Onshore wind energy: what are the pros andcons?This Q&A is part of the Guardians ultimate climate change FAQTuesday 25 September 2012 10.34 BSTOnshore wind already plays a leading role in the generation of renewable electricity in the UK.Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the GuardianWind turbines harness the energy of moving air to generate electricity. Onshore wind refers toturbines located on land, while offshore turbines are located out at sea or in freshwater. In the UK,the pros and cons of onshore wind energy, in comparison with other low-carbon and fossil fuelenergy sources, have recently been the subject of debate in the press and among politicians.Onshore wind already plays a leading role in the generation of renewable electricity in the UK. In2010, it generated around 7TWh – more than a quarter of the electricity provided by Britishrenewables at that time and enough to save six million tonnes of CO2, according to governmentestimates. By 2020, onshore wind is expected to generate up to 30TWh. Onshore wind can thereforeplay a key role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions created by the UKs power sector – which willbe crucial to meeting the UKs legally binding carbon budgets.Onshore wind has the advantage of being one of the most affordable renewable energy sources.Generating electricity from onshore wind turbines typically costs around 7–9p per kWh, which isaround half the cost of offshore wind and a quarter of the costs of solar photovoltaic panels. It isalso slightly cheaper, on average, than nuclear power. Onshore wind generation is still slightly moreexpensive than fossil fuels (generating electricity from gas power plants currently costs between 4.1and 7.5 p/kWh), but its price is expected to fall in the coming years.Some emissions are created by the manufacture, transportation and installation of wind turbines, butthese are considered fairly low. Additional emissions are attributed to the fact that wind energy (likesolar and wave power) is intermittent, generating electricity only when the wind is blowing, and atsufficient strength. When wind strength is insufficient for turbines to operate, fossil-fuel-basedpower supply is needed as "backup". The current small proportion of renewable electricity in theUK market requires very little backup, but as the share increases additional backup will be needed.However, 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, so theoverall future impact on emissions is considered relatively low.Onshore wind has been criticised for its visual impact. Although other power infrastructure, likefossil fuel and nuclear power stations, can also modify landscapes and habitats, onshore windturbines are typically more spread out than other large-scale energy infrastructure projects and socan affect a larger area. Another criticism is that species such as birds and bats may also be affectedby wind turbines – though bird fatalities due to turbine collisions are relatively low compared toother fatality causes, such as traffic and domestic cats. Impacts on wildlife can be minimised bycareful site selection and by avoiding areas of high conservation or habitat value. A third potentialissue is that turbines can contribute to noise pollution, but government studies find noise levels arecomparatively low and should not significantly impact on nearby residents. New guidance is beingdrafted to inform future planning policy on noise issues.Environmental Impact Assessments review these kinds of potential impacts on a case-by-case basisand seek to protect unsuitable areas, such as those of high conservation or heritage value. In somecases, undesirable local impacts may make more expensive renewable technologies, such asoffshore wind or solar, more attractive. The extra cost of offshore wind can be seen as the premiumsociety is willing to pay in order to avoid the local environmental cost of onshore turbines.The choice between more affordable electricity (which would favour onshore wind) and localenvironmental protection (which may favour other low-carbon technologies) is ultimately a societaland political one. Given the economic and environmental trade-offs, technological uncertainty andthe absence of one clear winner when it comes to energy sources, many economists suggest (pdf)the best approach is a portfolio of different technologies to balance the cost to consumers andenvironmental concerns. Onshore wind has a role to play in this energy mix and in helping the UKachieve its emission reduction targets.• This article was written by Samuela Bassi and Naomi Hicks of the Grantham Research Institute onClimate Change and the Environment at LSE in collaboration with the Guardian
