Renewable energy debate

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Global public support for energy sources, based on a survey by Ipsos (2011).[1]
The 5000MW Rampart Dam was shelved because concerns were raised about the conservation of ducks.

There is a renewable energy debate about the constraints and opportunities associated with the use of renewable energy.

Renewable electricity production, from sources such as wind power and solar power, is sometimes criticized for being variable or intermittent. However, the International Energy Agency has stated that this only applies to certain renewables, mainly wind and solar photovoltaics, and its significance depends on a range of factors, such as the penetration of the renewables concerned.[2]

There have been "not in my back yard" (NIMBY) concerns relating to the visual and other impacts of some wind farms, with local residents sometimes fighting or blocking construction.[3] In the USA, the Massachusetts Cape Wind project was delayed for years partly because of aesthetic concerns. However, residents in other areas have been more positive and there are many examples of community wind farm developments. According to a town councillor, the overwhelming majority of locals believe that the Ardrossan Wind Farm in Scotland has enhanced the area.[4]

The market for renewable energy technologies has continued to grow. Climate change concerns, coupled with high oil prices, peak oil, and increasing government support, are driving increasing renewable energy legislation, incentives and commercialization.[5] New government spending, regulation and policies helped the industry weather the 2009 economic crisis better than many other sectors.[6]

Definition of renewable energy[edit]

Renewable energy flows involve natural phenomena such as sunlight, wind, tides, plant growth, and geothermal heat, as the International Energy Agency explains:[7]

Renewable energy is derived from natural processes that are replenished constantly. In its various forms, it derives directly from the sun, or from heat generated deep within the earth. Included in the definition is electricity and heat generated from solar, wind, ocean, hydropower, biomass, geothermal resources, and biofuels and hydrogen derived from renewable resources.

Renewable energy resources exist over wide geographical areas, in contrast to other energy sources, which are concentrated in a limited number of countries.[7]

Variable renewable energy[edit]

The 150 MW Andasol solar power station is a commercial parabolic trough solar thermal power plant, located in Spain. The Andasol plant uses tanks of molten salt to store solar energy so that it can continue generating electricity even when the sun isn't shining.[8]
Photovoltaic array and wind turbines at the Schneebergerhof wind farm in the German state of Rheinland-Pfalz
Biogas fermenter, wind turbine and photovoltaics on a farm in Horstedt, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany

Variability inherently affects solar energy, as the production of electricity from solar sources depends on the amount of light energy in a given location. Solar output varies throughout the day and through the seasons, and is affected by cloud cover. These factors are fairly predictable, and some solar thermal systems make use of heat storage to produce power when the sun is not shining.

Wind-generated power is a variable resource, and the amount of electricity produced at any given point in time by a given plant will depend on wind speeds, air density, and turbine characteristics (among other factors). If wind speed is too low (less than about 2.5 m/s) then the wind turbines will not be able to make electricity, and if it is too high (more than about 25 m/s) the turbines will have to be shut down to avoid damage. While the output from a single turbine can vary greatly and rapidly as local wind speeds vary, as more turbines are connected over larger and larger areas the average power output becomes less variable.[9]

However, the International Energy Agency says that there has been too much attention on issue of the variability of renewable electricity production.[10] This issue only applies to certain renewable technologies, mainly wind power and solar photovoltaics, and its significance depends on a range of factors which include the market penetration of the renewables concerned, the balance of plant and the wider connectivity of the system, as well as the demand side flexibility. Variability will rarely be a barrier to increased renewable energy deployment. But at high levels of market penetration it requires careful analysis and management, and additional costs may be required for back-up or system modification.[10] Renewable electricity supply in the 20-50+% penetration range has already been implemented in several European systems, albeit in the context of an integrated European grid system:[11]

In 2011, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world's leading climate researchers selected by the United Nations, said "as infrastructure and energy systems develop, in spite of the complexities, there are few, if any, fundamental technological limits to integrating a portfolio of renewable energy technologies to meet a majority share of total energy demand in locations where suitable renewable resources exist or can be supplied".[12] IPCC scenarios "generally indicate that growth in renewable energy will be widespread around the world".[13] The IPCC said that if governments were supportive, and the full complement of renewable energy technologies were deployed, renewable energy supply could account for almost 80% of the world's energy use within forty years.[14] Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC, said the necessary investment in renewables would cost only about 1% of global GDP annually. This approach could contain greenhouse gas levels to less than 450 parts per million, the safe level beyond which climate change becomes catastrophic and irreversible.[14]

Mark Z. Jacobson says that there is no shortage of renewable energy and a "smart mix" of renewable energy sources can be used to reliably meet electricity demand:

Because the wind blows during stormy conditions when the sun does not shine and the sun often shines on calm days with little wind, combining wind and solar can go a long way toward meeting demand, especially when geothermal provides a steady base and hydroelectric can be called on to fill in the gaps.[15]

As physicist Amory Lovins has said:

