Pros and cons of onshore wind farms

Rishi Sunak ‘stuck between two Tory wings’ over proposed law changes to allow more turbines on land

An onshore wind farm
Critics say onshore wind farms can be an ‘eyesore on the landscape’

The prime minister appears set to roll back on his opposition to onshore wind farms amid a looming rebellion by Tory MPs.

Rishi Sunak pledged during the party leadership battle this summer to not “relax the ban on onshore wind in England”. But Downing Street this week “fuelled expectations of a U-turn” by saying the PM would “engage” with more than 30 Conservatives backing proposed legal changes to lift the de-facto ban on turbines on land, said The Independent.

Former Tory leaders Boris Johnson and Liz Truss are among the rebels supporting ex-cabinet secretary Simon Clarke’s pro-wind amendment to the Levelling Up Bill. Labour is expected to back Clarke’s proposals too, and is also tabling a separate and more “beefed-up amendment” on onshore wind, according to The Guardian.

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The row has left Sunak “stuck between two wings” of his own party, said the paper, as the rival sides continue to debate the pros and cons of using onshore wind farms to help transition to zero-carbon energy generation.

1. Pro: small carbon footprint

Although manufacturing and operating wind turbines produces some emissions carbon, the carbon footprint of wind energy is “relatively small”, according to LSE. Greenhouse gas emissions created by the manufacture, transportation and installation of onshore wind turbines total around 9 gCO2/KWh on average, the university reported.

By contrast, the average footprint of gas power generators is around 450 gCO2/KWh, while coal power generators around 1,050 gCO2/KWh.

2. Con: intermittent source

Turbines can only generate electricity when the wind is blowing at sufficient strength, so “fossil fuel-based power supply is needed as back-up, which can temporarily increase greenhouse gas emissions”, said LSE. However, the university added, other technologies, “such as inter-linkages with other countries’ grids, energy storage and electricity demand management, are expected to help tackle intermittency in the future”.

At this stage, said National Grid, we need a “mix of solutions”, including “other renewable energy sources, as well as receiving clean energy through interconnectors and improved management of energy demand”.

3. Pro: cost competitive

The infrastructure required for onshore wind power is “significantly less expensive than what’s required for offshore wind”, said global recruitment agency Brunel. “In some cases, it’s half the cost and can provide investment payback as quickly as two years,” added the company, which specialises in the energy and mining sector.

A 2015 analysis by Bloomberg New Energy Finance comparing the costs involved in renewable energy and fossil fuels also found onshore wind to be “fully competitive” in many regions of the world. The research showed that the cost of both wind and solar power was getting cheaper, “helped by cheaper technology but also by lower finance costs , while coal and gas became more expensive”.

4. Con: visual impact

Onshore wind farms can be an “eyesore on the landscape”, said Brunel, and wind turbines built on high ground to generate more power can be especially “imposing on surrounding residential areas”. Turbines are also “typically more spread out than other large-scale energy infrastructure projects”, said LSE, “so can affect a larger area”.

Noise is another issue: wind turbines can cause noise pollution if located near a residential area. However, government studies have found that noise levels are comparatively low and generally do not significantly impact nearby residents.

5. Pro: quick installation

Wind farms are quicker and easier to set up than many alternatives. While a nuclear power station might take “in excess of 20 years to construct from the initial planning permission phase”, said energy-saving advice site The GreenAge, a wind turbine can “go up and start providing electricity to the grid in a matter of months”.

6. Con: threat to wildlife

Some campaigners have voiced concerns that birds and bats may collide with turbines. But the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has pointed to the bigger picture, by warning that “climate change poses the single greatest long-term threat to birds and other wildlife”.

The charity has argued that “switching to renewable energy now, rather than in ten or 20 years, is essential if we are to stabilise greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at safe levels”.

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