EU energy chief satisfied with nuclear safetydespite critical reportStress test of 145 reactors reveals hundreds of defects, but Güenther Oettinger says generally thesituation is satisfactory Fiona Harvey, environment correspondent guardian.co.uk, Thursday 4 October 2012 11.25 BSTEU energy commissioner Güenther Oettinger. Photograph: Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty ImagesThe European Unions energy chief has called the blocs nuclear power stations "satisfactory"despite a report on Thursday that showed hundreds of defects, with dozens of reactors failing tomeet international safety standards.The report – the "stress test" of Europes 145 nuclear reactors – was commissioned after theFukushima incident in Japan last year. It found that bringing Europes nuclear power stations up tointernational standards could cost €25bn.Some MEPs criticised the commission for not urging stronger action on the nuclear industry.Almost all of the EUs nuclear plants need some form of upgrade or repair, ranging from minorupdates to substantial overhauls, but none requiring closure, according to the tests. One issue foundin some plants was insufficient preparation for what could happen if the cooling systems werecompromised, as happened in Fukushima. This is potentially serious as it could lead to meltdown.Some of the plants do not have sufficient safety measures in place to cope securely with a seriousnatural disaster, the tests found. But some other changes needed can be carried out relatively easily.Guenther Oettinger, the energy commissioner, said: "Our stress test was strict, serious andtransparent. It reveals bluntly and objectively what we are good at and where there is a need toimprove. Generally the situation is satisfactory but there is no room for complacency. We mustwork together to ensure that the highest safety standards are in force in every single nuclear powerplant in Europe, for the safety of our citizens."Some of the defects involve basic safety and monitoring measures, such as the lack of seismicmonitors at reactor sites in several countries including France and the Czech Republic.Oettinger said the stress test was an opportunity to ensure the comprehensive enforcement ofinternational safety standards across member states.He said: "Now we know whether the highest international standards are used for very essentialsafety features, for example how the risk of an earthquake is measured."The stress tests, which included international experts carrying out spot tests of plants, took place inco-operation with the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group, made of member states nationalsafety authorities.Oettinger said: "We have assessed the safety and robustness of nuclear power plants in case ofextreme natural events. This means especially flood and earthquakes. Both scenarios were assessedsimultaneously. We have covered air plane crashes to the extent that they have the same effect astsunami and earthquakes, meaning that they shut down normal safety and cooling functions. "But campaigners and MEPs said the nuclear industry had been let off too lightly and demanded toknow how the commission would enforce standards.Marita Ulvskog, vice president of the Socialists and Democrats grouping in the EuropeanParliament, said: "There are several nuclear facilities that would not withstand extreme events like
an earthquake or a terrorist attack. We must guarantee that all measures are taken to protect humanlives and the environment. A nuclear disaster [in one member state] would have catastrophicconsequences for neighbouring countries and we need to find a common solution."Rebecca Harms, co-president of the Green grouping in the parliament, said that the stress test had"been orchestrated to cause as little stress to the nuclear industry as possible". She said: "There areno real proposals for follow-up. However, the fact that the stress tests failed to address risks incrucial areas – ageing technology, terrorist attacks or human error – is a more damning indictmentof the whole exercise."She insisted that the stress test should not be used as an excuse to prolong the life of elderlyreactors: "At the very least, the commission should be pressing for the security deficienciesidentified in the report to be rectified. However, given the prohibitive costs – with estimates of up to€25bn – investors will only be willing to commit to this if the reactors stay online far longer thanforeseen for safety reasons. These stress tests cannot be used as an excuse to justify lifetimeextensions for decrepit nuclear reactors. If this exercise was serious, the commission should berecommending the closure of unsafe or ageing reactors."One nuclear insider, however, said that even under the stress of such a severe natural disaster as theearthquake and tsunami in Japan, the threat to the nuclear power stations in Fukushima andelsewhere in Japan had been contained.Greenpeace spokesman Mark Breddy said: "Its not surprising that the tests, though limited, haveuncovered major concerns. Nuclear power is inherently risky, and failures, accidents and close callshappen all the time. But there are serious safety issues that the stress tests havent looked into. EUgovernments must act fast by shutting down the oldest and most risky plants and by ordering morethorough testing on the remaining plants."