Need to consider natural assets before siting noisy wind farms


LIKE many others, I am one of those “greenies” who have been convinced renewable energy is the answer to our fossil (coal) dependent energy reliance. Renewable energy is energy that comes from resources such as sunlight, wind and tides, and which can be naturally replenished.
Wind energy, in the form of modern wind farms, is the fastest growth area within the renewable sector, and has been touted by wind farm developers and supporters as the eco- and green answer to our energy crisis. However, I have come to realise we still have a long way to go in research and development before renewable energies, and in particular wind energy, can stand their own ground as highly efficient and truly low environmental impact solutions to the global energy crisis.
Our government, partly in response to climate change and the commitment we have made to the Copenhagen Accord, correctly wants the country to be less dependent on fossil fuels and have sustainable energy supplies. As part of this process, tax incentives and opportunities have been opened up for investments in renewable energy.
However, the more one explores and researches the facts, the more issues seem to raise their heads.
Is the quest for renewables justified when the generating structures on chosen sites threaten to despoil huge areas of wild and natural landscape, undermining local rural livelihoods who rely on eco-tourism, and even endangering rare bird and bat species?
That is the dilemma urgently facing the conservation and eco-tourism sector, with tens of wind farm planning applications now in the pipeline throughout the country, including six such applications in the Eastern Cape. These include in the environs of Jeffreys Bay, Southwell, Grahamstown, Bedford, Patterson and the Coega Industrial Development Zone.
One has to question whether the real outputs of the wind farms will equal the risks to these areas of great landscape value?
One of the main downsides to wind is that it is not a reliable form of energy – sometimes it blows, and sometimes it does not. At times wind farms produce a surplus of electricity and at other times almost nothing.
This means wind farms require a stand-by source of energy to operate. In South Africa’s case, this means our coal-fired power stations need to keep running, ready to step into the gap at a moment’s notice.
Therefore it is not true to say wind farms will have a significant impact on carbon emissions. In reality they do not.
It is like cycling to work to reduce your carbon footprint, whilst your partner drives your vehicle behind you.
To further emphasis this point, Denmark is the world’s most wind-intensive country, with more than 6000 turbines generating 19% of its electricity, and yet that country has still to close a single fossil-fuel plant.
Wind farms placed in rural areas can be a scar on the natural environment, particularly in a country of such rich biodiversity and scenic beauty as South Africa. These wind turbines proposed for our region are massive – they stand about 80m to the hub of the turbine and each blade is 40m long, making a total height impact of 120m.
The proposed wind farms (in terms of the applications) for our region range between 15 to more than 100 of these turbines spaced roughly 180m apart.
I have visited wind farms in France, Scotland and America. They are often placed on high ground to maximise wind flow, which can be seen from at least 10km away – that is a 300km² visual impact!
You cannot convince me a concrete and steel structure, with rotating blades flickering reflected light and standing the equivalent of a 15-floor office tower tall, does not have a negative visual impact when placed in the middle of the Eastern Cape’s beautiful wild landscapes and wild lands.
Collectively, put a number of these turbines together and believe me they are highly visible and, when up close, noisy – they can be heard up to 2km away. Whilst research shows the noise is not harmful to human health, it is, at the very least, an irritant when you are in close proximity to these turbines.
What we do not know is the effect the noise and ground vibrations will have on our wildlife, particularly if these proposed wind farms are placed near to game reserves and protected areas. Elephants, for example, use both infrasonic and seismic sound for communication, and urgent research needs to be commissioned to determine any impact wind farms will have on our wildlife populations.
Eco-, game- and nature-based tourism is the largest growth industry in the rural areas of the Eastern Cape. This industry employs tens of thousands of people from the poorest areas of this region.
Within the global biodiversity hotspot area of the Albany region you can find/visit more than 10 big five private and state-owned games reserves, including Great Fish River Reserve, world acclaimed Shamwari and internationally renowned Addo Elephant National Park. At least five wind farms are proposed for this region, and the negative impact on tourism could be devastating for rural livelihoods and the economy of the Eastern Cape.
Many of thousands of international tourists, who come mainly from the UK and Europe, are not coming to experience our wild and unspoilt natural landscapes only to see giant wind farms ring-fencing their views of the horizon.
Wind farms have their place and should be an important cog of our new holistic energy package for our country and most of us, me included, are committed to generating energy by sustainable and “clean” means. But, surely “sustainability” must include minimisation of collateral damage from such generation.
With my conservation hat on, I am of the view wind farms should be contained to development nodes and already built-up environments, where they are closer to the “grid” and can generate power at source. One of the biggest issues faced by overseas wind generation has been the problem of energy transportation from wind farm to where it is needed.
For example placing a wind farm in the Coega Industrial Development Zone (as proposed) makes a lot of sense. In addition, twinning wind farms together with desalination plants could contribute towards reducing our energy and water crisis in this region in one smart move.
Whilst one cannot store wind power easily, you can store water in municipal and other storage dams. As the greatest impact of desalination plants is the vast amount of energy they consume, wind farms could provide the solution.
Whatever your viewpoint, it would seem that wind power is here to stay – but there is an urgent need to minimise its negative impact.
I believe a fair position to take would be that wind farms wherever possible should be located either in landscapes already containing a substantial built element, or in offshore areas out of sight of unspoilt coastlines. In all cases they should be preceded by a strategic as well as an environmental impact assessment that takes full account of the value of what is likely to be lost, and this includes the biodiversity economy, landscape and wild vistas, not only the birds and animals that frequent them.
We must come to the point where we accept that renewables need to be sourced in parallel to conserved and natural areas, and not in place of them.