Is wind energy a viable alternative to fossil fuels?

Wind turbine against sunset

‘Scotland’s on track to meet 100% renewable energy demand by 2020.’ This bold statement first hit the headlines in June 2019. In the first half of 2019 Scotland’s wind turbines generated enough clean, fossil-free electricity to power almost every household in Scotland—twice over!  Since then, even more renewable energy projects have been proposed and constructed. Currently under construction is the Beatrice offshore wind farm which   power around 450,000 homes. In addition to this Seagreen wind-farm which, when finished, will generate enough electricity to supply one million homes, 40% of all Scottish households. There now are no coal fired power plants in Scotland and only one gas fired station, situated in Peterhead in the North-East of Scotland.  However, wind energy has its downfalls, from inconsistency in energy generated to spoiling views.  Many people do not agree with the construction of wind farms and will battle against them. Nevertheless, is this finally the time to switch from fossil fuelled turbines to turbines powered by wind?

Unquestionably, the most well-known and straightforward argument for wind power is the fact that it is infinite. Wind has always been on the earth and always will be. Humans have been harnessing the power of the wind for use in mills since the 9th century. Recent data suggests that coal will run out in 40 years and oil in only 10 years. This is not a long time.  Imagine, in a decade there will be no oil, which means no flights, no cars, no shipping, limited food supply, limited travelling. Many luxuries we take for granted will disappear unless we implement renewable energy on a large scale. Wind turbines are amazingly diverse and perfectly suited to Scotland. The average wind speed in Scotland is 14.5 mph and the ideal wind speed for wind turbines is 14 mph. The wind industry is advancing at an unprecedented rate, with huge improvements to wind turbines happening in a matter of months. Modern wind turbines can generate more power than before, meaning fewer are needed.

Despite this, one of the major downfalls to wind energy is that it is inconsistent at generating energy. Obviously, the wind is not always at the same speed, so it is not guaranteed that there will be enough energy at peak times. Unlike many other forms of energy, you cannot increase the electricity produced if there is no wind. The reverse is also true: if there is plenty of wind during non-peak time and the grid is full, wind farms may have to run excess production into the ground, wasting money, energy and time. This has become a huge problem in Orkney which generates 130% of energy it uses, all from renewable sources. With cable links to the Scottish mainland having a low capacity, the people of Orkney had to be resourceful to find a new, efficient way of storing excess energy.  With a few exceptions, batteries are still incapable of holding a large amount of electricity. A genius solution has been developed. The excess energy is used to split the chemical compound of water into two chemical elements. oxygen, which is released into the atmosphere and hydrogen. The hydrogen is stored and used to heat the small primary school on Eday. The remaining hydrogen is transported to Kirkwall where, when put into a fuel cell, it can supply electricity, on demand to ships and surrounding community.

Another major advantage of wind energy is that, compared to other forms of energy production, wind turbines leave very little lasting environmental Impact.  It is said that wind farms can possibly degrade habitats, and the blades are threat to birds. However, now wind turbines are not thought to have as big an effect on birds as previously thought. These effects are limited by careful consulting on positioning.  As well as this, many wind farms will help monitoring wildlife and companies sometime will invest it compensation schemes which will help create a more attractive habitat nearby. If you compare the adverse effects of a wind farm to those of onshore oil fracking or offshore rigs you begin to see the true picture. A fracking site will generate a tremendous amount of noise that disturbs wildlife.  Round the clock illumination can throw migrating animals off course, changing generations of natural traditions. Earthquakes leave the ground degraded and oil spills leave the ground infertile. If you were to come back to a decommissioned site years later, what would you find? The offshore wind-farm sector has understood the impact of leaving concrete stumps in the middle of the sea and has developed a way of causing as little damage to the seabed as possible. The game-changing technology has been implemented in the Aberdeen Offshore Wind Farm. The turbines are rooted to the seafloor by suction buckets. They work by having what looks like huge upside-down steel buckets. When they are lowered onto the seabed, all the water is pumped out causing the foundations to anchor securely into the seabed. When the turbines are decommissioned the process is reversed, leaving no trace on the seabed.

