As the drilling for North Sea oil is dying out, Scotland has found a new alternative to energy production: wind power. Wind turbines were first installed in July 1887 by James Blyth to light his holiday home in Marykirk, Scotland. Since then, wind turbine technology has dramatically improved, enabling Scotland to be fully sufficient off wind energy with plenty of electricity spare. However, is this realistic?
Scotland is the windiest country in Europe and so is able to be entirely self-sufficient off wind energy. The East Coast, in particular, is well suited for offshore turbines due to the gently shelving nature of the seabed. However, there has been an emergence of deep-water offshore technology (below 60 metres) which could help provide sustainable energy sources using the deeper waters in both the east and west of the country.
Currently, Scotland is shifting from onshore wind farms to offshore. However, is this the correct approach?
Offshore farming has many advantages. The turbines are larger, and the seas have on average higher wind speeds. As a result, these turbines can create more energy per turbine. Small increases in windspeed can correlate to large increases in energy generation. Therefore, fewer turbines are needed to produce the same amount of energy as onshore turbines. In addition, wind speeds offshore don’t vary as much as onshore, and the wind direction doesn’t change as often, therefore offshore turbines are more consistent which will correlate to more reliable energy production.
The main argument against onshore turbines is that they are a big eyesore in areas of Scotland that many protests to be some of the most stunning areas of the UK. Offshore turbines solve this problem by having less of a visual impact than those on land as they can’t be seen as easily and furthermore don’t interfere with land usage. Another advantage of this is that there aren’t any obstacles that interfere with wind flow in the oceans. For this reason, offshore wind farms can be made larger and generate more energy than those onshore, with less physical impact.
Scotland is home to the world’s first floating wind farm, Hywind, which is located around 30km from Peterhead in the Moray Firth. Recently it has become the largest operational offshore wind project in Scotland. Currently, there are just 5 turbines which produce 30 MW. This is enough to power 20,000 homes. However, the entire proposal is for 114 turbines, which promises to generate 1.1 GW or 60% of Scotland’s offshore wind output – enough energy to power 1 million homes.
The UK is currently experiencing a major energy crisis where energy prices have risen by 96% since the winter of 2021 (according to the House of Commons Library). It is set to rise by similar amounts heading into spring of 2023. The reason for this dramatic rise is down to a lack of energy storage, high inflation, high demand from European countries, the worsening of the situation in Russia and the War in Ukraine. If the UK is able to significantly increase its energy production, it could significantly decrease the energy prices that we are seeing today.
However, there are still advantages to onshore wind farms. Currently, over half of the region’s renewable energy capacity is from onshore farms at 53%, while offshore farms generate 39%. There is a reduced environmental impact as the onshore farms’ construction and operations create significantly fewer emissions than any other energy sources including offshore wind production. Sites, where the farms are located, can still be farmed without releasing toxins and have a very low impact on wildlife. Onshore farms are more cost-effective than offshore due to cheaper infrastructure and running costs, making them more attractive. Onshore farms are far quicker to install and easier to maintain. Most importantly, in some respects, there is significant socio-economic benefit in the job creation for a single onshore windfarm compared to offshore wind farms. As onshore construction usually employs from local areas whereas offshore farms are often constructed by an international company. This can create as many as 1,000 jobs within the local area. This is specifically important to those in Northeast Scotland as it has one of the highest unemployment rates in the UK.
Furthermore, every year wind farms in the Northeast contribute millions of pounds of community benefit funding which would not otherwise be available. The best examples of this are the Rothes I and II wind farms and Paul’s Hill wind farm which are both located near Elgin, and Mid Hill wind farm near Aberdeen. Collectively these wind farms can power up to 115,000 homes. The company in charge of these farms, Fred Olsen Renewables, has made £2 million of funds available to eligible communities surrounding their wind farms in Moray and Aberdeenshire to support local initiatives. Onshore wind farming currently creates 8,780 full-time jobs across Scotland. However, this does not include the construction phase which will create several short-term jobs. Although offshore farms tend to be more efficient due to the larger size of the turbines, onshore makes up for this lack of efficiency due to the shorter cables, therefore ensuring less voltage drop-off. With onshore wind farms, farmers or landowners get a cut of the profits alongside the management company which can have a huge impact on the local community through economic benefits and job creation. It can be argued that this is preferable, rather than large multinational companies reaping the benefits whilst paying fewer taxes for the privilege, which in terms pumps less money back into the UK economy.
