Seven Q & A’s about wind turbines

Vortex bladeless wind turbine. Is this the non-intrusive future of wind power? Photo: Seven Q & A’s about wind turbines

Many have strong opinions about wind power in Norway, but are they based on the correct, factual, basis? deals with seven questions and answers about wind turbines.

Wind power has long been a controversial topic in Norwegian energy policy. Opponents point out that the wind turbines are unsightly to look at, that they are dangerous to wildlife, and that they can create annoying noise if they are placed near settlements.

The supporters point out that they are an effective source of renewable energy, and that society can make a lot of money on power exports.

In this article, takes seven central questions about wind power.

How climate friendly are wind turbines?

There are several incorrect statements about the relationship between the emissions from the production of wind turbines and how much electricity they produce in the operating phase. The British fact-finding editorial FullFact has previously seen a claim that more wind energy is required to produce wind turbines than they themselves produce through their life cycle. They concluded that the assertion is incorrect.

A life cycle analysis, published in the scientific journal Renewable Energy in 2011, has looked at two different types of wind turbines of 1.8 megawatts (MW) and 2 MW respectively. Life cycle analyzes deal with the total amount of emissions, including the emissions from the production of the wind turbines. According to the analysis, both wind turbines have produced more energy than is required to manufacture them after seven months.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made a comparison of regular energy sources in 2014. In this report, wind power on land emerged with the lowest total emissions, when looking at emissions of CO₂ equivalents per produced kWh of electricity. Wind power at sea also has very low emissions. It is only beaten by its land-based competitor and nuclear power plants.

How do wind turbines affect humans?

There are several studies that have attempted to quantify how wind turbines affect people living near them. A literature review published in the open scientific journal PLOS One, shows that the sound of wind turbines can be troublesome for humans – if they are placed too close to buildings.

Among the negative effects are sleep disorders and irritation. The researchers, however, found no basis for concluding that the sound created health problems in the population.

In a meta-analysis, published by Environment International, the researchers examined eight studies on the effects of wind turbines on humans. Four of the studies concluded that sound from wind turbines had a negative impact on the stated quality of life. Watching wind turbines was also associated with a higher degree of reported negative health effects.

In some limited cases, people who are close to the turbines may experience so-called shadow throws. This happens when the turbine is in front of the sun in such a way that shimmering shadows are formed each time a rotor blade covers it.

NVE prepared a guide for shadow casts from wind turbines n 2014. NVE’s recommendation is that buildings with shade-throw sensitive use, for example, housing, should not be exposed to actual shadowing for more than 8 hours per year. It is the plant owner’s responsibility to ensure that the limit values are not exceeded. If this were to happen, the NVE may require that the plant owner takes measures to improve the situation.

According to a study published in Spatial Economics Research, visible wind turbines also have a negative impact on house prices. The researchers conclude that the implicit ‘visual costs’ of wind turbines are significant.

How expensive is the electricity?

The financial advisory company Lazard carries out an analysis of the costs of various forms of power production annually. The analysis includes investment costs, fixed and variable operating and maintenance costs, fuel costs and assumed life expectancy. This is a so-called LCOE (Levelized Cost of Energy) calculation that is also used by the Norwegian state-owned company Statkraft.

The result of the analysis provides an interval between a low and a high figure for US dollar per megawatt hour (MWh) of electricity produced. To make the presentation easier, we present an average of the high and low figure in the graphic below. This analysis does not include figures for hydropower plants.

The price of wind and solar power has dropped substantially in recent years. That has made both energy sources competitive with fossil energy sources in several cases.

In a partial report from Statnett, the state enterprise writes that they expect an LCOE price for wind turbines of 25-30 Euro/MWh in 2025. Statnett assumes a general electricity price of 40 Euro/MWh the same year. This means that the power from the wind turbines will be very profitable without subsidies.

Where are they today, and where can they appear?

NVE published a report with a proposal for a national framework for wind power on land on April 1st, 2019.

Much of the knowledge we have about wind turbines in Norway is summarized in that report. There are 13 geographical areas that NVE believes are suitable for further development:

  • Western Finnmark,
  • Namdal
  • Border areas between Trøndelag & Møre
  • indre Sør-Trøndelag
  • Sunnmøre & Nordfjord
  • Sunnfjord & Sogn
  • Nordhordland & Gulen
  • Sunnhordland & Haugalandet
  • Vest-Agder & Rogaland
  • Aust-Agder
  • Border areas between Buskerud, Telemark & Vestfold
  • Østfold & nordre Hedmark

The fact that NVE believes the areas are suitable, is not to say that wind power will be developed in all of them. Impact assessments must be carried out for the actual suitability of specific areas within the areas – before projects are initiated (see also below).

