In the past, no electricity generating technology has been
developed, introduced and become competitive without initial
support. Well-established industries such as oil, natural gas and
nuclear power have all benefited from significant state backing
during their development phase.
Worldwide government subsidies to the fossil fuel industry in 2008
were $557 billion (IEA study 2010), while subsidies to the
renewable energy and biofuel industries in 2009 were $43-$46
billion (Bloomberg New Energy Finance study 2010). So fossil fuels
received 10 times more subsidies than the clean energy sector.
Subsidies also take indirect forms, such as the $35 billion paid
out by the US federal government over 30 years to cover the medical
expenses of miners suffering from "black lung disease".
Such distortions mean that the true cost of "conventional" energy
sources is not reflected in their market price.
In the UK, the support that wind and other renewable energy
technologies get (the Renewables Obligation or RO) is not a
taxpayer subsidy, it is paid through electricity consumers' fuel
bills, which means that it follows the 'polluter pays' principle -
the more energy you use, the more you pay. And don't forget that
through the RO, renewable energy generators only get paid for the
power they produce so there's no subsidy for doing nothing and a
big incentive for efficiently operating projects.
At good windy sites, wind is increasingly competitive with other
new-build generation technologies, especially given recent and
future rises in oil and gas prices. Obviously, wind cannot compete
with the cost of producing electricity from an existing power plant
that has already been depreciated and paid for by taxpayers or
electricity consumers. Wind energy is one of the cheapest of the
renewable energy technologies. It is competitive with new clean
coal fired power stations and cheaper than new nuclear power. The
cost of wind energy varies according to many factors. An average
for a new onshore wind farm in a good location is 3-4 pence per
unit, competitive with new coal (2.5-4.5p) and cheaper than new
nuclear (4-7p). Electricity from smaller wind farms can be more
The cost of wind energy has fallen over the years as the
technology has matured. Historically, the costs per produced kWh
for new turbines have fallen by between 9 % and 17 % for each
doubling of installed capacity [ref European Wind Energy
Association - EWEA].
Finally, if the "external" costs of damage to health and other
environmental effects of different fuels are added in, the European
Commission has concluded that the cost of coal-fired generation
would double and the cost of gas-fired generation would increase by
30 % [source European Wind Energy Association - EWEA].
The present situation is that environmentally harmful practices
are accepted, and indeed often subsidised, and there are few taxes
that fully reflect the "external costs" of electricity production
(effects on environment, health, etc...). Without mechanisms to
internalize these external costs, a second best solution to a level
playing field in the electricity markets is to enable adequate
incentives to increase the proportion of renewable energy.
All forms of power generation require back-up and no energy
technology can be relied upon 100%. The UK's transmission system
already operates with enough back-up to manage the instantaneous
loss of a large power station. Variations in the output from wind
farms are barely noticeable over and above the normal fluctuation
in supply and demand, seen when the nation's workforce goes home,
or if lightning brings down a high-voltage transmission line.
Therefore, at present, there is no need for additional back-up
because of wind energy.
Even for wind power to provide 10% of our nation's electricity
needs, only a small amount of additional conventional back-up would
be required - in the region of 300-500 MW. This would add only 0.2
pence per kilowatt hour to the generation cost of wind energy and
would not in any way threaten the security of our grid. In fact,
this is unlikely to become a significant issue until wind generates
over 20% of total electricity supply. In Denmark, approximately 20
% of electricity demand is already supplied by the wind, and is
managed successfully by the Transmission System Operator.
At a distance of 300 meters, a modern wind turbine is no noisier
than a kitchen refrigerator or a moderately quiet room. Improved
design has drastically reduced the noise of mechanical components
so that the most audible sound is that of the wind interacting with
the rotor blades. This is similar to a light swishing sound, and
much quieter than other types of modern-day equipment. Even in
generally quiet rural areas, the sound of the blowing wind is often
louder than the turbines.
To avoid potential disturbance to neighbours, strict rules are
applied by local authorities to ensure that wind turbines are far
enough from nearby houses and it's in developers' interests to
design their wind farms responsibly to ensure they do not cause a
noise nuisance to local residents.
Wind power has a light footprint. Its operation does not produce
harmful emissions or any hazardous waste. It does not deplete
natural resources, nor does it cause environmental damage through
resource extraction, transport and waste management.
