Recently, wind farms have been hugely popular. Green, greener, the greenest- wind turbines are seen as the magic tool to revolutionise the power generation industry. Indeed, in 2016, it was the second highest area of renewable technology growth, in capacity.
Sadly, unicorns do not exist and onshore wind farms pose multiple problems, especially to the local community.
On the one hand, green energy plays an important part for a more sustainable future; at the same time, the question of where to place wind farms is difficult to answer.
In order to assess the effects of onshore wind farms, the ethical frameworks of utilitarianism, macro- and micro-ethics will be used.
In this scenario, the ethical framework of utilitarianism considers if the majority of the community benefits from the installation of wind farms.
Macro-ethics consider effects of morality in the context of complete social systems. Micro-ethics concerns moral factors on a localised scale with reference to the individual stakeholders.
Although the manufacturing, installation and operation of land-based turbines incurs costs, they are relatively low compared to other energy generation methods when considering the levelised cost – the fraction of the total lifetime cost of a power source to the total value of electricity generation. Electricity generation by onshore wind turbines is around 6.6 to 9.3 pence per kilowatt-hour (p/kWh), which is almost half that of offshore wind turbines and a quarter of solar photovoltaic technology (see Figure). What better way to utilise one of the most abundant and inexpensive resources here in the UK?
Interestingly, windmills are not considered unsightly, as wind turbines are. On the contrary, the former are seen as part of the heritage and landscape of many localities and are even captured in art, such as Mondrian’s Windmill in the Gein’. Local communities heavily oppose the development of wind farms as they change the landscape. This ‘wind turbines are ugly’ consensus devalues properties in their immediate vicinity, meaning that owners sustain a substantial financial hit.
This does not have to be the case though as wind farms have been transforming into tourist attraction sites, such as the Whitelee Wind Farm, which has attracted more than 300,000 visitors since 2009.
Furthermore, painting wind turbines themselves could increase their aesthetic appeal and ease tensions between stakeholders. Hence, if communication is established between all parties, these problems can be minimised.
Residents in close proximity to wind farms receive benefits from the government Section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 imposes planning obligations for developers to improve local facilities and existing infrastructures for the community, including affordable housing and increased funding for services.
For instance, through the RES Local Electricity Discount Scheme, property owners close to RES wind farms receive an annual discount on electricity bills. This justifies the building of wind turbines from the utilitarian point of view, as the majority of the community benefits from it.
Effects on Farmland
Current practice sees many onshore wind farms being erected on farmland. This opens new job opportunities to the local community in occupations such as running the power plant, constructing infrastructure and tourism. The land is also already clear of trees and away from urban areas. Whilst this offers obvious benefits, there is a flipside to the coin.
It is wishful thinking to assume that, when a turbine is constructed, only the footprint will be sacrificed. The heavy machinery used during installation leads to soil compaction which significantly reduces crop yield. And the best part? This same machinery is used each time maintenance needs to be carried out(!) The result of this is further crop losses, in addition to those due purely to the loss of arable land to the turbine pad. This means that the farmer sustains not only immediate economic losses but also more long-term damages. The problem of compaction requires years of careful farming to rectify before maximum yields can be realised, having a huge micro-ethical impact on the farmer.
In these ways, it is inevitable that turbine erection will be at cost of land and result in some economic losses to the land owner. However, these issues may prove to be minimal when weighed against the more macro-ethical benefits.
Impact on Wildlife
When it comes to wildlife, birds are arguably one of the worst affected species. Apart from the inevitable collision with the turbine blades, wind farms could lead to the alterations to annual migratory routes. Additionally, access to feeding and roosting grounds, may be impeded. Scottish Natural Heritage proposes that those important locations should be considered before the design of the wind farm.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has provided a locational guidance for wind developers to avoid sensitive sites such as bird migration paths in Scotland, where 60% of UK’s onshore wind sites are located. Furthermore, wind developers are employing methods, such as using ultrasonic waves and strike detection mechanisms to reduce the likelihood of birds and bats colliding into the wind turbines.
However, despite these efforts, the threat posed to flying creatures still exists because an external body such as a company or the government might still struggle to locate such important grounds accurately and efficiently. This argument indicates that close interaction between wind developers and the local community should be strived for.
Hence, the impact on wildlife can be reduced if careful considerations are taken.
Also, and most significantly, most of the environmental side-effects presented by fossil fuels, nuclear power and hydroelectricity, (such as air pollution and radioactive waste,) are absent in wind power technology.
Building on-shore wind farms harms the few and benefits the many.
From an economic point of view, building them can be beneficial to the local community.
Construction of on-shore wind farms on arable land may result in individual losses but, on balance, gains on the macro-ethical scale far outweigh these.
It has been shown that the impact on wildlife can be reduced and the positive impact on the environment, owing to the renewability of wind power, prevails.
Therefore, on-shore wind farms should be built but with careful consideration for the local stakeholders and their concerns.