Azara Blog: Wind power for British households

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Date published: 2005/10/25

Wind power is flavour of the minute in Britain. The BBC ran two stories today with further propaganda, about wind power for individual households. Although wind power sounds like a great idea, because there are no CO2 emissions from the actual operation that creates energy, the protagonists never calculate the emissions due to the construction, installation, maintenance and demolition of the wind generators. When you do that it is quite possible the net "benefit" will actually be negative (it's hard to know, nobody trustworthy ever does the sum). (But perhaps less negative than with other technologies.)

In the first story the chap installed a small wind turbine with blades just over a meter in size. Supposedly it cost £2000 to set up. It is implied that he also received a government subsidy, so the true cost is higher. (And if you want to calculate the impact on the environment, it is the true cost that matters, not the subsidised price.) The turbine is expected to generate around 600 kw hours per year. The latter would mean that on average it is generating around 600/(24*365) = 68 watts, so less than many light bulbs consume. This does not sound like a heck of a lot. Obviously on some days it would generate more and on some days less. The claim in the article is that the power generated "will be sufficient to light his home". If so the power must be being stored somehow (that is not stated in the article) or the person does not use many light bulbs at once (and low power ones at that). Certainly you can forget about running anything else in your household. So is the net benefit positive? Even at £2000 (so ignoring any subsidy) it's hard to belive it is. And on a more practical note, do the neighbours suffer any noise pollution?

In the second story the chap installed a much bigger wind turbine, 11.5m high. 22 neighbours objected to the planning application (because of noise and visual impact) but obviously their views were ignored. This turbine is located 15m from his house and 35m from the nearest neighbour's house, so is obviously only suitable for relatively large (on the British scale) suburban or rural gardens. That already tells you this is for the middle class only. This turbine cost £15000 to set up (including £5000 government subsidy). Supposedly the main parts of the windmill will last 20 years. So ignoring any additional maintenance and ignoring the discount factor (which nobody does or should) the turbine would have to save £750 per year to break even. The person supposedly expects to save £1000 just in heating bills (and of course electricity is going to get more expensive, hence ignoring the discount factor is not so crazy). (But no mention of electricity for lighting, etc., and the article also claims the "payback" period is 10 years and 10 x £1000 = £10000, which is what the chap paid, so maybe the total saved is £1000.) There is no statement about how much power is generated but the house will still need a standard electricity grid connection (if nothing else because the wind does not always blow). So even here, it is not clear if the net benefit to the environment is positive (the £15000 is unlikely to include much in the way of environmental cost factored in). And of course there is almost certainly a net negative impact to the local environment (noise and visual impact), and this cost of course has been externalised onto his neighbours (they are the ones footing most of the bill on this score). (Externalised costs are something the so-called environmentalists are always keen to mention for their pet hates: cars, planes, oil.)

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