Even though the electricity produced by wind turbines is fossil fuel free, the construction and installation are not. Everything from the production of the steel and concrete to the transportation to the final site uses fossil fuels. The production of steel alone accounts for seven per cent of global emissions. Concrete another five to seven per cent. For being a fossil-free form of energy, a lot of carbon dioxide is produced during the construction of wind turbines. Fast-forwarding until the end of life of the turbine it has been found that they cannot be recycled. Currently many components of turbines are buried and then left, causing a fundamental impact on the environment. There are in fact very few examples of wind turbine blades being given a new lease of life. With respect to the production of steel and concrete the wind industry is far ahead. In the last year major energy company Vattenfall announced its involvement in two ground-breaking initiatives: the production of fossil fuel free steel and fossil fuel free cement. The innovation behind the production of steel has the potential to revolutionise the renewables industry as well as many others who rely on steel. The aim is to decarbonise the steel industry by replacing the coking coal (traditionally used in steel production to convert iron ore to iron) with hydrogen made from fossil-free electricity (primarily wind power) and water. A process called direct reduction will replace the current blast furnace process. The by-product will be water, which in turn can be recovered to produce hydrogen gas. Undoubtedly this project shows a real promise for the renewable future.

Finally, Scotland is geographically ideally placed to host the wind industry. Scotland is world-famous for its hilly landscapes, huge expanses of open space and its 6,160-mile-long coastline, along the mainland alone. All these features make Scotland ideal for harnessing the relentless energy of the wind. The average wind speed in Scotland is 4.5 meters per second, which happens to be just above the ideal operating speed for wind turbines. Scotland has always been at the cutting edge of renewable energy, in particular, wind. In 1887 the first ever wind turbine used to generate electricity was built in Scotland, so our nation began the wind revolution over 130 years ago and it has continued at the forefront of the industry right up until the present day. Aberdeen has recently been transformed from the oil capital of Europe to the forefront of the renewables industry. In 2018 the European Offshore Wind Deployment Centre (EOWC) was installed in Aberdeen, it includes the most powerful wind turbine in the world, suction bucket technology, €3 million worth of ongoing scientific research to help understand the impact of wind turbines, ultra-high capacity cabling and a £150,000 community fund. The EOWDC was built as a research centre, trailblazing the latest innovations that the industry has to offer. It is not only Scotland’s physical geography that makes Scotland so wind compatible, but the human attitude as well. Scotland has always been a green place to live, and the majority of Scots will embrace new technologies that help the nation work towards its ambitious climate goals.

On the other hand, Scotland’s geography presents us with thousands of breath-taking views and unfortunately, many sites of beauty coincide with ideal placements for a wind farm or even a singular turbine. This is a huge problem, especially when wind turbines are near to people’s homes, altering the view from the home. Energy companies and local authorities  will have to make a balanced decisions, because it might be better for a turbine to be placed nearer to roads so there is less need to churn up even more of countryside by building roads for construction traffic to use. Not only is the sight of wind turbines an issue, the blades will produce a slight, constant noise or reflections which many people find irritating, and even stressful. Although many people might agree with the idea of wind farms many would not be happy to have one near them. This is major benefit of offshore wind farms. The placement of wind-farms is actually one of the main delays in the development stage, and every effort will be made to reduce the damage to views. For examples turbines might be place in lines so you will only be able to see four instead of eleven. Carefully planned details like these helps minimalize the impact on humans’ lifestyles. In addition to this most companies will other a community grant, a sum of money dedicated to strengthening the community around the wind farm. Undoubtedly windfarms unite communities and bring them closer.

Though, undoubtedly the wind industry has its major flaws such as environmental impact, production emissions and the impact on Scotland’s many beautiful views. This gets balanced out by the overwhelming environmental benefits. A job in the renewable industry is a job for life, with one wind farms life span being up to 30 years. Scotland is geographically ideal for the industry. With ambitious climate action promises, Scotland needs to rethink the entire structure of the country. Including the energy industry. For a long time, Scotland has been world famous for the oil industry, this infrastructure is already set up and will be invaluable for the support and maintenance of offshore wind farms. The time has come where the wind industry is a viable alternative to fossil fuels.