NVE’s report has been sent out for consultation by the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy, with a deadline of October 1st, 2019.

There are 610 operational wind turbines in Norway at the end of 2018, with a total production of 5.3 TWh in a normal year. This corresponds to the power consumption of around 265,000 households, according to the NVE.

At the same time, 13 wind turbines, with a total production of 6.9 TWh, are under construction. There are also 37 projects with a final license that have not started construction. NVE, however, does not know how many of these will actually be built.


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How do developers get approval?

Developers who want to set up wind turbines in Norway need a license from the NVE. This is a government permission to use a specific area for this purpose. The requirements of the license will vary from one project to the next.

An example of such a requirement may be that the developer must place roads and turbines outside areas where species that are at risk of extermination in Norway (red-listed species) habitate, according to NVE .

In assessing which applications are to be granted or rejected, the NVE shall weigh the advantages and disadvantages of development against each other. Advantages may be jobs and the production of renewable energy, while disadvantages may entail adversely affecting natural diversity, landscapes or cultural heritage, NVE writes.

If the developer gets a license, a detailed plan and an environment, transport and construction plan (MTA) must be set up, which must also be approved by the NVE before the construction may commence.

The detailed plan shall contain technical descriptions of all parts and installations to be built, and state where these are located. If changes are made in relation to the license application that affects the environment and society, these must be accounted for.

The environment, transport and the construction plan shall describe the area use and all the physical consequences the construction of the plant has for nature and the environment, including the transport solution during the construction phase, according to NVE.

How dangerous are they to birds and other wildlife?

It is well documented that wind turbines kill birds. It happens simply because birds fly straight into the rotor blades.

In a study, published by the magazine Renewable Energy in 2012, Researcher, Benjamin K. Sovacool, has investigated how dangerous wind turbines are to birds. The study is a meta-analysis that summarises findings from other studies. In his analysis, Sovacool has made a calculation of the number of birds killed per GWh of wind, coal and nuclear power plants, based on US figures from 2009.

According to the analysis, wind turbines kill 0.27 birds per GWh they produce. Corresponding figures for nuclear power plants are 0.42. The same figure for coal-fuelled power plants is 5.18 per GWh, ie well over 10 times higher than for nuclear power, and almost 20 times higher than for wind power plants.

The calculation is, however, described as preliminary, and the study emphasises that there is uncertainty associated with the findings. Sovacool has also seen other causes for bird deaths. The table below shows that wind turbines represent a marginal problem for birds compared to other sources. In 2009, it was estimated that around 46,000 birds were killed by wind power in the US, while the corresponding estimate for birds killed by cats was an astounding 110,000,000.

NVE, in collaboration with the Norwegian Environment Agency, has looked at how wildlife is affected by wind turbines in its report on the national framework for wind power on land. For birds, the danger is described as high. Where the wind turbines are placed, has a lot to say as well. Several birds die if the wind turbines are placed in coastal and other water-related areas. Much of the same problem that applies to birds also applies to bats.

Wild reindeer can also be adversely affected by wind turbines, because they are very shy, and often avoid areas of human activity. The establishment of wind power within the habitat of the reindeer may, in the worst case, lead to the reindeer being cut off from using parts of their habitat, according to the report.

Why isn’t everything being built at sea?

There are countless examples of the level of conflict being high when it comes to building wind turbines. This can be reduced considerably if you can place the wind turbines so far out to sea, that they are difficult to spot. Several of the opponents against land-based wind power promote at sea turbines as a positive alternative.

The Green Party (MDG) is among those who have advocated turning the development towards offshore projects. At its national meeting in May, the party adopted a goal to build 100 TWh offshore, while at the same time curbing the development pressure on land. By comparison, Norway’s total power production in a normal year is 141 TWh, according to Energifakta Norge.

There are, however, some disadvantages to building offshore wind turbines. The most important challenge today is that they are more expensive to build and operate than land-based mills. Minister for Oil and Energy, Kjell-Børge Freiberg, tells NTB that the government will facilitate the development of one or two areas at sea. He emphasises that they will be considerably more expensive than land-based projects, though.

This is also evident from point three in this fact check, where the financial advisory company Lazard estimates over twice as high life-cycle costs per kWh for offshore as for land-based wind power. Builders must still pay attention to bird life, fishing and tourist traffic.

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