The variability of sun, wind and so on, turns out to be a non-problem if you do several sensible things. One is to diversify your renewables by technology, so that weather conditions bad for one kind are good for another. Second, you diversify by site so they're not all subject to the same weather pattern at the same time because they're in the same place. Third, you use standard weather forecasting techniques to forecast wind, sun and rain, and of course hydro operators do this right now. Fourth, you integrate all your resources — supply side and demand side..."[16]

The combination of diversifying variable renewables by type and location, forecasting their variation, and integrating them with despatchable renewables, flexible fueled generators, and demand response can create a power system that has the potential to meet our needs reliably. Integrating ever-higher levels of renewables is being successfully demonstrated in the real world:[11]

In 2009, eight American and three European authorities, writing in the leading electrical engineers' professional journal, didn't find "a credible and firm technical limit to the amount of wind energy that can be accommodated by electricity grids". In Fact, not one of more than 200 international studies, nor official studies for the eastern and western U.S. regions, nor the International Energy Agency, has found major costs or technical barriers to reliably integrating up to 30% variable renewable supplies into the grid, and in some studies much more.[11]

Renewable electricity supply in the 20-50+% range has already been implemented in several European systems, albeit in the context of an integrated European grid system:[11]

In 2010, four German states, totalling 10 million people, relied on wind power for 43–52% of their annual electricity needs. Denmark isn't far behind, supplying 22% of its power from wind in 2010 (26% in an average wind year). The Extremadura region of Spain is getting up to 25% of its electricity from solar, while the whole country meets 16% of its demand from wind. Just during 2005–2010, Portugal vaulted from 17% to 45% renewable electricity.[11]

Integration of renewable energy has caused some grid stability problems in Germany. Voltage fluctuations have caused problems with sensitive equipment. In one case, Hydro Aluminium plant in Hamburg was forced to shut down when the rolling mill's highly sensitive monitor stopped production so abruptly that the aluminum belts snagged. They hit the machines and destroyed a piece of the mill. The malfunction was caused when voltage off the electricity grid weakened for a millisecond. A survey of members of the Association of German Industrial Energy Companies (VIK) revealed that the number of short interruptions to the German electricity grid has grown by 29 percent in the years 2009–2012. Over the same time period, the number of service failures has grown 31 percent, and almost half of those failures have led to production stoppages. Damages have ranged between €10,000 and hundreds of thousands of euros, according to company information.[17]

Minnkota Power Cooperative, the leading U.S. wind utility in 2009, supplied 38% of its retail sales from the wind.[11]

Mark A. Delucchi and Mark Z. Jacobson report that there are at least seven ways to design and operate variable renewable energy systems so that they will reliably satisfy electricity demand:[18]

  • (A) interconnect geographically dispersed, naturally variable energy sources (e.g., wind, solar, wave, tidal), which smoothes out electricity supply (and demand) significantly.
  • (B) use complementary and non-variable energy sources (such as hydroelectric power) to fill temporary gaps between demand and wind or solar generation.
  • (C) use “smart” demand-response management to shift flexible loads to a time when more renewable energy is available.
  • (D) store electric power, at the site of generation, (in batteries, hydrogen gas, molten salts, compressed air, pumped hydroelectric power, and flywheels), for later use.
  • (E) over-size renewable peak generation capacity to minimize the times when available renewable power is less than demand and to provide spare power to produce hydrogen for flexible transportation and heat uses.
  • (F) store electric power in electric-vehicle batteries, known as "vehicle to grid" or V2G.
  • (G) forecast the weather (winds, sunlight, waves, tides and precipitation) to better plan for energy supply needs.[18]

Jacobson and Delucchi argue that wind, water and solar power can be scaled up in cost-effective ways to meet our energy demands, freeing us from dependence on both fossil fuels and nuclear power. In 2009 they published "A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet With Renewables" in Scientific American. The article addressed a number of issues, such as the worldwide spatial footprint of wind turbines, the availability of scarce materials needed for manufacture of new systems, the ability to produce reliable energy on demand and the average cost per kilowatt hour. A more detailed and updated technical analysis has been published as a two-part article in the journal Energy Policy.[19]

Heat pumps and Thermal energy storage are classes of technologies that can enable the utilization of renewable energy sources that would otherwise be inaccessible due to a temperature that is too low for utilization or a time lag between when the energy is available and when it is needed. While enhancing the temperature of available renewable thermal energy, heat pumps have the additional property of leveraging electrical power (or in some cases mechanical or thermal power) by using it to extract additional energy from a low quality source (such as seawater, lake water, the ground, the air, or waste heat from a process). Thermal storage technologies allow heat or cold to be stored for periods of time ranging from hours or overnight to interseasonal, and can involve storage of sensible energy (i.e. by changing the temperature of a medium) or latent energy (i.e. through phase changes of a medium, such between water and slush or ice). Short-term thermal storages can be used for peak-shaving in district heating or electrical distribution systems. Kinds of renewable or alternative energy sources that can be enabled include natural energy (e.g. collected via solar-thermal collectors, or dry cooling towers used to collect winter's cold), waste energy (e.g. from HVAC equipment, industrial processes or power plants), or surplus energy (e.g. as seasonally from hyropower projects or intermittently from wind farms).

