Wind farms: good for ground water too.

Wind farms have a minimal impact on the environment and very positive impacts in terms of displacing fossil fuels and their massive impacts related to global warming and pollution. Yet some anti-wind lobbyists make the claim that wind turbines are damaging to aquifers, threatening drinking water, water for irrigation and bird habitats.

So what’s the answer? Is this an area where wind farms cause negative impacts sufficient to make siting a consideration, or is it more smoke?

Short Answer:

Wind turbines are a strong net-positive for aquifers, and in some jurisdictions are a direct contributor to aquifer volumes.  They help reduce global warming and its attendant issue of drought and warming which causes environmental damage to wetlands. They help reduce air pollution which causes acid rain leading to deforestation.  They help reduce air pollution that ends up directly in the water.

Long Answer:

Rational concerns about wind turbines and aquifers fall into three categories:

  1. Wind turbine construction directly destroys habitat that filters water and provides it to aquifers.[1]
  2. Wind turbines will disturb fragile ecosystem around marshes which are a crucial part of recharging aquifers.[2]
  3. Wind turbines are industrial machines and in their construction and use they can leak significant amounts of oil and other lubricants into the soil, which can in turn leak into acquirers.[3]

These dangers are vastly overstated and trivial in comparison to alternatives.

  1. Habitat destruction The referenced article is concerned about blasting of ridge lines, construction of roads and creating multi-acre construction sites. First, as this article notes, modern wind turbines are significantly dispersed; at most they might take up 0.02% of the land when operating and by the acreage reflected in the reference they might impact 0.08% in construction. [4] The additional runoff concerns are statistically insignificant during operation. During construction, there would be some additional soil in local streams, but it would be filtered by the normal means and would represent a completely insignificant additional load. This study by the New Zealand Department of Conservation confirms this. [6]By comparison, it is worth noting mountain-top removal coal mining.

    Verdict: Wind turbine direct impacts on habitat are insignificant and do not pose a danger to local aquifers.

  2. Fragile ecosystem disruptionThe researcher’s concern in the referenced article concerns wetlands in Texas, a very dry state. Specifically, the concern stated is related to bird avoidance of wind turbines: “Other wildlife researchers have found that in European wetland settings, birds have tended to avoid wind turbines.” No reference was given or has been found to support this claim.This appears to have been extrapolated from offshore wind turbine thermal imaging and radar studies which show that waterfowl flying over the oceans fly around wind turbines.

    Petterson (2005) recorded only one collision of a sea duck from about 2 million migrating past a Swedish offshore wind farm, while Fox et al. (2006) used radar studies at Nysted to predict a collision rate of 0.02% (i.e. a 99.98% avoidance rate) for 235,000 common eiders migrating past that site,[7]

    Interestingly, given their references to the direct evidence, the authors of the quoted study instead adopt a ‘bird agility’ measure for determining threat to waterfowl, when agility has nothing to do with seabirds avoiding things sticking out of the water, a behaviour that they have evolved over millions of years. Here’s another reference to the thermal imaging study.[10]

    Given the wide spacing of wind turbines referenced above, and the relatively poor information about wetland bird habits disruption, it’s unlikely that this is a major concern in most places. In the desert playas of Texas, it’s likely reasonable not to put a wind turbine in the middle of a tiny playa, but that’s an unlikely scenario in any event.

    By comparison, it’s worth noting that acid rain is heavily contributed to by coal power generation, with the following impacts.[8]

    Verdict: Wind turbine disruption of habitat is statistically insignificant and extremely unlikely to impact aquifers.

