The iconoclast: Are harms from onshore wind power acceptable?

Onshore wind: it works, it’s cheap and it is quick to install. What’s not to like about this form of renewable energy? Several things apparently.

Energy sources generally have environmental side-effects of varying intensity. We are familiar with the pollution that energy generation, management and use can cause (smoke from coal power stations, oil spills) and we accept the effect that fossil fuels can have on our climate (greenhouse gasses).

But how about renewable energy sources? While the terms “renewable energy” and “clean energy” are often used interchangeably, it’s important to realise that renewables can have an impact on the environment – habitat loss (hydroelectric schemes), the killing of wildlife (tidal barrages) and even climate effects (greenhouse gasses from burning biofuels).

Of course that impact is almost always substantially less than that of fossil fuels. But when deciding on which type of sustainable energy to promote, it’s important to think holistically, to evaluate all the disadvantages as well as counting up the advantages.

And when you think holistically, onshore wind doesn’t always come out well.

At £63 per megawatt hour of electricity, it’s certainly cheap, although solar power is a very similar cost according to the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. And, despite the unreliability of wind, the technology itself is pretty reliable.

But what about the environmental costs?

The negative effects of wind turbines on birds and bats have been well publicised, although they may be rather less than initially feared. Instead it is the effects on humans that need to be considered carefully.

Let’s start with visual pollution. It is accepted that electricity pylons can cause visual pollution and in the UK many have been replaced by underground cables in areas of natural beauty. And yet wind turbines have been erected in many beautiful parts of the countryside, with planners often (but not always) seeming blind to the social and commercial effects of visual pollution.

Sound pollution is another problem. The noise that wind turbines make is quite low – around 40dB when you are 300 yards away from them (the nearest they can be built to houses). But while this noise is low, it can still be irritating because it is constant and non-random. (Regular patterns of noise can be very stressful because people are always anticipating and listening out for the next burst of noise).

Some studies indicate that only one in ten people experience noise stress because of wind turbines. Only one in ten? Fine if you are one of the 90% who don’t suffer stress. But for those that do – and there are many of them – it can be unbearable.

And noise pollution may have other effects that have yet to be researched properly. Turbines can generate infrasound, low frequency noise that is not registered by human ears. “If you can’t hear it, then it isn’t a problem” say some people. But military scientists have long been interested in infrasound as a new type of weapon.

Recognising the disadvantages of onshore wind, the UK government excludes onshore wind generation from subsidies. This has been criticised as “economically illiterate” by critics. And yet it seems rather to recognise that not everything a government does should be about increasing wealth: promoting wellbeing is just as important.

The use of onshore wind to generate electricity has grown substantially over the last decade. But during the same period, the cost of electricity generated by offshore wind has halved. And the technologies around solar energy have improved greatly.

Given the potential harms to humans from onshore wind, surely there are other forms of renewable energy that should be promoted instead.

This post reflects the personal opinion of the author and is in no way reflective of the editorial position of Image courtesy of