Agenda: Is wind energy really sustainable?
WIND energy is expected to power every UK household by 2030 and plays a key role in the government’s ambitious net zero targets. But this renewable energy source has drawn its share of criticism.
In fact, there is doubt about the sustainability of wind power, or rather wind farms.
Sustainable and renewable energy are terms that are often, but wrongly, used interchangeably. While all renewables are renewable, not all renewables are sustainable.
To be considered sustainable, energy sources must meet the needs of the current population without negative effects for future generations. They cannot harm the planet or use resources that are scarce.
Nuclear energy, which generates toxic waste, and some forms of biogas, produced from crops requiring extensive irrigation, are often classified as unsustainable, although they are renewable.
So why would wind power be considered unsustainable?
First, wind turbines contain a strong magnet made of neodymium, one of the 17 “rare earth” metals. Some people argue that wind farms will deplete the Earth’s supply.
But “rare earth” is widely regarded as a misnomer: some of these metals are rare, but some, like neodymium, are about as abundant as copper. Nonetheless, there are certainly arguments for a more circular design approach to preserving supplies.
Criticisms of wind turbines are not limited to their components: Wind farms often face accusations that their construction harms the environment.
The construction of wind farms indeed releases CO2 emissions. However, the emissions produced during the installation of a typical wind farm are saved after three to nine months. And that’s before considering the much higher level of emissions created by non-renewable energy sources like coal and natural gas.
Finally, onshore wind farms often face resistance from local residents, who argue that energy companies are neglecting the needs of their communities. Wind turbines impact views of the natural landscape and cause widespread disturbance.
This is a criticism that the wind industry should take very seriously. Communities close to onshore wind farms are invited to make a sacrifice, and this must be recognized.
Wind energy companies should involve communities in the planning process, providing transparent and detailed communication. They should also give back to communities by creating grants for local facilities and programs, as many companies have already done.
This is not about paying communities, but rather ensuring that the needs of wind energy companies are not placed above the needs of local people.
So, are wind farms sustainable? The answer is yes, with caveats: we must preserve our neodymium supplies and provide support to communities close to onshore developments.
While wind farms have a net positive effect on the planet, it’s easy to see how misinformation and misunderstanding can quickly lead to negative public opinion.
Public awareness programs, awareness campaigns and dedicated information services should all be part of every wind energy company’s communications plan. The value of public support should never be underestimated.
Adam Bell is CTO at Moment, an Aberdeen-based sustainable marketing company.