Wind Farms and the Environment

Wind energy is the ultimate clean energy. It would be hard to find anything more ecologically sound than a wind turbine in action. All methods of power generation have an impact on the environment, but the effects of wind power, in contrast with conventional energy technologies, are negligible. Wind turbines produce no pollutants, no harmful gas emissions, no effluent, no waste products and no radioactivity. There are no ill effects to populations locally, elsewhere in the world, or to future generations.

Benefits of Wind Farms

Every mega-Watt of installed Irish wind energy capacity displaces carbon dioxide and other emissions. Using the average carbon dioxide emission for the grid (average including all generating technologies such as coal, gas, oil, peat, CHP and wind) it can be said that each new MW of wind installed displaced the emission of 1,500 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Each additional MW of installed wind generates in one year, the equivalent electricity consumed by 525 average homes for the same period. In other words in one year one new MW of wind will produce enough power for an average home for 525 years! Looking at it another way, each additional MW of installed wind removes the need to import the oil equivalent of 560 tonnes or a coal equivalent of 797 tonnes (assuming average conventional power plant efficiencies of 40%, tonnes of oil or coal equivalent is a universally used term to compare different energy units).

Power plants which burn fossil fuels generate by-products other than waste heat during the electricity generating process. While modern plants scrub their flue gases tonnes of NOx and SOx are emitted into the atmosphere each year in Ireland. Particulate matter can also be emitted and, following the burning of solid fuels such as peat and coal, the remaining ash must be transported and disposed of.

Although the environmental impact of wind energy is far lower than that of conventional energy sources, there are some effects on the environment such as impacts upon the landscape, bird life, noise, and electromagnetic interference. Fears and concerns are still expressed in relation to a number of aspects of wind farm development.

Landscape Integration

Wind turbines are large and they will be visible at considerable distances from the wind farm site. Clearly there are areas where wind farms are more suitably located than others. These areas should be identified and outlined in each local authority's county development plan. SEAI has surveyed public attitudes to wind energy in the past and the findings showed people were positive towards the development. When evaluating wind farm planning applications it is worth remembering that:

  • The Irish public consider some landscape types more scenically beautiful others
  • Irrespective of landscape type, a majority of Irish people feel that a 10-turbine wind farm has a neutral or positive impact on scenic beauty
  • Higher levels of concern are expressed in areas considered scenically beautiful
  • Higher levels of concern are expressed as the number of turbines per development increases
  • Concerns can be reduced by sensitive design and locating of wind farms
  • The Irish public express greater preference of larger turbines in smaller numbers to generate wind powered electricity.

The full report on public attitudes to wind energy is available on the SEAI website.

Tourism and Property

Many surveys have been carried out across Europe to determine the effects of wind farms on property prices and on tourism. A survey of people living in the vicinity of wind farms currently operating in Ireland underpins the commonly found opinion that the effects on both are minimal.

In 2008 Bord Fáilte carried out a survey of visitor attitudes to wind energy and they found that the vast majority of visitors saw it as a positive development for Ireland. The majority of tourists surveyed did not feel a wind farm was a negative addition to the landscape.

Wind Farm Construction

Because wind energy respects the environment, wind farm sites should also minimise local disturbance. Land area used and modified by a wind farm is rarely greater than 4% of the total site area. Even though this figure is low, it is important to take measures at the planning, construction, operating and eventually the decommissioning phases of the development to ensure any impacts are minimised or eliminated completely. Roads and access should be carefully planned especially in peatland.

If, at the end of its lifetime, a wind turbine is not going to be replaced, its decommissioning can be every bit as discreet as its installation and lifetime of service. It is easy to dismantle and the site can be quickly restored to its original state as it occupied such a small space.

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