In a wind farm the turbines themselves take up less than 1% of
the land area. Once up and running, existing activities such as
agriculture and walking can continue around them. Farm animals such
as cows and sheep are not disturbed. Any impacts on the local
environment must be set against the much more serious effects of
producing conventional electricity.
Wind farm developers are required to undertake an Environmental
Impact Assessment for each project. They also work closely with
conservation and wildlife groups to ensure that new developments
are sympathetic to existing habitats. Extensive efforts are made to
avoid putting up wind farms in areas which might attract large
numbers of birds or bats, such as migration routes.
In the UK, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB)
has said that "we have not so far witnessed any major adverse
effects on birds associated with wind farms." Wind energy
developers, following industry best practice guidelines, work
closely with organisations such as English Nature and the RSPB to
ensure that wind farm design and layout does not interfere with
sensitive species or wildlife designated sites. Furthermore, a 2004
report published in the journal Nature confirmed that the greatest
threat to bird populations in the UK is climate change.
In addition, impacts from wind power are extremely low compared
with other human-related activities. US statistics show 1 billion
birds are killed by colliding with buildings each year and up to 80
million by vehicles. By comparison, it's estimated that commercial
wind turbines in the US cause the direct deaths of only 0.01 -
0.02% of all of the birds killed annually by collisions with
man-made structures and activities.
Unlike other forms of power generation, wind energy is clean and
renewable. It's "clean" because its operation doesn't produce any
carbon dioxide, the largest contributor to global warming. There
are also no other harmful gases or waste products. By contrast,
power stations burning fossil fuels, mainly coal and gas, are
responsible for a quarter of the increase in greenhouse gases in
the earth's atmosphere. It's "renewable" because its fuel source is
the wind - freely available and constantly renewed.
Wind turbines generate electricity most (70-85%) of the time.
Their output varies according to the strength of the wind. They
start generating power when the wind is blowing at about 4-5 metres
per second and then stop again if it reaches gale force strength -
about 25 metres/second. Over the course of a year, a wind turbine
on land will generate from around 20% to more than 30% of its
theoretical maximum output, depending on location. Offshore, the
percentage is higher. By comparison, the load factor of
conventional power stations averages 50%. Because of stoppages for
maintenance or breakdowns, no power plant generates for 100 % of
the time. Wind turbines can carry on generating electricity for
A modern wind turbine will generate enough electricity to meet
the average demands of more than a thousand homes over the course
of a year.
It is a myth that building a wind farm takes more energy than it
The comparison of energy used in manufacture with the energy
produced by a power station is known as the 'energy balance'. It
can be expressed in terms of energy 'pay-back' time, i.e. as the
time needed to generate the equivalent amount of energy used in
manufacturing the wind turbine or power station.
The average wind farm in the UK will pay back the energy used in
its manufacture within six to eight months.
To obtain 10% of our electricity from the wind would require
constructing around 12,000 MW of wind energy capacity. Depending on
the size of the turbines, they would extend over 80,000 to 120,000
hectares (0.3% to 0.5% of the UK land area). Less than 1% of this
(800 to 1,200 hectares) would be used for foundations and access
roads, the other 99% could still be used for productive farming.
For comparison, between 288,000 to 360,000 hectares (1.2-1.5% of
the UK land area) is covered by roads and some 18.5 million
hectares (77%) are used for agriculture.
Wind energy has an essential role in combating climate change
and the UK will need a mix of both new and existing renewable
energy technologies and energy efficiency measures, and as quickly
as possible. Significant amounts of investment have been allocated
for wave and tidal energy development, and these technologies,
along with solar and biomass energy, will have an important role in
the UK's future energy mix. However, wind energy is the most cost
effective renewable energy source available to generate clean
electricity, help combat climate change and meet our energy
security objectives right now. It is a proven, efficient technology
that can be deployed quickly and has been contributing to the UK's
electricity supply for years. Furthermore, developing a
strong wind industry will facilitate other renewable technologies
which have not reached commercialisation yet, accumulating valuable
experience in dealing with issues such as grid connection, supply
chain and finance.
Over the past decade the global market for wind power has been
expanding faster than any other renewable energy source. Since the
year 2000 the average annual increase in cumulative installed
capacity has been 28%.
By the end of 2006, the worldwide capacity of wind power
generation had reached 74,000 MW. In Europe, it had reached 48,000
MW. This is enough to meet 3% of European electricity demand.
Denmark gets 20% of its electricity from wind power, Spain 8% and
This content comes from a range of sources, including the
European Wind Energy Association and RenewableUK.