Renewable energy is naturally replenished and renewable power technologies increase energy security because they reduce dependence on foreign sources of fuel. Unlike power stations relying on uranium and recycled plutonium for fuel, they are not subject to the volatility of global fuel markets.[20] Renewable power decentralises electricity supply and so minimises the need to produce, transport and store hazardous fuels; reliability of power generation is improved by producing power close to the energy consumer. An accidental or intentional outage affects a smaller amount of capacity than an outage at a larger power station.[20]

The Fukushima I nuclear accidents in Japan have brought new attention to how national energy systems are vulnerable to natural disasters, with climate change is already bringing more weather and climate extremes. These threats to our old energy systems provide a rationale for investing in renewable energy. Shifting to renewable energy "can help us to meet the dual goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, thereby limiting future extreme weather and climate impacts, and ensuring reliable, timely, and cost-efficient delivery of energy". Investing in renewable energy can have significant dividends for our energy security.[21]

Economics and viability[edit]

Renewable energy technologies are getting cheaper, through technological change and through the benefits of mass production and market competition. A 2011 IEA report said: "A portfolio of renewable energy technologies is becoming cost-competitive in an increasingly broad range of circumstances, in some cases providing investment opportunities without the need for specific economic support," and added that "cost reductions in critical technologies, such as wind and solar, are set to continue."[22] As of 2011, there have been substantial reductions in the cost of solar and wind technologies:

The price of PV modules per MW has fallen by 60 percent since the summer of 2008, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates, putting solar power for the first time on a competitive footing with the retail price of electricity in a number of sunny countries. Wind turbine prices have also fallen - by 18 percent per MW in the last two years - reflecting, as with solar, fierce competition in the supply chain. Further improvements in the levelised cost of energy for solar, wind and other technologies lie ahead, posing a growing threat to the dominance of fossil fuel generation sources in the next few years.[23]

Hydro-electricity and geothermal electricity produced at favourable sites are now the cheapest way to generate electricity. Renewable energy costs continue to drop, and the levelised cost of electricity (LCOE) is declining for wind power, solar photovoltaic (PV), concentrated solar power (CSP) and some biomass technologies.[24]

Renewable energy is also the most economic solution for new grid-connected capacity in areas with good resources. As the cost of renewable power falls, the scope of economically viable applications increases. Renewable technologies are now often the most economic solution for new generating capacity. Where “oil-fired generation is the predominant power generation source (e.g. on islands, off-grid and in some countries) a lower-cost renewable solution almost always exists today”.[24] Indicative, levelised, economic costs for renewable power (exclusive of subsidies or policy incentives) are shown in the Table below.

As of 2012, renewable power generation technologies accounted for around half of all new power generation capacity additions globally. In 2011, additions included 41 gigawatt (GW) of new wind power capacity, 30 GW of PV, 25 GW of hydro-electricity, 6 GW of biomass, 0.5 GW of CSP, and 0.1 GW of geothermal power.[24]

Environmental, social and legal considerations[edit]

Renewable power technologies can have significant environmental benefits. Unlike coal and natural gas, they can generate electricity and fuels without releasing significant quantities of CO2 and other greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, however the greenhouse gas savings from a number of biofuels have been found to be much less than originally anticipated, as discussed in the article Indirect land use change impacts of biofuels.

Both solar and wind have been criticized from an aesthetic point of view.[25] However, methods and opportunities exist to deploy these renewable technologies efficiently and unobtrusively: fixed solar collectors can double as noise barriers along highways, and extensive roadway, parking lot, and roof-top area is currently available; amorphous photovoltaic cells can also be used to tint windows and produce energy.[26] Advocates of renewable energy also argue that current infrastructure is less aesthetically pleasing than alternatives, but sited further from the view of most critics.[27]

Hydroelectricity[edit]

The major advantage of hydroelectric systems is the elimination of the cost of fuel. Other advantages include longer life than fuel-fired generation, low operating costs, and the provision of facilities for water sports. Operation of pumped-storage plants improves the daily load factor of the generation system. Overall, hydroelectric power can be far less expensive than electricity generated from fossil fuels or nuclear energy, and areas with abundant hydroelectric power attract industry.

However, there are several disadvantages of hydroelectricity systems. These include: dislocation of people living where the reservoirs are planned, release of significant amounts of carbon dioxide at construction and flooding of the reservoir, disruption of aquatic ecosystems and birdlife, adverse impacts on the river environment, potential risks of sabotage and terrorism, and in rare cases catastrophic failure of the dam wall.

Advantages[edit]

The Ffestiniog Power Station can generate 360 MW of electricity within 60 seconds of the demand arising.

