It seems a vision almost too good to be true: energy captured from a breath of wind, our ever increasing needs for electricity supplied by harnessing something as old as the earth herself. Could electricity generated by wind power ever truly fulfil the insatiable hunger for power upon which the modern world has been built? Sadly, the answer is no.
Fossil fuel reserves are dwindling, and will soon no longer be able to provide the energy fix that our society needs. There are only two real options; renewable energy sources, including wind power, or more nuclear power stations.
On the face of it, renewable energy seems to be the best option. Unlike nuclear power, it produces no waste at all, gives out no harmful emissions and seems to utilise sources that are plentiful and available almost everywhere; few places are short of either wind, waves or sun. However, a closer examination of the renewable option highlights the flaws in this seemingly perfect system. Is the prospect of limitless, renewable energy too good to be true? Almost certainly.
The principle question is one of scale. In theory, a ‘Wind Farm’ of hundreds of wind turbines could generate similar amounts of electricity to a nuclear or fossil fuel power station. However, such a Wind Farm would have to be exponentially bigger than the site of a nuclear power station. Jesse Ausubel, of Rockfeller University, has calculated that to power New York city alone using wind turbines, a wind farm the size of Connecticut would be required, whereas a single, large nuclear power station could easily provide enough energy to keep the Big Apple lit up.
This problem then leads to another. Wind turbines, to be used for serious power generation, are grouped together in large wind farms of (currently) tens of turbines. Yet to be effective at producing electricity, the wind turbines must also be very large; the best current designs stand almost 200m tall. Add these together and the second problem becomes apparent: they look horrible, as do the cables that transfer the electricity from them to the power grid. Noone wants wind turbines to be built near them for fear of destroying any previous good views, and lowering property prices in the area.
Nuclear power stations have their problems too. They don’t add much to a landscape either, and the waste produced must be stored for ten millennia before it is considered safe. However, we now have effective ways of dealing with nuclear waste, and safety systems have advanced so far since the time of Chernobyl and Three-Mile-Island that nuclear accidents are close to impossible. We can control the rate of nuclear energy production to match demand, whereas wind farms are limited by the inherent randomness of the weather; too little wind and they can’t work, but too much and they must shut down to avoid damage.
Nuclear power plants offer what wind power cannot: a constant, controllable source of energy that will provide enough power to sustain us into the future, until even better alternatives can be developed.