  3. Wind turbines directly polluting ground water There have been incidents where 50-80 litres (12-20 gallons) of lubricants and chemicals have been spilled in the construction of wind turbines. And there have been rare and isolated incidents where wind turbines have sprung a lubricant leak from their transmissions. These concerns are then pushed together with incidents where tens of thousands of litters or more of oil or lubricants are spilled in train accidents, oil pipeline breakages or oil tanker accidents. They are further pushed together with brown site remediation where gas stations have sat for decades with gasoline leaking into the surrounding soil.
    The situations are statistically at the opposite ends of the scale. Making the claim that a few litres of lubricant as widely dispersed as wind turbines have been shown to be is a threat to aquifers that should be taken seriously is like believing that homeopathic solutions are effective, or that you have good odds of winning the lottery.Similarly, concerns about the concrete bases of wind turbines somehow being a vast environmental intrusion are overstated as well. The concrete base requires about 250 cubic yards of concrete, or enough to build about six modern homes. This is not an overpass’ worth of concrete, or a parking lot, or a coal plant. Full lifecycle cost analyses of wind energy which include the concrete used in construction show that wind farms have the best CO2e per MWh of any form of generation.[14]

    Full lifecycle CO2e-emissions per KWh for different generation types courtesy of http://en.openei.org/apps/LCA/

    For comparison, here are real aquifer concerns that people are concerned about[9]:

    Potential sources include industrial spills, tanker spills, fertilizers, pesticides, or just about anything someone pours down a drain that leads to a septic tank. For the most part, typical septic tank effluent is not the primary concern.

    Wind turbines don’t make the list, for obvious reasons.

    Obviously the more water a particular form of generation requires in the production of electricity, the more opportunity there is for that water to be contaminated. As such, it’s worth noting that in full lifecycle analyses by the California Energy Commission, wind energy uses 1/600th of the water of nuclear generation and 1/500th the water of coal generation per kWh. These numbers are confirmed by other analyses.

    [12], [13]

    Here’s an example of an incident that does have aquifer impacts for comparison, an oil pipeline leak:

Verdict: Wind turbines have almost no ability to contaminate aquifers even in disastrous circumstances.

It’s obvious that wind energy is displacing technologies that are significantly dangerous to aquifers with truly insignificant impacts themselves. However, there is great news out of Idaho, where BPA is using situations of excess energy capacity to refill aquifers and optimize irrigation versus power generation uses of fresh water in the state. [11]

References:

[1] http://www.keepersoftheblueridge.com/environmental-impact.html
[2] http://energyandenvironmentblog.dallasnews.com/archives/2009/06/do-wind-turbines-hurt-the-envi.html
[3] http://www.iberica2000.org/es/Articulo.asp?Id=1457
[4] Wind farms co-exist with other land uses: debunking the myth of energy density
[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mountaintop_removal_mining
[6] http://www.bpwtag.ca/windfarm-1.pdf
[7] http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/0038/00389902.pdf
[8] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acid_rain#Human_activity
[9] http://www.otsego.org/elmira/mp/6-SLU.pdf
[10] http://www.technologyreview.com/energy/18167/
[11] http://www.windpowermonthly.com/news/rss/1126786/BPA-trials-acquifer-recharge-system/
[12] http://cleantechnica.com/2010/10/15/water-energy-facts-blog-action-day-water/
[13] http://www.civilsocietyinstitute.org/media/pdfs/091912%20Hidden%20Costs%20of%20Electricity%20report%20FINAL2.pdf
[
14] http://en.openei.org/apps/LCA/

3 comments

  1. […] fewer birds would be killed annually if all fossil fuel generators were replaced with wind energy. Ground water would be much, much cleaner and aquifers would diminish more slowly. Habitat currently being […]

  2. […] fewer birds would be killed annually if all fossil fuel generators were replaced with wind energy. Ground water would be much, much cleaner and aquifers would diminish more slowly. Habitat currently being […]

  3. Hi
    I think it’s taken time to gather true research and statistics such as the link below. It will be the same in 20 years of the naysayers who say fracking is ok.
    Horizon wind should find a new location for their 16 turbines. It’s only 16! Really. I can see eagles getting picked off from these on this escarpment. I’ve personally seen over 300 eagles at our Thunder Bay landfill site in the Fall. Guess where they’re heading. Right down south along this corridor. I guess time will tell. I believe in wind and solar, lets just be respectful about location.
    Ron

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