Hydro is a flexible source of electricity since plants can be ramped up and down very quickly to adapt to changing energy demands.[28]

The major advantage of hydroelectricity is elimination of the cost of fuel. The cost of operating a hydroelectric plant is nearly immune to increases in the cost of fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas or coal, and no imports are needed. The average cost of electricity from a hydro plant larger than 10 megawatts is 3 to 5 U.S. cents per kilowatt-hour.[28] Hydroelectric plants have long economic lives, with some plants still in service after 50–100 years.[29] Operating labor cost is also usually low, as plants are automated and have few personnel on site during normal operation.

While many hydroelectric projects supply public electricity networks, some are created to serve specific industrial enterprises. Dedicated hydroelectric projects are often built to provide the substantial amounts of electricity needed for aluminium electrolytic plants, for example. The Grand Coulee Dam switched to support Alcoa aluminium in Bellingham, Washington, United States for American World War II airplanes before it was allowed to provide irrigation and power to citizens (in addition to aluminium power) after the war. In Suriname, the Brokopondo Reservoir was constructed to provide electricity for the Alcoa aluminium industry. New Zealand's Manapouri Power Station was constructed to supply electricity to the aluminium smelter at Tiwai Point.

Since hydroelectric dams do not burn fossil fuels, they do not directly produce carbon dioxide. While some carbon dioxide is produced during manufacture and construction of the project, this is a tiny fraction of the operating emissions of equivalent fossil-fuel electricity generation. One measurement of greenhouse gas related and other externality comparison between energy sources can be found in the ExternE project by the Paul Scherrer Institut and the University of Stuttgart which was funded by the European Commission.[30] According to that study, hydroelectricity produces the least amount of greenhouse gases and externality of any energy source.[31] Coming in second place was wind, third was nuclear energy, and fourth was solar photovoltaic.[31] The low greenhouse gas impact of hydroelectricity is found especially in temperate climates. The above study was for local energy in Europe; presumably similar conditions prevail in North America and Northern Asia, which all see a regular, natural freeze/thaw cycle (with associated seasonal plant decay and regrowth). Greater greenhouse gas emission impacts are found in the tropical regions, the lower latitude regions of the earth, as it has been noted that the reservoirs of power plants in tropical regions produce a larger amount of the greenhouse gas methane.[32]

Reservoirs created by hydroelectric schemes often provide facilities for water sports, and become tourist attractions themselves. In some countries, aquaculture in reservoirs is common. Multi-use dams installed for irrigation support agriculture with a relatively constant water supply. Large hydro dams can control floods, which would otherwise affect people living downstream of the project.[33]

Disadvantages[edit]

Hydroelectric power stations that use dams would submerge large areas of land due to the requirement of a reservoir.

Large reservoirs required for the operation of hydroelectric power stations result in submersion of extensive areas upstream of the dams, destroying biologically rich and productive lowland and riverine valley forests, marshland and grasslands. The loss of land is often exacerbated by habitat fragmentation of surrounding areas caused by the reservoir.[34] Hydroelectric projects can be disruptive to surrounding aquatic ecosystems both upstream and downstream of the plant site. Generation of hydroelectric power changes the downstream river environment. Water exiting a turbine usually contains very little suspended sediment, which can lead to scouring of river beds and loss of riverbanks.[35]

When water flows it has the ability to transport particles heavier than itself downstream. This has a negative effect on dams and subsequently their power stations, particularly those on rivers or within catchment areas with high siltation. Siltation can fill a reservoir and reduce its capacity to control floods along with causing additional horizontal pressure on the upstream portion of the dam. Eventually, some reservoirs can become full of sediment and useless or over-top during a flood and fail.[36][37] Changes in the amount of river flow will correlate with the amount of energy produced by a dam.

The Hoover Dam in the United States is a large conventional dammed-hydro facility, with an installed capacity of 2,080 MW.

Lower positive impacts are found in the tropical regions, as it has been noted that the reservoirs of power plants in tropical regions produce substantial amounts of methane. This is due to plant material in flooded areas decaying in an anaerobic environment, and forming methane, a greenhouse gas. According to the World Commission on Dams report,[38] where the reservoir is large compared to the generating capacity (less than 100 watts per square metre of surface area) and no clearing of the forests in the area was undertaken prior to impoundment of the reservoir, greenhouse gas emissions from the reservoir may be higher than those of a conventional oil-fired thermal generation plant.[39] In boreal reservoirs of Canada and Northern Europe, however, greenhouse gas emissions are typically only 2% to 8% of any kind of conventional fossil-fuel thermal generation. A new class of underwater logging operation that targets drowned forests can mitigate the effect of forest decay.[40]

Another disadvantage of hydroelectric dams is the need to relocate the people living where the reservoirs are planned. In 2000, the World Commission on Dams estimated that dams had physically displaced 40-80 million people worldwide.[41]

Because large conventional dammed-hydro facilities hold back large volumes of water, a failure due to poor construction, natural disasters or sabotage can be catastrophic to downriver settlements and infrastructure. Dam failures have been some of the largest man-made disasters in history. The Banqiao Dam failure in Southern China directly resulted in the deaths of 26,000 people, and another 145,000 from epidemics. Millions were left homeless. Also, the creation of a dam in a geologically inappropriate location may cause disasters such as 1963 disaster at Vajont Dam in Italy, where almost 2000 people died.[42] Smaller dams and micro hydro facilities create less risk, but can form continuing hazards even after being decommissioned. For example, the small Kelly Barnes Dam failed in 1967, causing 39 deaths with the Toccoa Flood, ten years after its power plant was decommissioned.[43]

Solar power[edit]

Part of the Senftenberg Solarpark, a solar photovoltaic power plant located on former open-pit mining areas close to the city of Senftenberg, in Eastern Germany. The 78 MW Phase 1 of the plant was completed within three months.

