I FREQUENTLY RECALL a quotation from the Observer newspaper a few years ago that compared wind farms to politicians: they promise much but deliver very little.
What is crucial in the understanding of the debate regarding wind energy is the impact that wind farm development has on the environment. It is also important to note that the industry itself admits that the development of onshore wind farms would not be viable, or feasible from a financial point of view, without the huge subsidisation of the industry.
This brings me back to the opening remark regarding lack of out put and delivery from wind turbines. Wind energy is unpredictable, intermittent and by and large dependent on low-output machinery. This must be understood in the context of each individual turbine, which might have a maximum capacity of three megawatts from a structure measuring on average 125m in height and requiring substantial foundations of up to six metres in depth and a hard standing area of 15 square metres. These gigantic machines are set in place using an average of 1000 tons of concrete while the machines themselves are by and large manufactured in and shipped from China. The average development of a 25-turbine wind farm will require upwards of 100,000 litres of oil to be consumed in its construction phase.
Many of these wind farms in Ireland are located in highly scenic upland and eco-sensitive areas, leading to the loss of important habitats and disturbance to the wildlife which depends on these habitats. Another consequence is the impact on local ground water and surface water – which is frequently at risk of pollution from the development as well as from changes to the local hydrological regime. Our natural environment and our landscape are non-renewable resources crucial to the wellbeing of not just their local wild life but also the human community in these areas.
Wind farms and their rapid development initially began as a government response towards countering the predicted impact of global climate change. This policy has now been further developed and is promoted actively as offering the possibility that Ireland can be well placed to become a net exporter of renewable energy, with the main emphasis being placed on the generation of wind power. In promoting this policy and suggesting that wind energy will provide a realistic alternative to the more traditional method of fossil fuelled generation, our government and policy makers are ignoring the reality that currently the average annual output from installed wind capacity on the national grid is an average 23 per cent. This compares with an output efficiency from a traditional generational power plant of 80 per cent plus.
‘Wind doesn’t blow on demand’
It is also important that people understand that in the area of electricity generation, supply must always match demand. It is not possible to store electricity generated from wind farms – and wind does not blow on demand. We can all recall the severe winters we have had over the last two years, when no wind was available for a period of up to six weeks when the country experienced record lows in temperature. Were it not for our conventional power stations, it is doubtful if many of us would have coped very well.
I have been dealing with wind farms for many years and I cannot appreciate why this industry continues to be promoted as a realistic and viable source of energy in the total absence of any critical analysis – which, were it to be conducted, would demonstrate that rather than being a sacred cow these ugly and expensive developments are white elephants. The level of subsidisation which is provided to this industry helps to account for our unattractive ranking as the third most expensive country in the EU for electricity. Surely this is a base cost that any prospective investor looking at Ireland as a possible location for industry would have to take into account; and this at a time when the country needs inward investment like never before.
We must also consider the very real concern that our future energy supply cannot be guaranteed, as the previous minister decreed that 40 per cent of our energy needs should come from wind generation by 2020. To achieve this target will require the installation of upwards of 6000 turbines in our small geographical area and the erection of numerous heavy-duty power lines criss-crossing the country. Already the encroachment of these developments is causing major concern to communities around Ireland, as wind farms move closer to human habitation. The associated impacts of noise and in particular low frequency noise has raised concerns about the negative impact on human health – in particular in children. Recent health studies have indicated that this has manifested itself in a number of ways, including headaches, sleep disturbance and nausea. The knock on effects can also affect heart health, lack of concentration, and obesity in children.
As these experiences are mainly confined to rural areas, we frequently observe how divisive these developments can be in communities. This has mainly arisen where local landowners who stand to benefit from these developments taking place on their lands – lands which are frequently marginal in terms of agricultural value – are finding themselves at loggerheads with their neighbours, who have very real and legitimate concerns relating to the impacts that wind farm development will have on their lives and their community.
‘We appear willing to allow whatever they apply for’
Moreover, in contrast with our neighbours in Britain (where opposition is widespread), rural communities in Ireland have shown a reluctance to voice their opposition to these developments, notwithstanding their concerns. It is frequently left to a minority in the affected community to object to the planning applications when they are submitted. This is despite many well-publicised cases over recent years where existing wind farms have caused considerable anxiety to local residents.
Unfortunately for those finding themselves in this situation, neither the planning authorities nor the operators have shown any sympathy to those affected. Australia, where opposition to wind farms close to human habitation has been strong, has recently passed a law preventing the location of turbines within 2km of any inhabited residence. Meanwhile, we in Ireland appear willing to allow whatever the operators see fit to apply for.
Another disappointing area is the failure of environmentalists to concern themselves with the adverse affects these developments have on the ecology of areas of conservation value. The uncritical promotion of this costly technology – which is clearly unreliable and will have long term adverse effects on the environment, lifestyle and wellbeing of communities living in close proximity – represents a serious dereliction of duty by government policy makers and planners. It will do little to address our core need to identify and develop realistic and sustainable sources of renewable energy for the future.
Peter Crossan lives in rural north-west Cavan. He developed an interest in environmental issues many years ago when, working as a journalist in the Third World, he discovered the interdependency between communities and their environment. He has been actively involved in environmental issues in Ireland for the past 12 years.