Are wind farms worth it?

The UK government has approved a vast new wind farm of 250 turbines off the Welsh coast, the second largest in the world, bringing the total planned power from UK offshore wind to 4.5 GigaWatts. Europe’s largest onshore wind farm opened this week in Portugal, reportedly providing an estimated 240 MegaWatts of power. Both projects faced a lot of opposition on aesthetic grounds, and a study earlier this year showed that turbines can kill bats by producing negative pressure that gives them the bends.

So is wind power worth it? Renewable energy proponents, such as the remarkable Tony Marmont who I spoke to for a recent feature about off-grid energy production, has turbines on his farm that provide him with so much electricity (50MW per year) that he stores his energy in hydrogen tanks to use in a fuel cell.

But the venerable Jim Lovelock, who I chatted to today, and who believes that 90% of humanity will be wiped out owing to climate change by the end of the century, hates onshore wind farms. They have blighted his local countryside, he told me, while providing very little energy per hectare. Lovelock is an advocate of charcoal storage as a climate change solution: converting 80% of waste biomass to char (by burning off the water in the near absence of oxygen) and burying it in land or in the oceans to solve our greenhouse emissions problems.

I agree about the promise of char burial – I have no idea why it is not being done on a far larger scale. Surely all farmers should have a char burner? But I also think that wind power, free and abundant as it is in northern Europe, should be exploited.

I don’t find wind farms unattractive, actually, I find them mesmerizing and their symmetry has a certain beauty. But perhaps that’s just me.

4 thoughts

  1. “converting 80% of waste biomass to char (by burning off the water in the near absence of oxygen) and burying it in land or in the oceans to solve our greenhouse emissions problems.”

    Water is not exactly burned off – it’s the combustion product of burning off the hydrogen component. And it wouldn’t happen in near absence of oxygen: you need enough oxygen to combine with the hydrogen, ie a bit less than one molecule of oxygen for every 4 atoms of hydrogen (a bit less, because of the oxygen present in the organic matter – especially in carbohydrates, which unfortunately will be net consumers of energy, rather than producers, if the carbon is not allowed to burn…). Perhaps Jim Lovelock is referring to pyrolysis to make gaseous & liquid fuel. Pyrolysis (endothermic) in the total absence of air, to produce gaseous and liquid fuels, largely hydrocarbon, and heavy tarry/char-ey residue. Burying the latter would certainly take a lot of carbon out of circulation, though at the cost of lowering the total calorific value derived from the (partly renewable) fuel.

  2. Thanks Windy Boy, Lovelock is describing making charcoal which can then be buried and, happily, it helps fertilise the soil too. The Amazonians call such soil ‘terra preta’. According to Lovelock, this process could be used on waste bomass that would otherwise rot and release CO2. The heat from the process could be used for combined heat and power.

  3. Thanks, Gaia, this idea was completely new to me. Coincidentally, the current (Nov) issue of The Chemical Engineer has a brief news item headed “New Zealand leads biochar development – Carbonscape starts microwave charcoal plant at Marlborough”. Loads more information at

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