Unlike fossil fuel based technologies, solar power does not lead to any harmful emissions during operation, but the production of the panels leads to some amount of pollution.

The energy payback time of a power generating system is the time required to generate as much energy as was consumed during production of the system. In 2000 the energy payback time of PV systems was estimated as 8 to 11 years[44] and in 2006 this was estimated to be 1.5 to 3.5 years for crystalline silicon PV systems[45] and 1-1.5 years for thin film technologies (S. Europe).[45]

Another economic measure, closely related to the energy payback time, is the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) or energy return on investment (EROI),[46] which is the ratio of electricity generated divided by the energy required to build and maintain the equipment. (This is not the same as the economic return on investment (ROI), which varies according to local energy prices, subsidies available and metering techniques.) With lifetimes of at least 30 years[citation needed], the EROEI of PV systems are in the range of 10 to 30, thus generating enough energy over their lifetimes to reproduce themselves many times (6-31 reproductions) depending on what type of material, balance of system (BOS), and the geographic location of the system.[47]

One issue that has often raised concerns is the use of cadmium in cadmium telluride solar cells (CdTe is only used in a few types of PV panels). Cadmium in its metallic form is a toxic substance that has the tendency to accumulate in ecological food chains. The amount of cadmium used in thin-film PV modules is relatively small (5-10 g/m²) and with proper emission control techniques in place the cadmium emissions from module production can be almost zero. Current PV technologies lead to cadmium emissions of 0.3-0.9 microgram/kWh over the whole life-cycle.[45] Most of these emissions actually arise through the use of coal power for the manufacturing of the modules, and coal and lignite combustion leads to much higher emissions of cadmium. Life-cycle cadmium emissions from coal is 3.1 microgram/kWh, lignite 6.2, and natural gas 0.2 microgram/kWh. Note that if electricity produced by photovoltaic panels were used to manufacture the modules instead of electricity from burning coal, cadmium emissions from coal power usage in the manufacturing process could be entirely eliminated.[48]

Solar power plants require large amounts of land. According to the Bureau of Land Management, there are twenty proposals to use in total about 180 square miles of public land in California. If all twenty proposed projects were built, they would total 7,387 megawatts.[49] The requirement for so much land has spurred efforts to encourage solar facilities to be built on already-disturbed lands, and the Department of Interior identified Solar Energy Zones that it judges to contain lower value habitat where solar development would have less of an impact on ecosystems.[50] Sensitive wildlife impacted by large solar facility plans include the desert tortoise, Mohave Ground Squirrel, Mojave fringe-toed lizard, and desert bighorn sheep.

In the United States, some of the land in the eastern portion of the Mojave Desert is to be preserved, but the solar industry has mainly expressed interest in areas of the western desert, "where the sun burns hotter and there is easier access to transmission lines", said Kenn J. Arnecke of FPL Energy, a sentiment shared by many executives in the industry.[51]

Biofuels production[edit]

An ethanol fuel plant under construction, Butler County, Iowa
Main article: Food vs fuel

Biofuel production has increased in recent years. Some commodities like maize (corn), sugar cane or vegetable oil can be used either as food, feed, or to make biofuels. The Food vs. fuel debate is the dilemma regarding the risk of diverting farmland or crops for biofuels production to the detriment of the food supply. The biofuel and food price debate involves wide-ranging views, and is a long-standing, controversial one in the literature.[52][53][54][55] There is disagreement about the significance of the issue, what is causing it, and what can or should be done to remedy the situation. This complexity and uncertainty is due to the large number of impacts and feedback loops that can positively or negatively affect the price system. Moreover, the relative strengths of these positive and negative impacts vary in the short and long terms, and involve delayed effects. The academic side of the debate is also blurred by the use of different economic models and competing forms of statistical analysis.[56]

According to the International Energy Agency, new biofuels technologies being developed today, notably cellulosic ethanol, could allow biofuels to play a much bigger role in the future than previously thought.[57] Cellulosic ethanol can be made from plant matter composed primarily of inedible cellulose fibers that form the stems and branches of most plants. Crop residues (such as corn stalks, wheat straw and rice straw), wood waste, and municipal solid waste are potential sources of cellulosic biomass. Dedicated energy crops, such as switchgrass, are also promising cellulose sources that can be sustainably produced in many regions of the United States.[58]

