Professor Mike Slattery, Ph.D., is the Lead Scientist on the TCU-Wind Research Initiative at Texas Christian University, USA. Slattery has written more than 80 scientific articles on environmental issues and in 2007, testified before the US Congress on mercury contamination from coal-fired power plants. Slattery offers ESI Africa insight into the valuable lessons learnt through research in the US.
Everyone uses energy – everywhere, all the time. Being able to supply enough of it safely, reliably, efficiently and affordably is the basis for a well-functioning society. My friends in South Africa know this only too well.
Eskom’s controversial load shedding programme has put an enormous strain on the power grid. The government has clearly failed in bringing new generating capacity online timeously to match economic and social development.
Wind power success
While access to electricity is one of the key drivers of economic activity, how we get that supply remains controversial and divisive, especially when it comes to the environmental impacts of the various generation technologies. Take wind, as an example.
My home state of Texas, which is an oil-rich country and has been for a long time, also leads the nation in wind capacity with 15,635MW of installed generation capacity, more than double that of the next state, California.
In fact, this past month, Texas hit a new single day wind power peak of 11,467MW, amounting to nearly 30% of all electricity being used across the state at the time.
Because wind is environmentally benign, at least in terms of atmospheric emissions, and does not require drilling for fuel, or water for cooling, you would think it would be widely embraced.
Wind power critics
But opposition to wind power development is vociferous in many parts of the US. Critics argue that wind turbines create visual pollution, are noisy, degrade human health, and kill too many birds and bats.
If wind power is going to continue to grow toward the Department of Energy's target of providing 20% of US electricity by 2030, which I firmly believe it will, then a number of issues have to be addressed in an open and transparent way.
For the past seven years, I have led an international collaborative research effort looking at the social, economic, ecologic and environmental impacts of large-scale wind power development.
So, what have we learned?
First, while overall support for wind development in the US remains high, especially in the central states, we must acknowledge that those who oppose wind development may not always be wrong.
For many, even those who are firmly pro-environment, wind turbines are simply too visible and disruptive to the landscape.
Local attitudes clearly have a strong influence on the acceptance of wind energy, which determines, at least partially, the level of market penetration.
We found that increasing public participation during the early stages of a project, along with increased transparency between all groups, especially developers, significantly increases the likelihood of a project being accepted by the public and its chances of being built.
Second, the economic benefits of wind energy are substantial. Our research shows that investment in wind power greatly impacts rural economies, especially in communities with few other industries, where wind power development becomes a much larger percentage of the local tax base.
The level of economic impacts and their distribution depends a great deal on the extent to which the locality of interest is able to directly participate in construction, operations and ownership of a project.
Third, ecological impacts, such as bird and bat mortality, so often a frontline criticism of wind power development, can be minimised so long as industry becomes part of the solution. For example, we know that wind farms cause some habitat loss and that towers can displace certain species.
We also know that, while birds and bats face daily threats far more lethal than wind turbines (e.g. communication towers, buildings, domestic cats, etc.), spinning blades do result in collision mortality. These impacts can, however, be greatly reduced.
Our work in Texas, in addition to work by other research teams, has shown that by simply curtailing turbines by raising cut-in speeds can reduce bat mortality by up to 50%, especially during active migration periods.
Wind power is a clean, cost-effective, and readily available form of energy. It looks to become an essential element in solving the world’s increasing demand for electricity.