Wind farms sit lightly on the land, taking up at most 1-2% of the area they cover, leaving the rest available for farming, hunting, snowmobiling, hiking, grazing or any number of other uses including tulip farming (see below). Yet anti-wind lobbyists and campaigners persist in making the claim that enormous swathes of land would be and are consumed solely by wind turbines.
This myth seems to have originated with pro-nuclear advocate Jesse Ausubel in a 2007 article in the International Journal of Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology. While wind energy and nuclear power are great low carbon, low environmental impact complements to one another in a mixed generation grid, there is a subset of nuclear advocates who consider renewables to be competitors for dollars in a zero sum game. There is some truth to this, as renewables have grown world wide to exceed total nuclear capacity over the past decade or two, while total world wide nuclear capacity has shrunk slightly. (Note that many renewables advocates, dominantly those from the industry, also view nuclear as the competition.)
Mr. Ausubel’s article is a paean of praise to the energy density of nuclear, and an emotional indictment of the massive wastes of land required for all renewables. Others in this camp include Stewart Brand in his 2010 book Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, RestoredWildlands, and Geoengineering Are Necessary and author Gwyneth Cravens 2008 book, Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy. They all like to talk about a world in which a nuclear plant only takes up the space for the reactor and the turbines, as if there are no parking lots or uranium mines, and as if sheep graze beside the reactors. In this world, wind farms take up 200 or more square miles (480 square kilometers) for about a gigawatt of energy and the land between the wind turbines is paved over and unusable. As Amory Lovins among many others have pointed out, this is an odd basis for an argument in any event; why is land use a determining factor?
These analysts are, for the most part, motivated for good. They understand that global warming is both a real and present danger to humanity and that CO2e produced by mankind is the primary cause of it. For a variety of reasons, however, they then leap to the conclusion that nuclear power is the only solution that can save humanity. It’s a reasonable position in a different world than the one in which we live. Nuclear generation produces only slightly more CO2e per KWh than wind energy over its full lifecycle according to the best meta-analysis of full lifecycle cost accounting that’s available. It ignores the realities that every nuclear plant is a mega-project fraught with potential delays, that social and political opinion prevents nuclear from being a consideration in a large majority of jurisdictions, that every reasonable analysis finds that nuclear is more expensive than the alternatives and that there just aren’t that many trained nuclear engineers — or people with the attributes necessary to become effective nuclear engineers — to build and maintain the fleet of nuclear plants required. One analysis by a nuclear advocate amounted to a new nuclear plant coming on line every week for the next 25 years.
James Lovelock takes this myth and multiplies it by a factor of five with no explanation in his book The Revenge of Gaia:
It would take 1,000 square miles of countryside to provide enough land for a 1 gigawatt wind-energy source.
He’s come late to the nuclear fold, and despite his advanced years, has taken to it with the fire of a young zealot, hurling myth after myth at wind energy.
This odd argument of energy density and land use has been taken up by larger numbers of anti-renewable lobbyists and advocates, many of them with no desire for more nuclear either, and often fuzzy at best ideas about alternatives to renewables. This has become just another bad argument that they throw at wind farms.
Here’s one of the ways that this plays out. An Ontario anti-wind campaigner named Wayne Gulden (actually a guy from the States who has a vacation home in Ontario) created this map showing the depredations of wind energy in Ontario. Despite pushback, he continues to maintain that this is a reasonable picture despite the massive scale distortions of the push-pins (they wouldn’t register at all on this scale) and the vast overstating of number of turbines in southern Ontario (he collated all data on all proposed wind farms, no matter how unlikely they would be to come to fruition).
Let’s analyze the 200 square miles for one gigawatt story:
200 square miles of land might be 20 miles long by 10 miles wide. At average spacing for 3 MW wind turbines of about 7 turbine diameters or about 1,200 meters, you could put about 360 wind turbines in this space, which would generate a bit over a gigawatt. So far, the land density myth advocates are right (excepting Lovelock and others who multiply that number by five for no reason except hyperbole), but the best lies always contain a kernel of truth. Where do they start straying from the straight and narrow?
One wind turbine consumes about 20 square meters of land at its base. There are usually gravel roads that lead to them from the nearest road, 3 meters wide and 10 meters to a couple of kilometers long, to allow maintenance trucks to get to them. When they are in farm fields or livestock grazing areas, the land use continues right up to the shaft of the turbine. When they are on forested ridges, openings are cut around them for construction and maintained for servicing and fire setbacks. That’s a minimum of about 120 square meters per wind turbine or about 0.01% in farming and grazing areas and a maximum of 2% in wooded hill areas.
That means at the minimum case in the prairies, the required land together would give 44,000 square meters for the needed turbines. If you shoved them all together, they would fit into 440m x 100m or 1300 ft by 330 ft. The actual land taken up is about the same as a nuclear power plant of similar power rating, but you can walk right up to wind turbines and lean against them without armed guards getting perturbed.
At the maximum case, a small percentage of land of low utility ends up with some gravel roads and some clearings. These roads and clearings actually have utility, allowing fire fighters among others to access otherwise inaccessible areas and reducing fire starting and spreading as one example.
The land around the wind turbine is suitable for grazing cattle, growing crops, growing Christmas trees, riding ATVs, etc. In other words, just about anything it could have been used for before. Where wind farm companies have private land with no other access allowed, the land is usually green, providing a carbon sink.
Arguing that wind turbines take up too much land is like saying power distribution substations take up too much land or that parking meters consume all of the space available on roads; you have to be hunting hard for an argument to make against wind turbines to take it seriously.