The ethanol and biodiesel production industries also create jobs in plant construction, operations, and maintenance, mostly in rural communities. According to the Renewable Fuels Association, the ethanol industry created almost 154,000 U.S. jobs in 2005 alone, boosting household income by $5.7 billion. It also contributed about $3.5 billion in tax revenues at the local, state, and federal levels.[59]

Wind farms[edit]

Wind power is a common renewable energy source

Mark Diesendorf, formerly Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Technology, Sydney and a principal research scientist with CSIRO has summarised some of the benefits of onshore wind farms as follows.[60]

A wind farm, when installed on agricultural land, has one of the lowest environmental impacts of all energy sources:

  • It occupies less land area per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity generated than any other energy conversion system, apart from rooftop solar energy, and is compatible with grazing and crops.
  • It generates the energy used in its construction in just 3 months of operation, yet its operational lifetime is 20–25 years.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution produced by its construction are very tiny and declining. There are no emissions or pollution produced by its operation.
  • In substituting for base-load (mostly coal power) [...] wind power produces a net decrease in greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, and a net increase in biodiversity.
  • Modern wind turbines are almost silent and rotate so slowly (in terms of revolutions per minute) that they are rarely a hazard to birds.
    —Mark Diesendorf, Dissent, no. 13, Summer 2003/04, pp.43–48[60]

Studies of birds and offshore wind farms in Europe have found that there are very few bird collisions.[61] Several offshore wind sites in Europe have been in areas heavily used by seabirds. Improvements in wind turbine design, including a much slower rate of rotation of the blades and a smooth tower base instead of perchable lattice towers, have helped reduce bird mortality at wind farms around the world. However older smaller wind turbines may be hazardous to flying birds.[62] Birds are severely impacted by fossil fuel energy; examples include birds dying from exposure to oil spills, habitat loss from acid rain and mountaintop removal coal mining, and mercury poisoning.[63]

Community debate about wind farms[edit]

The wind turbines at Findhorn Ecovillage, which make the community a net exporter of electricity
U.S. landowners typically receive $3,000 to $5,000 per year in rental income from each wind turbine, while farmers continue to grow crops or graze cattle up to the foot of the turbines.[64]
Wind turbines such as these, in Cumbria, England, have been opposed for a number of reasons, including aesthetics, by some sectors of the population.[65][66]

There have been "not in my back yard" (NIMBY) concerns relating to the visual and other impacts of some wind farms, with local residents sometimes fighting or blocking construction.[3] In the USA, the Massachusetts Cape Wind project was delayed for years partly because of aesthetic concerns. However, residents in other areas have been more positive and there are many examples of community wind farm developments. According to a town councillor, the overwhelming majority of locals believe that the Ardrossan Wind Farm in Scotland has enhanced the area.[4]

A starting point for better understanding community concerns about wind farms is often through public outreach initiatives (e.g., surveys, town hall meetings) to clarify the nature of concerns. Community concerns regarding wind power projects have been shown to be based more on people’s perception rather than actual fact.[67] In tourist areas, for example, there is a misperception that the siting of wind farms will adversely affect tourism. Yet surveys conducted in tourist areas in Germany, Belgium, and Scotland show that this is simply not the case. Similarly, according to Valentine, concerns over wind turbine noise, shadow flicker, and bird life threats are not supported by actual data. The difficulty is that the general public often does not have ready access to information necessary to assess the pros and cons of wind power developments.[67]

Media reports tend to emphasize storylines that have popular appeal (i.e. famous figures who are opposed to a particular development). Consequently, media coverage often fails to provide the full project information that the public needs to effectively evaluate the merits of a wind project. Moreover, misinformation about wind power may be propagated by fossil fuel and nuclear power special interest groups.[67] Often there is an ideological right wing interest which tends to dominate, supporting anti-green and anti-climate-science positions. The anti-wind site ‘Stop These Things’ best illustrates this approach, describing environmentalists as ‘Greentards’.[68]

The lesson for planners and policymakers is that some forms of public opposition can be mitigated by providing community members with comprehensive information on a given project. In fact, not only will a more proactive media strategy help reduce opposition but it may also actually lead to enhanced support.[67]

Public perceptions generally improve after wind projects become operational. Surveys conducted with communities that host wind energy developments in the United Kingdom, Scotland, France, the United States, and Finland have demonstrated that wind farms which are properly planned and sited can engender project support. Wind energy projects, which have been well-planned to reduce social and environmental problems, have been shown to positively influence wind power perceptions once completed. Support is enhanced when community members are offered investment opportunities and involvement in the wind power development.[67] Many wind power companies work with local communities to reduce environmental and other concerns associated with particular wind farms.[69][70][71] Appropriate government consultation, planning and approval procedures also help to minimize environmental risks.[72][73][74] Some people may still object to wind farms[75] but, according to The Australia Institute, their concerns should be weighed against the need to address the threats posed by climate change and the opinions of the broader community.[76]

