The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 15, 2018

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The Energy Crisis
P. E. Hodgson - 08/15/08

The lakes behind the dams provide a habitat for wild life, and they can be popular for boating. However in times of drought the water level falls and exposes ugly bands of mud. In addition, these lakes often inundate picturesque valleys and their villages, and destroy valuable agricultural land.


Of the remaining renewable energy sources, wind is the most promising. Windmills have been used since ancient times, and now wind turbines are a familiar sight in the countryside. They have several disadvantages, however, the main one being that the wind does not always blow and so the power output fluctuates instead of remaining steady. The fluctuations are magnified because the power output is proportional to the cube of the wind velocity. This means that energy is available only over a limited range of wind velocities; when the velocity is small very little energy is produced, while if it exceeds the safety limit the blades have to be feathered to avoid catastrophic damage.

The total energy in the wind is more than enough to satisfy all our energy needs but this cannot be realized because of the high cost (two or three times that of coal power), the unreliability, and the large amount of land required. It may however make a useful contribution if the costs can be substantially reduced.

Wind power is surprisingly dangerous at five deaths per thousand megawatt-years. This is due to the large number of turbines required, about a thousand, to equal the output of one coal power station. These have to be made in factories by processes which are inevitably hazardous. In addition, there are the hazards of construction and maintenance.

The environmental impact of wind turbines is increasingly recognized. They must be built in exposed positions where they can be seen for miles around. They emit a persistent humming sound which people living nearby find intolerable. Often people who moved to the country for peace and quiet are forced to leave and then find that no one wants to buy their house. Wind farms can also be built offshore but this increases the cost and may pose a danger to shipping.

In spite of intensive work over many years wind power is still uneconomical, and in most cases it relies on massive Government subsidies. It is fair to propose that research continues until this difficulty is overcome, but that until this is achieved it is unwise to deploy wind turbines on a large scale.

It is sometimes argued against wind power that turbine blades kill large numbers of birds, estimated to be about 70,000 a year in the United States. This figure should be put into perspective by comparing it with the numbers killed on motorways, amounting to 57 million per year in the United States, by colliding with glass windows (98 million per year), and by domestic cats (55 million a year in Britain).

At present wind contributes only about 0.2 percent of Britain’s energy. The Government has announced that the energy from all the renewables must be raised to 10 percent by 2010. This requires about 8,400 turbines spread over an area of about 1300 square kilometers. There is no hope of doing this, and even if it were achieved there would still be the problem of generating the remaining 90 percent. The situation is very similar in the United States.

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