Where should we put our wind turbines?

We need to adopt a pragmatic approach to wind turbine location rather than burying out heads in the sand, says Rob Such.
Love it or hate it, wind energy is an important part of the energy mix second only to hydro-electric.
Opinions around wind power can become quite polarised for quite irrational reasons, with campaigns by supporters and detractors whipping the public into a frenzy where the original rational arguments easily get forgotten.
Choosing a location for a single wind turbine or a wind farm is a complex process. There are many factors to consider, including wind resource, site access, grid connection and a myriad of planning and environmental considerations. The best wind sites tend to be on top of exposed hills or along the edge of large open areas such as lakes and the coast.
However these sites are also prized for their views. Urban areas that already have a mix of taller structures are less impacted visually but those buildings mix up the clean wind patterns causing turbulence, which is not suitable for most wind turbines.
Many people prefer to have wind turbines installed out of site and offshore is touted as a solution. Although this is not a universally popular option, the current trend of offshore wind is continuing apace in Europe, with Japan racing to catch up. The US, in contrast, has still to install an offshore wind turbine.
I suspect this is more to do with the lack of space in Europe rather than politics. Last year the UK installed the lion’s share of offshore wind turbines. Indeed, Europe installed  total of 293 off-shore wind turbines in 2012, of which 243 were in British waters.
The UK now has double the number of offshore wind turbines compared to Denmark. Putting turbines offshore is twice as expensive as an onshore wind turbine, but most of this cost is offset by higher yields due to more consistent winds.
Community wind schemes are also proving quite popular. There are several in the UK, such as the Westmill Wind Farm – a co-operative owned by more than 2,000 members. By involving the local residents, much of the NIMBYism can be mitigated, and after all – why shouldn’t people benefit from local infrastructure?
There have been many attempts to integrate wind turbines into the urban environment. A good example is the Strata building at Elephant & Castle in London which, due to its shape, has been nicknamed “The Razor”.
Other less ambitious schemes involve mounting vertical axis wind turbines on buildings, which is favoured by some retail chains. These turbines are less about energy generation and more about displaying a company’s “green” credentials, a form of eco-bling.
Installing wind turbines on buildings is not a low cost option – often structural improvements are required, and maintenance of building mounted turbines is more costly as well. Wind turbines don’t belong in the cities and towns, they prefer open spaces. If you want renewable electricity generation in the city, consider roof-top solar PV instead.
Small and medium wind turbines are becoming quite popular with farmers and rural businesses. Such rural locations generally have good wind resource and, importantly, a need for electricity. It is reasonable to justify installing local generation for local use.
Many farms are short of electricity at peak times, often supplementing their electricity supply with expensive diesel generators. Let’s not forget that farms are hardly unspoilt landscapes untouched by humans. Installing a wind turbine of appropriate size should be encouraged where local consumption can justify it.
The UK is crowded – as is much of mainland Europe. As a result, there will always be competition for use of space. Our energy infrastructure is just one of many competing interests. We need to adopt a pragmatic approach to wind turbine location rather than burying out heads in the sand.