In other cases there is direct community ownership of wind farm projects. In Germany, hundreds of thousands of people have invested in citizens' wind farms across the country and thousands of small and medium-sized enterprises are running successful businesses in a new sector that in 2008 employed 90,000 people and generated 8 percent of Germany's electricity.[77] Wind power has gained very high social acceptance in Germany.[78] Surveys of public attitudes across Europe and in many other countries show strong public support for wind power.[72][79][80]

Opinion on increase in number of wind farms, 2010 Harris Poll[81]
U.S. Great
Britain
France Italy Spain Germany
 %  %  %  %  %  %
Strongly oppose 3 6 6 2 2 4
Oppose more than favour 9 12 16 11 9 14
Favour more than oppose 37 44 44 38 37 42
Strongly favour 50 38 33 49 53 40

In America, wind projects are reported to boost local tax bases, helping to pay for schools, roads and hospitals. Wind projects also revitalize the economy of rural communities by providing steady income to farmers and other landowners.[64]

The Intrepid Wind Farm, in Iowa, is an example of one wind farm where the environmental impact of the project has been minimized through consultation and co-operation:

"Making sure the wind farm made as gentle an environmental impact as possible was an important consideration. Therefore, when MidAmerican first began planning the Intrepid site, they worked closely with a number of state and national environmental groups. Using input from such diverse groups as the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the Nature Conservancy, Iowa State University, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, and the Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club, MidAmerican created a statewide map of areas in the proposed region that contained specific bird populations or habitats. Those areas were then avoided as site planning got underway in earnest. In order to minimize the wind farm's environmental impact even further, MidAmerican also worked in conjunction with the Army Corp of Engineers, to secure all necessary permits related to any potential risk to wetlands in the area. Regular inspections are also conducted to make certain that the wind farm is causing no adverse environmental impact to the region."[82]

Other examples include:

  • 29 January 1997: Baywind Energy Co-operative began operating a 2.5 megawatt five-turbine wind farm near Ulverston, Cumbria. It was the first co-operative to own wind turbines in the United Kingdom. It has raised two million pounds and has 1,300 members. A proportion of the profits are invested in local community environmental initiatives through the Baywind Energy Conservation Trust.[83]
  • 29 June 2003: After the Cape Wind project was proposed several miles off the coast of Cape Cod, some people raised objections, including U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy, who owned a summer home in the area. Although he objected, he finally came around and supported the idea.[84] But attitudes to the proposed wind farm have become more positive in recent years.[85] A 2007 public opinion survey found that more than four out of five Massachusetts residents (84 percent) – including 58 percent of those who live on the Cape—explicitly supported the proposed Cape Wind offshore wind farm.[86]
  • On 16 October 2003 in Galway, Ireland, construction of the foundation of a wind farm caused almost half a square kilometre of bog to slide 2.5 kilometres down a hillside. The slide destroyed an unoccupied farmhouse and blocked two roads. Nearby residents expressed concern over these environmental impacts.[87]
  • On 12 January 2004, it was reported that the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against wind farm owners for killing tens of thousands of birds at the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area near San Francisco, California.[88] In February 2008, a state appeals court upheld an earlier ruling that rejected the lawsuit.[89]
  • 21 January 2005: Three wind turbines on the island of Gigha in Scotland generate up to 675 kW of power. Revenue is produced by selling the electricity to the grid via an intermediary called Green Energy UK. Gigha residents control the whole project and profits are reinvested in the community. Local residents call the turbines "The Three Dancing Ladies".[90][91]
  • On 7 December 2007, it was reported that some environmentalists opposed a plan to build a wind farm in western Maryland[92] But other local environmentalists say that the environmental effects of wind farms "pale in comparison to coal-burning generators, which add to global warming and lead to acid rain" that is killing trees in the same area.[93]
  • On 4 February 2008, according to British Ministry of Defence turbines create a hole in radar coverage so that aircraft flying overhead are not detectable. In written evidence, Squadron Leader Chris Breedon said: "This obscuration occurs regardless of the height of the aircraft, of the radar and of the turbine."[94]
  • A 16 April 2008 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said that three different environmental organizations had raised objections to a proposed wind farm at Shaffer Mountain in northeastern Somerset County, Pennsylvania, because the wind farm would be a threat to the Indiana bat, which is listed as an endangered species.[95]
  • 25 July 2008: The Australian Hepburn Wind Project is a proposed wind farm, which will be the first Australian community-owned wind farm. The initiative emerged because the community felt that the state and federal governments were not doing enough to address climate change.[96]
  • 12 August 2008: The Ardrossan Wind Farm in Scotland has been "overwhelmingly accepted by local people". Instead of spoiling the landscape, they believe it has enhanced the area: "The turbines are impressive looking, bring a calming effect to the town and, contrary to the belief that they would be noisy, we have found them to be silent workhorses".[4]
  • 22 March 2009: Some rural communities in Alberta, Canada, want wind power companies to be allowed to develop wind farms on leased Crown land.[97]
  • 28 April 2009: After the McGuinty government opposed calls for a moratorium on the construction of new turbines in Ontario, several protests took place around the province, especially at Queen's Park in Toronto. Residents insist that more studies take place before continuing construction of the devices in their communities.[98][99][100][101]
  • In March 2010, the Toronto Renewable Energy Co-operative (TREC), incorporated in 1998, began organizing a new co-operative called "The Lakewind Project".[102][103][103] Its initial project, WindShare, completed in 2002 on the grounds of Exhibition Place in central downtown Toronto, was the first wind turbine installed in a major North American urban city centre,[104] and the first community-owned wind power project in Ontario.[105]

