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Mythbusting: "Wind power is unreliable, inefficient and harmful to nature"

02 Apr, 2024

Wind power has become a hot topic in many countries. Like all forms of power production, wind power plants affect people and the environment. Unfortunately, the debate is often characterised by incorrect, inaccurate and misleading claims. Let's take a closer look at some of them.

Man smiling
Geir Fuglseth
Media spokesperson

Along with solar power, development of wind power is currently the most efficient, fastest and cheapest way to generate more new renewable energy. And we need more renewable energy for the world to meet its climate goals. There is resistance to the development of wind power in many places, for varying reasons. Debates on wind power or the development of other power sources is natural, but it is important that the debate is based on facts and knowledge.

Let us take a closer look at some of the most common claims, or "myths", about wind power.

Six stubborn myths about wind power

1. "Wind power takes up large areas of land."

Answer: In wind farms, the turbines are often placed well apart over large areas. If you count the entire area around and between the turbines in a wind farm, there is no doubt that a wind farm is the energy source that requires the largest area of land per MWh produced, even if the direct impact on nature is small.

However, the picture is more complex than that. On the Our World in Data website you can find a comparison of land use for different energy sources. It shows that among traditional energy sources, small hydropower plants are the least efficient and nuclear power plants the most efficient in terms of land use. For various renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, the land required can vary greatly depending on whether the land is also used for other purposes. If the land where the wind turbines are located can be used at the same time for other purposes, such as grazing or farming, the footprint is minimal.

2. "Wind power destroys nature."

Answer: A wind power plant will affect adjacent areas to a greater or lesser extent. Wind turbines tower over the landscape and are visible from a long distance. It is therefore important that the location of wind farms is carefully planned. They must be installed in locations where the wind conditions are the best possible, but they should not, for example, be built in areas with vulnerable nature or bogs. It is also important to take account of particularly vulnerable animal species, such as endangered birds, bats and wild reindeer. A lot of research is done in this area to reduce the negative impacts on wildlife.

However, the impact of wind turbines on wildlife is often significantly exaggerated, not least when compared to the impacts of other interventions in nature. For example, if we look at the risk to birds in general, the impact from collisions with wind turbines is small compared with collisions with buildings or other infrastructure. Having said that, bird death is an undesired consequence of wind power, so both experiments and research are carried out to reduce the risk.

Wind turbine in nature

Berry Burn wind farm is located in Moray, Scotland. Its 29 wind turbines serve almost 50,000 Scottish households with renewable energy. Photo: Statkraft.

3. "Wind power is inefficient."

Answer: A common objection to wind power is that it is inefficient because a wind power plant only produces when it is windy, not necessarily when we need the power most. This is only partially correct. Wind turbines do not need very strong winds to produce electricity. A land-based wind power plant often has a capacity factor of 35–40 per cent, and is in operation 80 per cent of the time. This is of course lower than traditional thermal power plants or flexible hydropower. These power plants can have a capacity factor of up to 90 per cent. Wind power is a variable power source, but it interacts very well in a power system that also consists of more flexible power sources such as hydropower. Combining wind power with batteries is also becoming increasingly common in areas with less access to flexible power sources.

4. "Wind turbines generate noise at levels harmful to health."

Answer: Wind turbines generate noise from both the blades and the generators, and some people are bothered by the noise. Wind turbines can emit both high-frequency and low-frequency sound, as well as infrasound. Modern turbines generally generate less noise than older models. It has been claimed that noise from wind turbines can impact mental health, create sleep problems and increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases. The measurable noise from wind turbines is low a few hundred metres from the source, but local and contextual conditions can influence which problems people experience. Topography, expectations of silence, building practices, use of outdoor areas, and attitudes to wind power can also affect perceptions of noise. The World Health Organization believes that research does not support the claim that wind turbines themselves contribute to more physical and mental health problems.

Wind turbine in nature

Roan wind farm is located in Åfjord, Norway, with a capacity of 256 MW. It opened in 2019, and Statkraft was responsible for the construction on behalf of Fosen Vind. Photo: Statkraft.

5. "Wind turbines use more energy than they produce." 

Answer: It is sometimes claimed that wind turbines are not profitable, climate-friendly or sustainable because the energy that goes into building them exceeds the energy the wind turbines produce over their lifetime. This is not true. A life-cycle analysis published in the scientific journal Renewable Energy in 2012 shows that, after only three to seven months, a wind turbine produces more energy than is required to manufacture it and set it up. According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel om Climate Change, onshore wind power is also the energy source with the lowest total emissions of greenhouse gases per kWh produced of electricity over its lifetime.

6. "Wind turbines require increased supplies of rare minerals."

Answer: The green shift increases the need for a number of materials, including rare metals and minerals. It is estimated that the need for such materials will increase sevenfold by 2050. For wind power, rare earths are needed to improve the performance of the turbines. The choice of technology and technology development is crucial. The newest turbines use significantly less rare earth materials per MW than earlier models. Although the materials are called "rare", there is no reason to fear that there will be a shortage of rare minerals anytime soon. However, it is a challenge that many of these materials are extracted in countries such as China and the Congo, often under conditions that do not take sufficient account of people and the environment. The solution to these challenges is that we become better at recovering valuable minerals, and that Europe makes more effort to become self-sufficient in these minerals.

More mythbusting ...