Acton Institute Powerblog

Unintended Consequences and Wind Turbines

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With the surge in oil prices, there’s renewed interest in alternative energy options. Numerous countries have gradually taken steps to promoting renewable or clean energy technologies, and it seems the United States is drifting more towards favoring alternative energy options as the Obama Administration is looking at banning off shore drilling along the continental shelf until 2012 and beyond. However, before we move farther down this road, a critical analysis of the pros and cons is a must.

A more serious assessment is now being applied to ethanol and its effect on food production. There’s now more caution on the use of ethanol, based on both economical and moral arguments, and the same approach also needs to be taken when analyzing clean technologies such as the use of wind turbines.

As a recent article in the Mail Online demonstrates, many countries in Europe are currently seeing the unintended consequences of their policies favoring the use of wind power.

The article notes that the wind turbines are proving to be very inefficient:

The most glaring dishonesty peddled by the wind industry — and echoed by gullible politicians — is vastly to exaggerate the output of turbines by deliberately talking about them only in terms of their ‘capacity’, as if this was what they actually produce. Rather, it is the total amount of power they have the capability of producing.

The point about wind, of course, is that it is constantly varying in speed, so that the output of turbines averages out at barely a quarter of their capacity.

This means that the 1,000 megawatts all those 3,500 turbines sited around the country feed on average into the grid is derisory: no more than the output of a single, medium-sized conventional power station.

The wind turbine’s production of energy not only fluctuates based on the varying speeds of the wind, but is also seasonal. For example, Britain’s wind turbines became largely inefficient in the winter when the weather was mostly freezing and windless, and to keep homes warm Britain was forced to import immense amounts of power from nuclear reactors in France.

Furthermore, the article also notes, each country in Europe is required to produce more wind turbines each year which will result in a higher increase of CO2 emissions because of the need to build more gas-fired power stations to function as a back-up energy source when the wind drops. Due to the unreliability of the wind, these gas-fired power stations must run for twenty-four hours a day to be prepared for any moment when the wind may diminish.

The article is also quick to point out how the production and installation of the wind turbines also brings forth an increase in CO2 emissions:

Then, of course, the construction of the turbines generates enormous CO2 emissions as a result of the mining and smelting of the metals used, the carbon-intensive cement needed for their huge concrete foundations, the building of miles of road often needed to move them to the site, and the releasing of immense quantities of CO2 locked up in the peat bogs where many turbines are built.

It is such unintended consequences of wind turbines that possibly make them counterproductive to their stated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Like the production of ethanol in the United States, the production of wind turbines in Europe is a market that relies on the government. Wind turbines are very expensive to build, and often require a government subsidy in order to get them built.

Many countries in Europe are seeing the disastrous effects of relying on wind turbines, and some are even beginning to shift away from their reliance on them. Germany, for example, which has produced more turbines than any other country in the world, is now building new coal-fired stations.

Yes, wind turbines were supported with good intentions: to provide clean sustainable energy while also supporting environmental stewardship. However, wind turbines may be actually counter-intuitive to their original goals. While the rising oil prices are having adverse effects on everyone, when searching for alternative fuels, we need to be critical of the potential of unintended consequences they may bring upon us.

Posts on ethanol production and the ethanol subsidy can be found here and here.

Louie Glinzak


  • No one can argue that wind turbines are inconsistent producers of energy. However, the energy they do produce is renewable and has zero deadly 5,000 year half life.

    The need for alternative energy isn’t academic and it’s not a matter of if, but when the Earth will run out of non-renewable resources. I’m sicked by the amount of money wasted on things like Hollywood, Politics and the myriad of activities we engage in that simply consume resources, provide limited or no lasting benefit, while filling up our landfills.

    Is it too much to ask for the think tanks, both technical as well as social and economic (Acton) to come up with viable long-term alternative energy strategies? We can all continue to “fiddle while Rome burns” or take steps that will systematically decrease our dependence on fossil, non-renewable fuels, increase our energy independence and fulfill our moral obligations to both current and future generations, by leaving them a planet and civilization worth living on/in!

  • Mike McCann

    To the extent wind energy can actually help create any “independence”, reliable or clean energy, the taxpayer subsidized wind industry is not automatically required to acquire from neighboring property owners the needed “overlay” property rights to develop the huge projects. Rather unethically, they just confiscate those rights and property value/equity via manipulating the siting process. They should be required to acquire the easements over neighbors property, and/or guarantee that their profit driven projects will not cause financial hardship on the many residents who leave near the proposed industrial turbine locations, by agreeing to an effective Property Value Guarantee (PVG).