Longevity issues[edit]

Even though a source of renewable energy may last for billions of years, renewable energy infrastructure, like hydroelectric dams, will not last forever, and must be removed and replaced at some point. Events like the shifting of riverbeds, or changing weather patterns could potentially alter or even halt the function of hydroelectric dams, lowering the amount of time they are available to generate electricity. Hydropower dams is also affected by silting which may or may not be cost-effective to remove.

Some have claimed that geothermal being a renewable energy source depends on the rate of extraction being slow enough such that depletion does not occur. If depletion does occur, the temperature can regenerate if given a long period of non-use.[106][107]

The government of Iceland states: "It should be stressed that the geothermal resource is not strictly renewable in the same sense as the hydro resource." It estimates that Iceland's geothermal energy could provide 1700 MW for over 100 years, compared to the current production of 140 MW.[108] Radioactive elements in the Earth's crust continuously decay, replenishing the heat. The International Energy Agency classifies geothermal power as renewable.[109] Geothermal power in Iceland is developed in a stepwise development method to insure that it is sustainable instead of excessive, which would deplete the resource.[110]

Diversification[edit]

The U.S. electric power industry now relies on large, central power stations, including coal, natural gas, nuclear, and hydropower plants that together generate more than 95% of the nation’s electricity. Over the next few decades uses of renewable energy could help to diversify the nation’s bulk power supply. Already, appropriate renewable resources (which excludes large hydropower) produce 12% of northern California’s electricity.[59]

Although most of today’s electricity comes from large, central-station power plants, new technologies offer a range of options for generating electricity nearer to where it is needed, saving on the cost of transmitting and distributing power and improving the overall efficiency and reliability of the system.[59]

Improving energy efficiency represents the most immediate and often the most cost-effective way to reduce oil dependence, improve energy security, and reduce the health and environmental impact of the energy system. By reducing the total energy requirements of the economy, improved energy efficiency could make increased reliance on renewable energy sources more practical and affordable.[59]

Institutionalized Barriers and Choice Awareness Theory[edit]

Existing organizations and conservative political groups are disposed to keep renewable energy proposals out of the agenda at many levels.[111] Most republicans do not support renewable energy investment because their framework is built on staying with current energy sources while promoting national drilling to reduce dependence on imports.[112] In contrast, progressives and libertarians tend to support renewable energy by encouraging job growth, national investment and tax incentives.[113] Thus, polarized organizational frameworks that shape industrial and governmental policies for renewable energy tend to create barriers for implementing renewable energy.

According to an article by Henrik Lund, the theory of Choice Awareness seeks to understand and explain why the descriptions of the best alternatives do not develop independently and what can be done about it.[111] The theory argues that public participation, and hence the awareness of choices, has been an important factor in successful decision-making processes[111] Choice Awareness theory emphasizes the fact that different organizations see things differently and that current organizational interests hinder passing renewable energy policies. Given these conditions leaves the public with a situation of no choice.[111] Consequently, this leaves the general public in a state to abide by conventional energy sources such as coal and oil.

In a broad sense most individuals, especially those that do not engage in public discourse of current economic policies, have little to no awareness of renewable energy. Enlightening communities on the socioeconomic implications of fossil fuel use is a potent mode of rhetoric that can promote the implementation of renewable energy sources.[114] Transparent local planning also proves useful in public discourse when used to determine the location of wind farms in communities supporting renewable energy.[115] According to an article by John Barry et al., a crucial factor communities need to engage discourse on is the principle of "assumption of and imperative towards consensus."[114] This principle claims that a community cannot neglect its energy or climate change responsibilities, and that it must do its part in helping to decrease carbon emissions through renewable energy reformation.[114] Hence, communities that continually engage in mutual learning and discourse by conflict resolution will help progress renewable energy.[114]

Nuclear power proposed as renewable energy[edit]

Legislative definitions of renewable energy, used when determining energy projects eligible for subsidies or tax breaks, usually exclude conventional nuclear reactor designs. Physicist Bernard Cohen elucidated in 1983 that uranium dissolved in seawater, when used in Breeder reactors (which are reactors that "breed" more fissile nuclear fuel than they consume from base fertile material) is effectively inexhaustible, with the seawater bearing uranium constantly replenished by river erosion carrying more uranium into the sea, and could therefore be considered a renewable source of energy.[116][117]

In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development(WCED), an organization independent from, but created by, the United Nations, published Our Common Future, in which breeder reactors, and, when it is developed, fusion power are both classified within the same category as conventional renewable energy sources, such as solar and falling water.[118]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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Further reading[edit]