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The seven myths of wind energy

Article by Dr. Josep Puig i Boix

Surprisingly, wind technology continues to suffer from a great deal of misunderstanding among some sectors; and it is the object of criticism and even hoaxes despite being a basic instrument for the energy transition and totally necessary for facing the fight against the climate crisis. These are some of the myths:

Wind turbines cause impact on the landscape

Ever since humans have inhabited the Earth, they contributed with their activities to change the landscape. The Spanish word for landscape, paisaje, comes from the French word paysage, a contraction of pays and visage. This means that the landscape is the face of the country. This face is the visible face of the natural systems that have developed in the territory. Natural systems have another face that is much less visible: the ecological functions they perform and which are the basis on which human societies and their functioning are based.

It is possible to modify the landscape without distorting the functions of natural systems or by distorting them. The challenge we have in the 21st century, in the midst of a climate emergency, is to take advantage of the energy contained in biospheric flows without distorting the ecological functions of natural systems.

On the other hand, the concept of landscape is a modern construction created by the inhabitants of the industrialized-productivist-consumerist cities, the operation and life of which suppose a serious affectation of the natural systems.

Wind turbines are concentrated in certain territories

The use of the wind resource must obviously take place in areas where there is a wind regime that makes the production of electricity sufficient to compensate the cost of the project. Catalonia has a diverse territory, there is not enough wind everywhere to take advantage. But: Modern wind turbines have greatly increased their capacity to capture and extract energy from the wind and transform it into electricity.

This means that today’s wind turbines can be installed in places where, with towers of 20 m, it was previously impracticable to make any use, and place towers of 100 m or more in height and blades of more than 50 m long where it is perfectly feasible to make use of wind energy. However, we have large areas of territory where it is unthinkable and unfeasible (such as the interior plains of the country) to build wind farms.

Better to put small wind turbines than big ones

E.F. Schumacher long ago made his well-known motto "small is beautiful" fashionable, but he himself wrote that this motto should not be interpreted literally: "small, of course, does not mean infinitely and absurdly small, but the order of magnitude must be that which the human mind can encompass.” But what concretely is this order of magnitude? Godfrey Boyle, a pioneer of the alternative technology movement in the 1970s, questioned it within the framework of the Alternative Research Group of the English Open University, asking himself

"How big can small become before it stops being beautiful, and how small can big become before it stops being efficient? Godfrey Boyle himself, already in the late 1970s, advised "concentrating efforts on the development of technologies and products to meet human needs not at the family or household level, but at the community level", although he recognized that "certain types of technologies make sense at the household level, other types at the small community level, others at the regional and even national level". Today it has been widely demonstrated that a 'large' wind turbine, in the range of 2-4 MW, is much more efficient (ecologically and economically) than one of 20-40 100 kW wind turbines, such as those made in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Wind turbines kill birds

This myth is still too widespread, but the facts (observed in numerous studies conducted in various locations where wind farms are located) show that the main causes of bird mortality are impacts on the facades of glass skyscrapers and attacks by domestic cats. Wind power only appears at the end of the list. In between there are several causes: collisions and electrocution in high voltage electrical networks and collisions with vehicles, pesticide poisoning and so on.

The same operators of wind power installations are the first ones interested in minimizing the effect on the birds. So much so, that even in certain sensitive areas of migration, wind turbines are equipped with devices that detect birds and stop the machine. Previous environmental impact studies and their corrective measures serve to avoid the risk of these mishaps.

Everyone better produce their own electricity

Other myths are propagated by those who claim to defend wind power, but who in practice oppose projects they call large installations. They come to say that "Energy democracy is about everyone getting the electricity they need”.

It is true that each person and each family can generate with the sun (PV and thermal technology) or with wind (micro-wind generator); all or part of the energy they use in their daily lives. There is no doubt about it. However, this is not what is meant by democratizing energy.

Just as a society is much more than the set of individuals and families that make it up, in the same way an energy system is much more than the set of individuals and families that generate and use energy.

Democracy applied to energy goes much further than the simple self-generation of energy on an individual basis: it is the energy system that empowers individuals and communities to have local sources of renewable energy so that they can benefit from its capture, transformation and use.

But this includes generation, storage, distribution, use, exchange, etc. not only individually but also collectively. And any collective installation, (be it solar or wind) will always be larger than a family installation.

They affect health

Among the other myths that have spread around the technologies for the use of wind, there are some very curious ones, such as those that say that wind turbines affect health. If this were the case, the inhabitants of many areas of the planet that have hundreds of wind turbines in operation since the 1990s would be sick, which has not happened.

Wine becomes sour

There are also those who have stated in our country that wind turbines in wine producing areas made wine sour. If this were the case, there would be no winegrowers who have wind installations among their vineyards and who have even given a commercial name to the wine they put on the market related to the wind (Le Domain du Chant d'Eole). Others even say that wind power destroys rural tourism, when in many places the facts just prove the opposite (Quévy-le-pequeño, Sur les chemins d'Éole).

This article was first published in Spanish in La Vanguardia.

Josep Puig i Boix is head of the Spanish and Catalan section of EUROSOLAR. He has been a professor of energy at the UAB and founder of Ecotècnia. 

Posted in Eurotrip