Recently, Tony Abbott caused a stir with his entirely rational and reasonable observation that wind turbines are ugly — an opinion that further disturbed Fairfax opinion-page fixture Elizabeth Farelly, who countered that she likes ‘their whiteness and grandeur, and how they catch the morning light like so many celestial beings beamed across the landscape’. The obvious response, once one has recovered from exposure to such fly-blown prose, is that, while beauty will always be in the eye of the beholder, the bottom-line cost of extracting volts from zephyrs presents an irredeemably ugly mess of red ink.
Simply put, when the outrageously expensive hilltop turbines are judged against the cost of electricity from coal- and gas-fired power plants they make no economic sense whatsoever. As to their alleged environmental benefits, no amount of ‘whiteness and grandeur’ can blind the rational observer — a category which would not, on almost any topic, include Farrelly — to turbines’ disastrous environmental and ecological impacts.
Let’s have a look at one of the largest wind farms in the world, Roscoe in Texas. It is rated at 782MW, but its actual output is closer to 230MW. It cost $1 billion to construct. It requires a back-up capacity that is not included in this cost.
But these wind turbines, which so many environmentalists find charming, are very resource-intensive creations. Each turbine requires about 250 to 350 tonnes of raw materials to construct, not including the thousand-or-so tonnes of reinforced concrete that form the base of each tower. At Roscoe, there are 782 turbines spread over 400 square miles and, generally, they’re spaced about 300 metres apart.
So we’re talking about 200,000 tonnes of raw materials, mainly metal, and 782,000 tonnes of concrete. The CO2 emissions from the manufacture of the concrete bases alone is in the order of 800,000 tonnes. To that must be added the CO2 emissions from the back-up generator. Suddenly, the CO2 abatement provided by Roscoe doesn’t look like a very significant number.
Australia currently has an installed power generation capacity of just over 40,000MW. A Roscoe equivalent could provide, say, 200MW. Therefore, to replace all our existing power with wind would require 200 Roscoes. That is 80,000 square miles of Australian landscape, roughly the area of Victoria, covered with 150,000 towers at a cost of $200 billion. Add to that the cost of back-up generation, thousands of kilometres of new roads, transmission lines, substations and so on. A simplistic comparison, I grant you, because we would, of course, add solar to the mix as well. Less raw materials and land coverage, but at a much higher price per megawatt.
But it doesn’t end there. We haven’t talked about the human factor. The effect that wind power on this scale has on land values, scenic beauty or people’s health. Or on wildlife. The Spanish Ornithological Society estimates that Spain’s 18,000 wind turbines kill between six million and 18 million birds and bats per year. That estimate may be on the high side, but even the lower estimate reported by the Smithsonian Institution for avian casualties in the US alone — between 140,000 and 328,000 birds every year — is deeply shocking.
As an example closer to home, the endangered Tasmanian wedgetail eagle is one species identified as being impacted by the Woolnorth wind farm, operating a grand total of just 62 turbines. Worth noting is that, in 2005, a report based on models and conjecture noted that eagles are intelligent birds and, therefore, would be unlikely to be brought down in significant numbers by whirling rotors. Ten years later, according to the World Council for Nature, casualties have been such that Tasmania wedgetails’ survival as a sub-species is in grave doubt.
But wait. There’s more!
The heart of any wind turbines, the permanent magnet, is made from rare earth minerals, most of which are mined in China. (As an aside, is it any wonder that China is promoting wind power?)
To put it bluntly, mining and refining of rare earth minerals is far from an environmentally friendly process. Here are some figures that might will more likely horrify. Each ton of refined rare earth products produces about 10,000 cubic metres of gas contaminated with flue dust, hydrochloric and sulphuric acid and sulphur dioxide. There are also 75 cubic metres of acidic waste water, one ton of radioactive waste residue and, finally, 2,000 tons of tailings, which also contain radioactive elements.
Each modern wind turbine requires two tons of refined rare earth elements, so for each turbine we double the amount of these contaminants. To put that in perspective, there are currently 200,000 wind turbines worldwide. That is 400,000 tons of rare earths. A simple mathematical calculation shows us that, worldwide, the production of these machines has resulted in 400,000 tons of radioactive waste residue, 4,000,000 cubic metres of contaminated gas and 40,000,000 tons of radioactive tailings. All this environmental damage to produce a mere 1% of the world’s electricity, and that piddling amount not even a reliable supply.
Ninety-five per cent of these rare earth minerals are produced in China and a large percentage of these waste products find their way into the environment. The Chinese government has estimated that production of rare earths in Baotou region alone results in 10,000,000 tons of contaminated waste water every year, most of which is discharged, untreated, into waterways.
All of this leads me to put a question to Ms Farelly: Suppose, just for a minute, that CO2 were not the villain you’ve been told it is. If that were the case, would wind power seem like a proposition that a passionate environmentalist like yourself would rush to embrace?