Wind farms

Wind farms are big business in Great Britain, hardly surprising considering how windswept our island is.

But how do wind farms work, what are the advantages and disadvantages of onshore and offshore wind, and could a wind farm come to your backyard?

We take a closer look at wind farms and how they impact you.

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How do wind farms work?

Wind turbines are a relatively simple system of generating electricity, and haven’t changed much over the centuries.

As the wind rotates the blades – which face into the wind and are tilted to generate the greatest rotation – the blades rotate a shaft and a generator, which turn the energy into electricity.

Modern wind turbines will also have sensors which detect the direction and power of the wind, so they can be rotated toward the wind or shut down if the wind is too low, or too powerful.

Crucially, electrical energy is lost if it is transported great distances, so the closer the wind farms are to the grid, the more efficient they become.

Why are wind farms popular?

The UK is a very windy country, with an estimated 40% of the wind that hits Europe passing over us first.

More importantly, wind is a renewable resource with a virtually non-existent carbon footprint (once constructed).

Since the UK is committed to reducing its carbon footprint by 80% of 1990 levels by 2050, and sourcing 15% of its overall energy from renewables under the EU Renewables Directive (we currently source 4.1%), increasing renewable production is hugely important.

In 2012, the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) estimated that 6% of our electricity was produced by wind and solar (with wind accounting for the vast majority).

That is up from the 4% the sector contributed in 2011, but still some way shy of the 38% we got from coal last year, for example.

But progress is being made, and wind is leading the way. Between 2011 and 2012, wind generation was 26% higher, capacity was 37% higher, offshore generation up 46%, and onshore generation up 17%.

In 2008, the UK overtook Denmark as the country that produces the most energy from offshore wind, but to reach our targets it is estimated that more than 12,000 wind farms will be needed.

This race for wind power is being supported by the government under the Renewables Obligation (RO), which requires electricity companies to produce a fixed percentage of the energy they sell from renewable sources or face a fine.

In 2013, the RO stood at 20.6% of electricity supply, up from 15.8% in 2012, so it’s hardly surprising so many new wind farms are being built.

What are the pros and cons of onshore wind?

Onshore wind is the most prominent form of wind farm and for one simple reason: it is more affordable.

Costing half as much as offshore wind, a quarter as much as solar power, and even slightly less than nuclear power, onshore wind is a winner. Although it currently costs more than fossil fuel production, the costs are falling.

It is also environmentally friendly. While building wind turbines involves some emissions, as does the production of the raw materials, once they are running they have a very low carbon footprint.

However, one of the criticisms is that when they are not running, namely when there is no need, they will need fossil-fuel backup, particularly as they take up a greater proportion of our overall energy generation.

Onshore wind also has a limited physical impact on the environment. It doesn’t poison the land, releases no toxins, can be farmed around, and once removed leaves almost no impact.

However, onshore wind has a huge visual impact, particularly as wind farms are built on top of hills to capture the most wind.

There are also environmental concerns that they can impact birds and bats, and they can also produce some noise, disturbing local residents.

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What are the pros and cons of offshore wind?

The UK leads the way, with more offshore wind farms than any other country.

The reasons for offshore wind’s popularity are simple: out at sea there is more space and more wind.

Offshore wind farms are bigger than their onshore rivals, and with far more wind out at sea compared to onshore, they can produce far more energy and more reliably.

However, the main downside is cost. Constructing huge wind farms out at sea is understandably expensive, but when they break down they are also expensive to fix and maintain.

On the plus side, offshore wind has a much lower visual impact, and no planning permission is required.

There is also no environmental impact on wildlife with the farms even providing offshore reefs for fish, making them one of the greenest forms of energy generation available.

Can wind farms come to my area?

This is the key question that many of us face, particularly with the latest figures showing 188 new onshore wind farms being approved between January and August 2012; 49% higher than the same period a year earlier.

The government has recently announced guidance to energy companies to ensure local communities have a greater say in the construction of farms.

The government has also increased the amount of compensation paid to communities hosting wind farms.

Community subsidies can now go up to £100,000 a year, with the money going towards reducing the cost of energy bills.

However, critics are concerned that by increasing the compensation on offer, the government is also making it more expensive for energy companies, which could see a decrease in the number of wind farms being produced.

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