difference between renewable and sustainable energy
What is the difference between renewable and sustainable energy? The terms are often used interchangeably.
But is sustainable energy the same as renewable energy? The short answer is: no. While they share many similarities, renewable and sustainable energy are two distinct categories. As Energy Education explains: "Not everything renewable is sustainable, and in turn not everything which is sustainable is necessarily renewable.”3
Sustainable energy vs renewable energy
Some common examples of renewable but not sustainable energy sources include nuclear power and biogas.
Although nuclear-generated electricity production releases almost no carbon emissions, nuclear energy accidents and the problem of nuclear waste have the capacity to cause widespread long-term damage.4
Some forms of biogas are created with crops like maize that take up a lot of land and water to produce. According to The Guardian, a biogas plant with a one-megawatt capacity uses: "20,000-25,000 tonnes [of maize] a year, accounting for 450-500 hectares of land" while a single industrial offshore wind turbine has an average capacity of four megawatts.5
How is wind energy sustainable?
Wind energy is a popular source of sustainable energy. Harnessing the earth's bountiful wind supply is a cost-effective way to produce energy without releasing harmful emissions.
On average, a single onshore wind turbine produces enough electricity to supply 1,500 households per year, while an offshore wind turbine can power over 3,300 homes.6
Coastal and offshore wind farms play a significant role in the government's 2050 net-zero emissions targets7, thanks to their near-constant wind supply (as those of us living in coastal areas like Aberdeen will attest).
However, wind energy production is not without controversy. Several criticisms have been levied against wind farms, bringing wind energy's sustainable credentials into question.
So, is wind energy really sustainable? Let’s find out…
Environmental concerns of wind energy
We’ll take a closer look at some of the common criticisms of wind farms.
Damage to wildlife
The claim: Birds don't know to avoid wind turbines, meaning they can be killed by collisions.
The facts: As with every high-rise structure, birds do collide with wind turbines. However, studies show that birds are killed at a lower rate by wind turbines than by fossil fuel-powered plants.8
To reduce bird collisions, wind farms can be developed close to built-up urban areas, or offshore, following a careful local habitat monitoring process.9
The claim: Wind farms only work on very windy days. They don't generate very much electricity so they're a waste of money.
The facts: While wind farms don't run constantly, it's estimated that a modern wind turbine produces electricity between 70-85% of the time.10
It's true that wind turbines stop turning at times; this is usually because of maintenance or for safety reasons during extremely high winds and storms.11
When wind levels are low, turbines can continue to turn thanks to their energy storage systems, allowing them to keep generating electricity.12
The claim: Wind turbines break down frequently and are costly to maintain.
Wind turbines do need regular maintenance because of the heavy loads that they have to endure throughout their lifespan. In general, they require two to three preventative maintenance checks per year, in addition to unscheduled maintenance, which can vary according to operating conditions.13
Interestingly, the need for regular maintenance is one of the reasons that the US has recently committed to a massive investment in offshore wind. In addition to helping the country meet its 2035 carbon reduction goals, the developments are anticipated to create thousands of jobs for operation and maintenance workers.
The Washington Post notes that: “offshore wind represents one of the most labor-friendly opportunities for U.S. workers" compared with other renewable energy sources.14
Bad for the environment
Claims of this nature can usually be divided into two categories: components and construction. We'll examine both below.
The claim: Wind turbines contain a finite resource: a rare metal called neodymium.
The facts: It's true: all wind turbines contain a very strong magnetic component that's made with neodymium.15 Neodymium is one of 17 rare-earth metals.
'Rare-earth' is now widely considered a misnomer, dating back to their initial discovery in the 1700s.16
Some 'heavier' rare-earth elements like europium are indeed rare, but others like cerium and neodymium are about as common as copper.17
However, it is true that neodymium is a finite resource, just like other elements. It is used in everyday technology like phones, motors and MRI machines.
The largest concern about neodymium is our ability to acquire it. China is reported to control up to 90% of the world's supply, although this figure has been heavily disputed over the past few years.18
Whatever your opinion on the matter, it certainly makes a good case for the UK and other European governments to invest in circular design initiatives that allow us to make better use of finite resources by recovering and repurposing them.
The claim: The construction of wind turbines is harmful to the environment as it emits a lot of CO2.
The facts: The construction of wind turbines is not a zero-carbon process, as manufacture, installation and maintenance do release some carbon emissions.
However, the levels are very low when compared with other forms of energy sources. According to FactCheck: "coal's carbon footprint is almost 90 times larger than that of wind. The footprint of natural gas is more than 40 times larger."19
It's also been found that the amount of CO2 emissions produced during the construction process of a typical wind farm is saved after 3 - 9 months of installation.20
The claim: Wind turbines are a blight on our landscape. Our natural views need to be conserved.
The facts: We’re all familiar with complaints about onshore wind farms being a blemish upon the natural landscape. However, these views are less common than you might think: two-thirds of the UK public find the look of onshore wind farms acceptable.21
As climate charity Possible notes: "It’s understandable that people who know and love an area are used to the way it looks and find a load of wind turbines popping up a bit of an imposition."22
That's why involving local people is crucial. Wind energy companies should work closely with local communities to involve them in the planning process. Many already have a community fund that pays between £10k - £300k annually for local community causes and initiatives.23
The verdict: Wind energy IS sustainable
So, is wind a sustainable energy source? Is wind energy sustainable for the future?
Despite the controversies, it’s safe to say that wind energy is a sustainable energy source, provided certain criteria are met. These are:
- Local communities should be consulted and supported
- Circular design methods should be encouraged to preserve neodymium supplies
- Jobs should be created to maintain and operate wind farms
Given the immediate threat to our climate, more wind energy initiatives, both onshore and offshore should be encouraged. Focusing on this effort will make for a cleaner, greener planet.
Communicating the benefits of wind farms
Despite being a benefit for the public both now and in the future, it's easy to see how misinformation about wind farms can quickly lead to negative public opinion.
The best way to combat this problem is through a proactive approach to marketing and communications. Public outreach programs, awareness campaigns and dedicated information services should form a part of every wind energy's marketing and communications strategies.
Having the support of the public will be key to the success of any wind energy business.
Need help marketing your wind energy business? Moment Energy works closely with sustainable energy businesses across the UK and internationally.
To discuss how we can help, simply get in touch.