Facts before the election: Seven questions and answers about wind turbines

In a series of articles called “Fakta før valget” (Facts before the election), faktisk.no, one website looked at the key political issues prior to the local elections on Monday, 9 September.

Wind power has long been a controversial topic in Norwegian energy policy. Opponents say that windmills are unsightly to look at, that they are dangerous to animals, and that they may produce an intrusive noise if they are erected near buildings.

Supporters mention that they are an efficient source of renewable energy and that society as a whole stands to make a lot of money from exporting power.

In this article we will present seven key issues regarding wind power.

How climate-friendly are they?

Several incorrect claims have been circulating regarding the relationship between emissions from the production of windmills and how much power they produce when operational. FullFact, a British fact-checking team, looked at the claim that it requires more energy to produce windmills than they themselves produce during their lifespans. They concluded that the claim was incorrect. In a lifespan analysis published in Renewable Energy, a scientific journal, in 2011, scientists took a closer look at two different types of windmills, of 1.8 megawatt (MW) and 2 MW, respectively. Lifespan analyses consider the total amount of emissions, including emissions from the production of the windmills. According to the analysis, after seven months both windmills produced more energy than it took to produce them.

In 2014, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change undertook a comparison of common energy sources. According to this report, land based wind power produces the lowest amount of emissions when considering emissions of CO₂ equivalents per kWh power produced. Offshore wind power also has very low emissions and is only beaten by its land based competitor and nuclear power plants.

2. How do they affect people?

Some studies have attempted to quantify how windmills affect the people who live in their vicinity. A literature review published in PLOS One, a scientific journal, shows that the sound of windmills may be annoying to people if they are located too near buildings.

Interrupted sleep and irritation were among the negative effects. However, the scientists did not find any reason to conclude that the sound created hazards for the population.

In a meta-analysis published in Environment International, scientists examined eight studies on the effects of windmills on humans. Four of the studies concluded that the sound from windmills had a negative impact on stated quality of life. Just looking at windmills was also associated with a higher degree of reported negative impacts on health.

In certain limited cases, people in the vicinity of windmills experienced so-called shadow casts. This happens when the windmill is in front of the sun in such a way that flickering shadows are created each time a rotor blade covers the sun.

In 2014, NVE prepared a guide for shadow casts from wind power plants. NVE’s recommendation is that buildings that are sensitive to shadow casting, e.g. homes, should not be exposed to shadow casts more than 8 hours per year. It is the responsibility of the plant owner to ensure that the limits are not exceeded. If this should happen, NVE may demand that the plant owner takes measures to improve the situation.

According to a study published in Spatial Economics Research, visible wind turbines also have a negative impact on home prices. The scientists concluded that the implicit “visual costs” of windmills are significant.

3. How expensive is the power?

Lazard, an investment advisory company, conducts an annual analysis of the cost of various forms of power production. The analysis includes, inter alia, investment costs, fixed and variable operational and maintenance costs, fuel costs and estimated lifespan. This is a so-called LCOE calculation (Levellised Cost of Energy) that is also used by Statkraft, a government owned company.

The result of the analysis is an interval between a low and high amount for costs in USD per megawatt hour (MWh) of power produced. To facilitate a simpler presentation, we have presented an average of the high and low amount in the figures below. This analysis does not include numbers for hydroelectric power plants.

The price of wind and solar power has fallen significantly in recent years. In many cases, this has made both energy sources competitive with fossil energy sources.

In a sub-report from Statnett, a government owned company, the company states that it expects an LCOE price for windmills of EUR 25-30/MWh in 2025. Statnett is assuming a general price of power of EUR 40/MWh for the same year. This means that electric power from windmills will be very profitable without subsidies.

4. Where are the windmills today, and where can new ones be built?

On 1 April, NVE published a report with a proposed national framework for land based wind power.

It includes a summary of all knowledge windmills in Norway today, with NVE pointing out 13 geographic areas as well suited for further development:

Western Finnmark, Namdal, the border areas between Trøndelag and Møre, inner Sør-Trøndelag, Sunnmøre and Nordfjord, Sunnfjord and Sogn, northern Hordaland and Gulen, Sunnhordaland and Haugalandet, Vest-Agder and Rogaland, Aust-Agder, the border areas between Buskerud, Telemark and Vestfold, Østfold and northern Hedmark.

The map below shows the abovementioned areas:

The fact that NVE thinks that the areas are suited does not mean that wind power will be developed in all the areas. Impact studies have to be conducted to find the actual suitability of specific areas within the wider areas before projects are initiated (see also the next item).

The NVE report has been sent for hearing by the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy with 1 October as the deadline for submitting statements.

According to the report, there were 610 operative windmills in Norway at the end of 2018 with a total production of 5.3 TWh in a normal year. According to NVE, this corresponds to the power consumption of around 265,000 households.

