Monday, 31 January 2011

Are wind turbines really as green as we think they are?

At the beginning of last week I wrote a post in response to an article I found on the National Geographic website that discussed how green our attempts to utilise renewable energy sources really are. Within this post I used wind farms as an example to demonstrate how we have to use many rare earth metals and other finite resources to build the equipment we require to capture renewable energy. Talking specifically about wind turbines, neodymium is vital in the production of the magnets used as the stronger the magnets the more efficient the turbines can be (around 4,400lb are needed per turbine). It was estimated that we would need to quintuple the world’s production of this rare earth metal to meet the demand. Currently, in the UK, we have 3,153 wind turbines which have a maximum capacity of 5,203 megawatts and at this level of development it is estimated that they will supply 4.6% of the energy we use in 2011. This percentage is likely to only increase as planning permission is being granted to build more wind farms – especially in Scotland. For example in December planning permission was given to build 33 turbines on the hills north of the upper Findhorn valley.  Many people, however, are still against the development of wind farms as, although they provide ‘green’ energy, they have many environmental impacts of their own. Most people oppose them because they aren’t the most picturesque objects and can spoil the previously untouched landscape. Also it is not just the turbines themselves that alter the surrounding environment. At Dunmaglass, in Scotland, a new network of roads 20 miles long has to be built so that access to the turbines is improved so that they can be serviced. Also around 1,500 tons of concrete foundations are required to provide stability to the turbines and to prevent them from falling over in strong winds. All of this adds to the negative impact that they can have on the environment and this is all before mentioning the fact that many peat moors have to be drained to put up a turbine and peat bogs naturally trap large quantities of carbon and the impact they are believed to have on birds. However wind farms are still a popular choice of renewable energy source due to the amount of coastline we have and because it is possibly one of the most developed forms of renewable energy. Before I read  an article this weekend I personally believed that wind turbines were quite a good way of utilising renewable energy sources and that even though they have their downsides surely we have to make some aesthetical sacrifices to increase the amount of renewable energy we capture. Also is a turbine really that different to a pylon? However this was all before I was aware of the impact that our attempts, as a country, to boost our environmental credentials are having elsewhere in the world.

The growing pressure put on countries to develop their renewable energy sources has increased the demand for the production of materials, like neodymium, and the speed at which this has happened has led to these materials being produced in an unsustainable way. Rare earth metals are crucial for the building of turbines and 90% of the world’s legal reserves of rare earth metals are found in Mongolia. Much of the world’s supply of neodymium comes from here and although this has allowed other countries to improve their environmental credentials; this industry has had huge negative environmental impact in China. The article I read explained how in Baotou “lies a five-mile wide ‘tailing’ lake. It has killed farmland for miles around, made thousands of people ill and put one of China’s key waterways in jeopardy”. This lake is the dumping ground for seven million tons a year of mined rare earth after it has been doused in acid and chemicals and processed through red-hot furnaces to extract its components. This is considered to be the deadly and sinister side effect of the massively profitable rare-earths industry that the ‘green’ companies profiting from the demand for wind turbines would prefer you knew nothing about and many believe that this giant, secret toxic dump is only going to be made bigger by every wind turbine we build. Like discussed in a previous blog providing clean water to the many people in China is already an issue and this is being made worse by the radioactive waste that is polluting water supplies like those in Baotou. Mr Su, a local farmer, explained how “Anything we planted just withered, then our animals started to sicken and die.” It was not only the animals that suffered but the people too. Dalahai villagers say that their teeth began to fall out, their hair turned white at unusually young ages, and they suffered from severe skin and respiratory diseases whilst children were born with soft bones and cancer rates rocketed. These claims were supported by an official study (carried out 5 years ago) which confirmed that these problems were caused by the radiation levels of the lake which were ten times higher than that of the surrounding area. This study was carried out 5 years ago and so surely the problem has only escalated since then as countries endeavour to boost their production of renewable energy. More recent studies have been carried out but their results have been kept secret and officials have refused to publicly acknowledge health risks to nearby villages – surely this just highlights the fact that the companies realise that what they are doing is wrong. The state owned Baogang Group (own most of the factories in Baotou) also claim that they invest millions of pounds a year into environmental protection but yet why is it then that the lake has to deal the discharge of 7 million tons of waste a year and that this lake (already 100ft high) grows by approximately 3ft a year. This is not the only issue linked to the production of neodymium. 

The conditions that the workers have to work in are not great either. Workers don’t have access to protective clothing except for cotton gloves and face masks even though they have to ladle molten rare earth from furnaces with temperatures of 1,000c. In the past year the price of neodymium has doubled which has provoked more factories, like this one, to develop or expand. This is going to increase the number of villagers that are exposed to these high levels of radiation within the water that they rely on for irrigation of crops and drinking water.

Despite this countries still develop wind farms from the resources that they buy from environmentally unsustainable industries like this one. So, the question is ‘How green really are the wind farms that we build in this country’? Taking all of the above examples of the negative impact wind turbines have on the environment into consideration is it really worth damaging the environment in these ways to try and produce a marginal amount of ‘green’ energy.  Despite the amount of investment that was placed on wind farms last year,  in December wind farms only produced 0.2% of the electricity that we used in the UK. This made me question whether or not wind power is the best way forward or could the money be better spent on developing other forms of renewable energy.  (This is the link to the article, ‘The Dirty Truth about Britain’s, Clean, Green Wind Power Dream’ I read and it presents the environmental impacts that wind turbines have and also breaks down how the electricity we use is produced - it is well worth a read)

At present, I don’t think I know enough about the other options to answer this question but hopefully, after all the group presentations this week, I will be able to come back to this debate and give an educated opinion on, in terms of renewable energy, what I think is the best way forward?


  1. Wow, this was interesting, though I would be careful of the source without further investigation, this aspect of wind turbines is new to me. Nothing in a clean green world is ever simple!
    I think that wind is important, it is as you said the msot developed of the renewables, but for us I think it holds nothing more than a contributor to the energy mix in the right areas. If he environmental implications are this significant, we need to carefully consider our other options and possible look elsewhere, except for those isolated communities in the windy regions.
    The problem is that nothing is going to be truly "green", certainly there are many things that produce less CO2 than fossil fuels, but i think we have to pick the lesser of many evils when planning future energy mix.
    A very interesting blog post

  2. I agree with your questioning of the reliability of this source as I when I first read the article it seemed to take a rather negative approach to wind turbines from the start and also I am ensure of the scale of this issue and whether or not other countries are experiencing the same problems as China. In terms of how green wind turbines are, if this is an isolated case, then steps to manage the production of these rare earth metals could be implemented to ensure that the methods used do not have such a negative impact on the environment. I mentioned in my original post that I believe that some sacrifices are going to have to be made to ensure we have a greener future and this may well have to include, temporarily, increasing the use of finite resources to do so and like you said ‘nothing in a clean green world is ever simple’. Personally I don’t think that we, as a country, could rely on wind turbines to generate enough electricity to power the nation but then again I don’t really think we will able to find one renewable energy source that can do this. At present my, rather uneducated, opinion is that instead of focusing on just one renewable energy source we should develop multiple ones to try and fully utilise the green energy that is accessible to us – hopefully by the end of the week I will be able to give a more developed and educated opinion on what I believe the future for our energy production should be!