The Spectator debunked 'Wind turbines are neither clean nor green'

Ideas On

This article is a debunking of an article written in The Spectator by Matt Ridley. It is advisable to read The Spectator's article first.

Their article aims to prove that wind energy is not green and that we should focus our effort more on gas and nuclear energy. Published on the 13th of May this particular article from The Spectator certainly does not speak for the majority of the British public. It does however, represent a loud and growing minority group which is highly sceptical that much need be done about the over-use of fossil fuels, or indeed climate-change as a whole.

Wind Turbine.jpg

The first part of the article's argument against wind focuses on the fact that wind (in 2014) contributed 0% to global energy production - this is a rounded figure; production was 0.4%. This claim is entirely true, but is misleading. It is misleading because this is when one measures energy consumption as a whole. This pushes down wind energy's contribution because, as of yet, wind energy and green energy in general hasn't broken into industrial energy provision. That is to say wind turbines are not used to power smelting plants, or used for large haul transportation. You can't directly power ships and lorries from wind. But this is an aspect that is fast changing. Electric trains, cars, lorries, ships, and planes are all on the horizon - look at Tesla's new articulated lorry. Also, these figures apply to the whole world. We should not really be looking at the poorer countries of the world when it comes to climate change and green energy (yet), for it is the more developed ones that cause the vast majority of pollution. China, the USA & Europe alone account for 54% of the worlds CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. Also given that The Spectator is a British publication it hasn't focused on the fact that between 11% and 17% of UK energy is provided by wind. Their argument also ignore the fact that wind is a developing energy source, and has not been given enough support to directly challenge the behemoth that is the Fossil Fuel industry, especially within industry and transportation. After all the network of petrol stations, underground gas pipes, and oil rigs weren't built overnight either.

The article also tries to explain why wind has not taken over. The Spectator says that wind is unreliable. This a common argument against wind; the turbines don't turn all the time and that leads to an unstable flow of electricity. Whilst this is true this does ignore the fact that those who argue for renewable don't argue just for wind but for a mixture of green energy sources (wind, hydro, wave, solar, geothermal). So that when the wind isn't blowing we use solar, when the sun is't shining we use hydro, and when the reservoir is empty we use wave energy. In addition to this, there are new technologies that are tackling the intermittent nature of some renewable sources of energy - the largest ever Lithium-ion battery has just been built in Australia.

The next point The Spectator move to is the fact that energy growth currently stands at 2% per year and that if we were to use just wind turbines:

At a density of, very roughly, 50 acres per megawatt, typical for wind farms, that many turbines would require a land area greater than the British Isles, including Ireland. Every year.

This seems like a rather damning fact for wind turbines. But again it is misleading. Whilst it is true that we need roughly 50 acres per megawatt of wind energy, not all of those 50 acres is made unusable. In fact, according the union for concerned scientists:

Less than 1 acre per megawatt is disturbed permanently and less than 3.5 acres per megawatt are disturbed temporarily during construction.

So in actual fact, one would only need a country the size of Mongolia (1.5 million km2), not the British isles. This is still a large area of land, but again one should not just built on shore turbines, or even just wind turbines, but also solar panels (perhaps on each roof of every suitable house). One of the great benefits of wind turbines (and solar panels) is that they can be put virtually anywhere without causing much disruption. Famer can still farm their sheep and grow their crops, and people can still build their houses and live their lives.

Their article then goes on to talk about the future of wind turbines and how there is little room for improvement due to the fact that they are very close to the Betz Limit. The Betz Limit (Discovered by Frederick W. Lanchester) which applies to all Newtonian Fluids (of which air is one) states that wind turbines can only extract 59% of the wind energy. Wind Turbines of today currently stand at about 80% of that limit- meaning a total of 47% of raw wind energy is converted when run in optimal conditions. This might seem rather damning for wind energy. However, never does their article talk about the fact that wind turbines are still getting bigger in capacity - regardless of the Betz limit (as that affects only efficiency). Wind Turbines of today on average are rated at about 3MW, and turbines have been consistently growing in size over the decades. However, there is a limit to how big these turbines can get, but this limit is estimated at 20MW. A far cry from their current rating. So in truth, there is still much room for turbines to grow.

The Betz Limit

The Betz Limit

The Spectator then move onto another aspect of wind energy production: it's pre production.

But out of sight and out of mind is the dirty pollution generated in Inner Mongolia by the mining of rare-earth metals for the magnets in the turbines. This generates toxic and radioactive waste on an epic scale, which is why the phrase ‘clean energy’ is such a sick joke and ministers should be ashamed every time it passes their lips.


It should be apparent by now that there is a bit of a pattern emerging in their article. Yes, it's true. Metals are extracted from the earth at great cost and toxic concrete are all used in the manufacture and installation of wind turbines. This is an undeniable fact. But that's not the full picture, The Spectator again forgets to compare. If we take gCO2eq/kWh (that is grams of carbon dioxide per kilo-watt-hour), and if we take the mean of this value then wind energy is the least polluting. According to the IPCC, wind energy produces 11g/kWh, and nuclear 12g/kWh. In truth gas, which The Spectator recommends the use of instead of wind produces a whopping 490g/kWh. Also, arranged as a mean the top nine least polluting energy sources (with the notable exception of nuclear) are all renewables. As well as that, the jump from the last renewable (in the top nine) to the first non-renewable is 112g/kWh. Solar PV produces 48g/kWh and CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) Coal with Oxyfuel produces 160g/kWh.

Source Data: IPCC

Source Data: IPCC

It might seem from the above that nuclear is a reliable energy source and therefore a clear candidate in the fight to reduce fossil fuels. Maybe, but nuclear has problems that wind does not. There is yet no safe and permanent way to dispose of nuclear waste, and the current method involves a huge quantity of cement and concrete and comes with its own dangers including percolation of the toxic waste into the ground water - Tom Scott made a video about an old site in the USA. Also the potential solution - fission - is still a way off. What's more, wind (in the UK at least) is actually cheaper than nuclear... and we have plenty of it.

Overall, it should be evident that wind - contrary to the title of The Spectator's article - is green and is an excellent source of energy. Again, although their article represent a minority view, it’s one that is growing. In times such as we are in, where the focus within government has shifted away from climate change and towards Brexit and Trump, it is ever more important to make sure the false messages of these publications don't go unchallenged.