At the same time, 13 wind power plants with a total production of 6.9 TWh were under construction at the end of 2018. At that time, there were also 37 projects with final permits for which construction had not started. However, NVE does not know how many of these will actually be built.

The map below shows the areas with operative windmills and windmills under construction:

5. How do developers obtain approval for new wind power plants?

Developers who wish to build wind power plants in Norway need a permit from NVE. This is a permit from the government to use a certain area for this purpose. The permit requirements will vary from project to project.

One example of such a requirement may be that the developer has to construct roads and turbines outside areas containing species in danger of becoming extinct in Norway (red-listed species), according to NVE.

In its assessment of which applications are to be approved or rejected, NVE must weigh the advantages and disadvantages of development against each other. Advantages may be jobs and the production of renewable energy, whereas disadvantages may be the negative impact on biodiversity, landscapes or cultural relics, states NVE.

If the developer is granted a permit, a detailed plan has to be prepared as well as an environmental, transport and construction plan (MTA), which also have to be approved by NVE before construction can commence.

The detailed plan must contain technical descriptions of all parts and installations to be built, and state where they will be located. If changes are made in relation to the permit application that affect the environment or the community, these must be explained.

The environmental, transport and construction plan must describe the area usage and all the physical consequences of the plant on nature and the environment, including the transport solution used during the construction phase, according to NVE.

6. How dangerous are they for birds and other animals?

It has been well documented that windmills kill birds. It happens, quite simply, because some birds fly directly into the rotor blades and are killed.

In a study published in the journal Renewable Energy in 2012, Benjamin K. Sovacool, a scientist, investigated how dangerous windmills are to birds. The study is a meta-analysis, summarising findings from other studies. In his analysis, Mr. Sovacool computed the number of birds killed per GWh for wind power, coal power and nuclear power plants, based on American figures from 2009.

According to the analysis, wind power plants kill 0.27 birds per GWh produced. The corresponding number for nuclear power plants is 0.42. The same figure for coal power plants is 5.18 per GWh, i.e. well over 10 times the mortality for nuclear power plants, and almost 20 times higher than for wind power plants.

However, the calculation is described as preliminary, and it is emphasised in the study that there is uncertainty relating to the findings. Mr. Sovacool has also looked into other reasons for why birds die. The below table shows that windmills constitute a marginal problem for birds, compared to other sources. In 2009, it was been estimated that around 46,000 birds were killed by wind power in the USA, whereas the corresponding estimate for birds killed by cats was 110,000,000.

In cooperation with the Norwegian Environment Agency, NVE looked at how animals are affected by windmills in its report regarding a national framework for land based wind power. For birds, the danger is described as high. Where the windmills are located is also an important aspect. More birds die if the windmills are located in coastal areas and other areas near water. Many of the same problems that apply to birds also apply to bats.

Wild reindeer may also be impacted negatively by windmills, because they are very shy and usually try to avoid areas with human activity. Thus, according to the report, the establishment of wind power within the habitats of reindeer will, in the worst case scenario, result in the reindeer being precluded from using parts of its habitat.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service operates with different figures than Mr. Sovacol. Its median calculation indicates that cats kill 2.4 billion birds annually, whereas windmills kill 234,000 birds.

Wind turbines also kill insects. A German study, which has been previously referred to by NRK, found that around 1,200 billion insects are killed annually by windmills in Germany. However, the scientists behind the study say that it is difficult to assess how big a difference this makes for the ecosystems, since they do not have good figures for how many insects there are at the outset.

7. Why not build everything offshore?

There are numerous examples of high levels of conflict when building windmills. These levels may be considerably reduced if the windmills are located so far offshore that they are difficult to see. Several opponents of land based wind power point to ocean wind as a positive option.

The Greens, the environmental party, are among those who have argued in favour of shifting development towards offshore based projects. At its national congress in May, the party adopted an objective of building a total of 100 TWh offshore, at the same time reducing the development pressure on land. According to Energifakta Norge, in comparison, Norway's total power production in a normal year is 141 TWh.

However, there are also some disadvantages of building windmills offshore. The currently most important challenge is that they are more expensive to build and operate than land based windmills. Kjell-Børge Freiberg, the Petroleum and Energy Secretary, has told NTB that the cabinet will facilitate the development of one or two areas offshore. However, he emphasises that they will be significantly more expensive than land based projects.

Item 3 in this article also shows that Lazard, an investment advisory company, estimates that the lifespan cost per kilowatt-hour is more than double for ocean wind relative to land based wind power. Statkraft has also pointed out that ocean wind is not free of conflict, although the installations cannot be seen. Developers must still consider bird life, fisheries and tourist traffic.

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