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Wind power: What is truth to the claims?

Wind power: What is truth to the claims?

Infographic showing how wind farm noise levels compare

Critiques have grown louder as electricity grids rely on wind power more and more. 

There are claims that the infrasound they produce can damage your health. And many regard the towering giants to be a blight on the landscape. There are also questions about risks to wildlife and some see inequity in the distribution of profits.

Here’s a reality check in the face of such headwinds:

Is wind power a threat?

Wind farms are certain to alter the landscape. The tubines have become ever taller and the blades now reach lengths of up to 250 meters (820 feet). In good weather, the brightly colored structures can be seen. But, that is also true for other methods of power generation. Coal mining can swallow entire villages and raze forests while high-voltage transmission lines crisscross landscapes, and smoke and steam from towering power plant chimneys and cooling stacks can spread many kilometers into the sky.  By comparison wind turbines are clean and don’t emit particulate matter, mercury or carbon dioxide.

Compared to the rest of the world, densely populated Germany has a well-developed wind power industry that meets almost a third of its domestic demand. The acceptance of wind energy is high. 80% of the population believes that further development of onshore wind farm is important. 47% of respondents say that having a windfarm within their neighborhood is either “somewhat” or “very good.”

62% of Germans would be happy to live near a sunfarm, compared to 62% in the United States. This contrasts with the 6% for nuclear power plants and the 4% for coal power stations.

Are you sickened by the sounds of wind farms?

Wind farms can become louder when there are high winds. The turbine hub is 100m high and can produce noise levels of up to 105 decibels under full load. This noise level is comparable to an excavator. Within a 250-meter radius, the noise level is around 45 decibels, which is about as loud as a rustling forest or a quiet apartment. And at a 500-meter radius, under a full load, the noise level sinks to 40 decibels, which could be compared to light rain.

The World Health Organization recommends maximum noise level exposure of 45 decibels from wind farms in residential areas. The law in Germany allows for maximum noise levels of 40 decibels at night and 55 decibels during daylight. That’s roughly the same volume generated by regular street traffic. As a result, windfarms in Germany cannot be built too close to residential areas.

Infrasound is also emitted by wind farms. It is a low-frequency sound below 20 hertz. Low frequencies are difficult to hear by human ears. This infrasound can also be produced by ocean waves and waterfalls, as well as machines like air conditioners, heaters, pumps, and pumps.

Opponents claim that the infrasound generated by wind farms is damaging to human health. Studies show that wind farms produce significantly less infrasound compared to car traffic. Experts have concluded that there is no damage from wind farm infrasound, based on the latest research.

Infographic showing how wind farm noise levels compare

Wind farms are no louder that heavy traffic from 250 meters.

Is wind power a threat to birds and nature?

Wind farms, like roads and buildings, are an intrusion into nature in that they have concrete foundations dropped several meters into the ground. In addition, their blades can kill high-flying bats and birds a reality opponents often use to argue against this form of renewable energy.  

Environmentalist groups are calling for increased wind power to combat climate change and preserve biodiversity. According to a joint position document of German environmental groups, the transition towards renewable energy is crucial for the long-term preservation and protection of biodiversity.

Good planning should minimize environmental damage as much as possible. For example, wind farms can’t be built in protected areas. Suitable locations are areas that have been polluted, such as former coal-mining sites or intensively farmed land or monocultural coniferous forest.

Modern wind farms are safer for birds and bats than the older designs. They are also much higher than they were before, and animals can fly under the blades. There are also new protective mechanisms like bat sensors that will stop the rotors from spinning too close to animals.

Another technology uses intelligent cameras that recognize large birds of prey such as high-flying Eagles and shuts down turbines to prevent collisions.

The Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union of Germany (NABU), estimates that wind farms in Germany kill more than 100,000 birds every year. This is a low number compared to other hazards.

Glass-covered buildings kill approximately 1,000 times more birds (108 millions) annually than wind farms. Around 700 times more (70 million) die in collisions with cars, trucks and trains, while 20 times more (2 million) lose their lives to power lines and 10 times more (1 million) are killed through hunting. And domestic cats alone are responsible for the deaths of some 60 million birds in Germany each year.

But by far the biggest threat to birds is industrial agriculture, according to NABU. Monocultures and the use of pesticides, has seen the number of insects decline massively, removing a major source of food for birds raising their young. In Germany, 13 million breeding pairs have disappeared (15%) over the past decade, which has resulted in 170 million fewer young birds every year.

Infographic showing the biggest killers of birds

While wind farms can kill some birds, the loss is not as significant as other dangers.

Is wind power not reliable?

Sometimes the wind simply doesn’t blow, meaning the rotors remain idle and no power can be generated. Additional energy storage and production are required to ensure a reliable power grid.

Norway and Costa Rica already have completely renewable power grids. Alongside wind, they rely on hydropower, geothermal energy, biomass and solar power.

These other renewables can also compliment wind power in other parts of the world. A different mix of energy sources may be possible depending on where you live. In some cases, large-scale green hydrogen plants are required.

Profit only from the richest?

A large onshore wind farm (6 MW) costs between 8 million and 12 million  ($9-$13.5 million) to build, and produces electricity for 4 to 8 cents per kilowatt hour.

Wind farms offer a lucrative opportunity with potential returns of over 10%. This is a lucrative opportunity for large corporations, as well as municipal utilities and local cooperatives. Wind farms can also cause resentment in the local community if they aren’t able to see the profits. Projects that are launched by outside investors are often unsuccessful.

Local citizens can invest in the project to increase their acceptance rate and get a share of the profits. Individual shares can be used to finance such projects, starting at a few hundred Euros. Another route to success is for a municipality to invest taxes from wind farms into local projects such as kindergartens.

Many wind farms allow citizens to take part in the operation. There are many in the world, but a high number in Germany. Rural communities see wind power as a chance to secure new jobs and prosperity.

This article was originally published in German.

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