The Debate about Landscape versus Wind Power Is Important for Our Future; the Choice between Wind Power and Protecting Landscape Is Tough - but One Everyone Must Engage with, Argue Three Experts from Machynlleth's Centre for Alternative Technology

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), August 26, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Debate about Landscape versus Wind Power Is Important for Our Future; the Choice between Wind Power and Protecting Landscape Is Tough - but One Everyone Must Engage with, Argue Three Experts from Machynlleth's Centre for Alternative Technology


e should acknowledge Wfrom the start that we are pro-wind power. Equally, we should say that we are pro-landscape, specifically the precious landscapes of Wales where we live and work.

Like everyone in Wales, then, we have to choose not between good and bad but between two goods.

So, if we are to exploit wind energy, we have to ask ourselves how we can preserve the landscapes which are so vital to our culture, our ecology and, many would argue, our economy. We need a mighty wind to blow through Wales metaphorically as well as physically: We need to discuss and construct a sustainable future together, disagreements and all.

Many myths and not a few red herrings cloud the debate on wind power, but some facts are established.

Although we are not having a serious debate about reducing demand, as we should, it is incontestable that Wales and Britain need energy.

We also need to cut our carbon emissions drastically in a very short time - even by conservative (small c) government standards a 60% reduction by 2030. There can no longer be any doubt that climate change is real, serious and predominantly caused by carbon emissions from human activity.

Wales is blessed with abundant wind energy and, if we are to tap into that resource, we have to erect some large wind turbines, both offshore and onshore.

We can - and should - argue the case, but onshore wind power seems the most affordable form of low-carbon energy available. It is a myth that it takes more carbon to put up a wind turbine than it saves in its operating life. Best estimates are that it takes around one-and-a-half years for a turbine to 'pay back' the amount of energy used.

Typically, a wind turbine then generates "clean", i.e. zero carbon, energy for 20 years or more. Neodymium is used in the magnets of only a small percentage of wind turbine generators. The extraction of this "rare earth" metal for this purpose is not the cause of major environmental pollution. That said, the exploitation of such materials does require environmental regulation.

We should also argue about load factors and whether we can rely on wind power. A load factor indicates how much energy is generated as a percentage of how much would be generated if a plant were running at full capacity.

We believe the average load factor of wind farms in Wales is 25%, a reasonable output for this technology. The variability of wind power is certainly a technical challenge. For reliability, the technology is best integrated into a supportive grid system with, for instance, pump-storage schemes such as the "Electric Mountain" at Dinorwig.

Schemes like this pump water into a reservoir when the wind is blowing but demand for electricity is low - and release the water to produce power when the situation is reversed.

Moreover, a geographically widespread grid means that when there is no wind in one place, there is still likely to be power being generated somewhere else.

Runaway climate change is, by definition, irreversible. By contrast, wind turbines can be removed from a landscape leaving little trace.

Wherever possible in valued landscapes, however, we must surely seek alternatives to pylons. We have benefited hugely from the age of fossil fuels but it has come at a cost to others, particularly the people of the future who will suffer the worst effects of climate change. We have a debt to pay and maybe we have to shoulder responsibility and accommodate wind farms, at least for a time. It is difficult to imagine wind farms being decommissioned, of course, but in recent history that must have been the case with, for instance, deep coal mines. Things change. Future generations may reduce their energy consumption drastically, harness solar energy much more effectively, and develop as yet unimagined energy technologies.

Many people have put a lot of effort into understanding the issues around wind power over a long period and we need to build on that knowledge. …

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