    Also, 400 & 500 foot tall turbines are well documented as causing widespread health impacts on thousands of people, ranging from sleep disruption and attendant fatigue & illness, to increased blood pressure and disturbing physical thumping pulsations caused by low frequency/infrasound (inaudible, but powerful!) There is significant evidence that noise & health impacts occur out to 3+ miles from turbine projects, while within 1.25 miles impacts are commonplace. Yet, developers always seek setbacks of only 750-1,250 feet from residences, and are in a continual damage-control “position” of denying that the health impacts occur….as if thousands of people from around the world living near turbines have conspired to lie about thier actual experinces.

    Developers need to set back in miles rather than in feet, but would rather pay their lawyers to fight for unhealthy distances to gain more profit, than to buy out neighbors so as to avoid future negative impacts on families. Many such unfortunate victims of the wind energy development trend are simply trapped in their homes now, as no one wants to buy a home that virtually guarantees some type of adverse effects to thier family members.

    All forms of power generation cause some impacts, but no coal or nuclear plant would be approved if they sought to surround peoples homes with their plant. The wind industry needs to follow suit. As it stands now however, the typical wind business model allows them to take all the money and run, and force homeowners to sue a “shell” LLC that may not even be viable by the time the expensive and unnecessary legal system decides on health and home value damage claims.

    The process is broken, and a nationwide moratorium needs to be implemented ASAP, while rules and regulations are developed and approved to force developers to avoid and/or pay for their impacts as part of the whole process.

  • Louie Glinzak


    Thank you for your comments and thoughts. I would like to clarify that in my article I do not argue that wind turbines are not the solution, but instead I wanted to point out some of the unintended consequences that are occurring through their use. I raise criticism on the whether the wind turbines are as green and efficient as we really thought. As the article I linked in my post explains, current events in Europe have given just cause to consider the use of wind turbines with a pragmatic approach. Rising oil prices are hurting everyone, but as I demonstrate in my past posts on ethanol and this one on wind turbines, alternative energy also has negative consequences that need to be considered and weighed on a cost benefit ratio before we change our current energy policy.

    In regards to your concern of coming up with viable long-term alternative energy strategies I must say I am not in a position to meet this request. I am not a scientist, nor am I a scientific expert in alternative energy. I wrote the article to encourage readers to think critically about wind turbines and other alternative energy ideas. I do not endorse or denounce any form of alternative energy, including wind power, or oil in this post. However, I do believe in fostering an environment that allows those with the expertise in such fields to come up with viable long-term alternative energy strategies and solutions. At the Acton Institute, we believe this is accomplished through the free market, which is articulated through our core principles and mission statement. It is the free market that will allow the scientists with expertise in alternative energy solutions to succeed and bring forth their ideas without any barriers. I hope that if alternative energy is the solution, the free market will cultivate an environment that allows scientists to flourish in their field to discover the best alternative energy option.

  • Louie Glinzak

    Also, a recent article by Steven F. Hayward, of the American Enterprise Institute, is very interesting and greatly contributes to the blog post and discussion. Please follow the link:

  • Roger McKinney

    John, you sound kind of hysterical. I think you have bought into the scare tactics of the left. There really is nothing to fear. If oil ran out tomorrow it wouldn’t be a serious tragedy. We could go back to the horse and buggy without too much problem. More of us would have to be engaged in farming than are now, but so what?

    The best contender for an oil free world is hydrogen. We could use nuclear, wind, solar and biofuels to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen. Shell oil already has hydrogen service stations in DC and Iceland, along with hydrogen burning buss. All auto makers have hydrogen burning engines ready to go. And hydrogen is far safer than gasoline.

    Electric utilities nearly shut down at night. They could use that spare time to frac water and produce hydrogen with no additional investment.

    All we’re waiting for is the economics to be right. As oil runs out its price will increase until hydrogen is much more viable.

    But would it be so bad if we couldn’t use cars and had to take an electric trolley to work or church?

  • Geoff Gardiner

    Western Europe requires perhaps 360 gigawatts of electrical power. What is the effect on weather systems of extracting that amount of energy from them?

    Edward Lorenz’ attempt to model the weather systems led to the discovery that a tiny change in a a parameter can have a gigantic effect, the socalled ‘Butterfly Effect’, and ‘Chaos Theory’ was developed as a result. My question never seems to have been asked, despite this knowledge.

    The flow of air is from west to east. Will it be slowed up by wind turbines? Or is the amount of power extracted, though very, very large, too tiny fraction of the energy in weather systems to have any marked effect? If hwever there is a marked effect, will the Russian climate become dryer? Indeed is it possible that the drought in Russia in 2010 which destroyed the grain crop the effect of extracting wind power in countries to the west of Russia? Russia’s grain producing potential is vast and vital for the future food supply of the world. We must not endanger it.

    Something has to be done to reduce the use of fossil fuels, but we must know the full consequences of each technology proposed.

    Wave power, another alternative energy source, has been studied to calculate the knock-on effects. I am not sure whether the study is complete.