Benefits and potential impacts of wind energy

This page gives examples of the benefits to the community and the environment from using wind energy. It also describes some of the potential impacts of wind turbines, particularly where projects are inappropriately located or planned.

Many of these apply to individual small turbines as well as to larger wind energy developments, although the benefits and impacts will naturally be more significant for the larger projects.

Community benefits

In addition to providing a relatively secure and affordable source of energy and helping to tackle climate change, wind energy projects can deliver other real benefits to communities.

People can invest in one or more turbines of their own, either as individuals or as a community group acting together. Sometimes it is possible to pay for a turbine as part of a bigger commercial wind farm development, which reduces the relative burden of planning and construction costs. The community benefits from the income that their project generates, either through cash payments to the individuals involved, or by setting up a cooperative or community fund. This can invest the money on the community's behalf in measures such as installing insulation in existing homes or improving local parks and the public realm.

Local authorities can take a similar approach and invest in their own wind energy projects, to generate income which can be reinvested in more energy saving and renewable energy measures, or used to support budgets for other priorities.

Developers of large scale schemes often offer a community fund, with an appropriate body set up to manage the use and distribution of the money.

The Government has proposed to allow communities to keep the business rates paid by commercial wind farms which are given planning permission in their area, for the first six years of operation.

Larger wind turbines can increase the value obtained from land use, by providing some income to the owners of the land they are built on, while allowing other activities such as farming to continue around the base of the turbines.

In areas of the country where significant wind energy development is anticipated, either onshore or offshore, there are also employment and business opportunities for local people in the supply chain.

Impacts on the community

As with any form of energy generation, wind turbines have some impacts which may be felt by the local community. The effects can be reduced with appropriate siting and design of the wind turbines. In addition, local communities may be more willing to accept some impacts if they have access to the benefits described above and feel adequately compensated as a result.

Potential impacts

To access the best wind resource, turbines need to be higher than the nearest surrounding structures. This means that some visual impact is unavoidable, whether in open countryside or a populated area. Impact can be minimised by avoiding locating turbines in sensitive landscapes, siting them carefully to take account of views from sensitive locations and making use of screening from landscape features such as trees and hills.

A flickering effect can be caused when the sun shines through the turbine blades, casting a moving shadow (shadow flicker). According to government guidance, only dwellings within 130 degrees either side of north relative to a turbine can be affected and the shadow can be experienced only within 10 rotor diameters of the wind farm. This can be avoided if turbines are appropriately located or set to automatically stop if the potential for shadow flicker occurs.

Noise from wind turbines could be a concern for some, particularly in rural locations where there is little background noise. However modern turbines are designed to produce very little noise and much of the noise on a windy day will be from the wind itself, for example rustling leaves in trees.

Wind turbines can interfere with radar and aircraft navigation systems, although these issues can be addressed with careful siting and design. If turbines are sited near an airport it is possible to adapt the aircraft radar and navigational systems to account for the turbines.

There is potential for wind turbines to interfere with other communications links, such as television signals or mobile phone networks. The effects of this are considered negligible by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and can usually be controlled.

Concerns have also been raised in the past about electromagnetic radiation from wind turbines; however, the effects have been shown to be weak and do not present a health risk to local communities.

Environmental benefits

  • Generating energy from the wind does not release any carbon emissions. By replacing electricity generated from other sources such as fossil fuel power stations, wind energy can lead to an overall reduction in carbon emissions.
  • The energy used in manufacturing and installing wind turbines can also be paid back relatively quickly. For a large wind turbine on a good site this can be as quick as six to eight months.
  • It is a very clean energy source, which does not release any pollution or produce any waste during operation.

Impacts on the environment

The environmental benefits of wind energy are of global and national significance, while any impacts tend to be felt locally.

If inappropriately located, wind turbines could have an impact on birds through collision, disturbance or habitat damage. The RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) has stated that it supports a significant growth in offshore and onshore wind power generation in the UK, provided that it is located and designed to minimise impacts on bird populations. This means avoiding locating turbines close to major migration pathways and important habitats.

Wind turbines can also be harmful to bats, in a similar way to bird populations. When a wind energy project is being planned, the risk to bats should be assessed for the location being considered. Appropriate measures should be taken in planning and design to minimise impacts, such as locating them a minimum distance away from hedgerows and trees.

Visual and noise impacts are covered under community impacts (above).

10 March 2011

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