Furthermore, another argument for the use of onshore wind is the disadvantages that offshore wind holds. Firstly, offshore has a far greater initial cost, as infrastructure is complex and requires lots of research before a plan is even put in place – this is even more apparent in the deeper waters. The maintenance costs due to rough seas and very high wind speeds are huge and they require far more maintenance than their onshore counterparts. On top of high maintenance costs, offshore farms are difficult to access and so repair times are longer which can result in energy production being halted for an extended period of time. In addition, although many believe that offshore turbines are less of an eyesore, in some cases this is not true. Onshore turbines are 89 metres tall and have a rotator diameter of 120 metres, whereas offshore turbines are 103 metres tall with a rotator diameter of 150 metres. This size difference is apparent with farms built less than 26 miles from shore. As well as the visual impact on humans the underwater noises that the turbines make can impact fauna and other marine life. Many offshore wind farms are owned and run by companies that have offices inland. This is because many companies are often European or part of large companies with a main base in a major city. Often these offices are far from the offshore site or even abroad, which means that jobs are not created in the local community and other investments aren’t made which therefore negatively impacts the local community by having all the negatives to a windfarm without the economic benefits. Another problem with offshore wind is that cables are far longer in offshore farms than onshore; these cables are made from precious earth metals such as copper and aluminium. These metals require large amounts of energy to extract which damage the environment due to the carbon emissions produced. Moreover, the production of the cables requires significant land area, high water usage, and creates marine pollution and toxins from industrial activities.
Onshore windfarms also have disadvantages. Varying wind speeds are a big problem for the future. Wind speed and direction can vary far more on land than at sea which consequently means that less power can be generated within the same turbine. These blockages come in addition to varying wind speeds however still have a negative effect on production. This means that wind speed and direction must be carefully monitored to plan for energy generation. Onshore turbines only operate at full capacity 34% of the time while offshore turbines operate at full capacity 43% of the time. Physical hazards to onshore are potential wind blockages such as buildings and hills, for this reason, onshore wind can’t produce wind year-round and can only achieve around 2.5 MW, compared to offshore wind’s approximate 3.6 MW. Due to the fact that onshore turbines don’t run year-round , they require fossil fuel backups to produce energy when the wind speeds are slow. If we rely more heavily on wind farms there will be a direct increase in the amounts of fossil fuel required in the “down” periods, as no matter how many farms we build days with no wind will produce no energy, which in turn results in more CO₂ emissions from the burning of fossil fuels to cover this down period. However, despite all the above, still the most heavily fought disadvantage among local residents are the visual and sound impacts. Turbines are often built on the top of hills to maximise energy production; however, this means that these turbines can be seen from miles around. There are also significant noise impacts, due to the whirring noise of the turbine which replicates the sound of a lawnmower.
It has become increasingly known that the world needs to shift away from fossil fuels immediately. It was said in COP26 that carbon dioxide emissions must be reduced by 45% to reach net zero around mid-century. The UK is in a very fortunate situation where they have renewable energy potential and with wind energy being the cheapest form of renewable energy along with solar the UK is in very good position. In the UK there are now more people employed in the renewable sector than those involved in fossil fuel production, fuel burning and transport. While offshore wind turbines seem like the obvious choice it is a bit more complicated than that. Current offshore wind turbines are fastened to the seabed which has environmental impacts as well as having a maximum depth of 60 metres which drastically limits the areas where these turbines can be positioned. Logically the best type of turbine, therefore, is a floating turbine. However, the infrastructure isn’t there as of yet and offshore farms often negatively impact the local community rather than benefit them. However, onshore also has its problems as it isn’t as reliable as offshore production. Therefore, there is a definite place for both onshore and offshore farms and in general, the UK should put more emphasis and funding into wind energy production, especially during this current energy crisis.