General Question

JLeslie's avatar

What are the scary things that can happen with solar and wind power?

Asked by JLeslie (60147points) March 14th, 2011

Nuclear you can have a meltdown, and even when there is never a ctastrophe like that there is a radioactive biproduct that must be stored.

Coal is dangerous to mine, and produces pollution.

Oil can have spills that kill ocean life, and geopolitically we are currently in America dependent on other countries for oil.

Solar does not cause pollution when in use, but I wondered if producing the actual solar panels has any major risks not talked about?

Same with wind. Transporting the large wind mills from the factory to a location I guess is a daunting task? The larger wind mills? But, I would guess it is not very dangerous to produce?

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49 Answers

talljasperman's avatar

wind power can kill flocks of birds

marinelife's avatar

The dangers posed by these two forms of energy production are much less than those posed by nuclear energy or oil-based energy, but they do exist:

“The SVTC warns that solar panel production creates many of the same toxic byproducts as those found in semiconductor production, including silicon tetrachloride, dusts, and greenhouse gases like sulfur hexafluoride. These byproducts aren’t anything to scoff at— silicon tetrachloride, for example, makes land unsuitable for growing crops. And for each ton of polysilicon produced, four tons of silicon tetrachloride are generated.” Source

“It came without warning. A sudden gust of wind ripped the tip off of the rotor blade with a loud bang. The heavy, 10-meter (32 foot) fragment spun through the air, and crashed into a field some 200 meters away.” Source

JLeslie's avatar

@marinelife Are the newer solar inks silicone as well? Do they look very promising to you?

Fyrius's avatar

Windmills, not dangerous? You have no idea.

JeanPaulSartre's avatar

Modern solar panels do require certain components that are pretty difficult to get or product toxic by-products… the comparative damage is minimal to even just getting oil or coal let alone burning it, but yes, especially the gold needed in solar is a problem (though, one that scientists are working on.) I think the investment in solar tech is more sustainable, as these problems can be overcome, unlike burning fossil fuels or using nuclear material, where the problems are simply a part of the process.

As for wind, the damage to wildlife is minimal, but because the US, particularly is lagging in production/research/etc we import them by ship, which is pretty devastating… still long-term the cost is low comparatively.

A better large scale solution is probably solar towers, which don’t use solar panels, but utilize the warming effect of sunlight through glass, then channel the heat up a “smoke stack” (minus the smoke of course.) It uses moving air to turn dozens of small turbines to produce power.

Better still is small scale solutions… CHANGING OUR HABITS and reducing the amount of energy we use considerably.

LuckyGuy's avatar

Here’s a wind turbine that suffered from a failed brake.
No comparison with the nuclear power plant crisis going on in Japan now.

JeanPaulSartre's avatar

@worriedguy Wow! That was impressive to see! But yeah, like you said no comparison. That’s a bad day for sure, but probably no fatalities.

missingbite's avatar

The reactor in Japan gave electricity to 1.4 million homes. How many wind turbines will it take to equal that?

JLeslie's avatar

@missingbite Not the question at hand. I am trying to give a fair shake to all forms of energy here, not sure why you feel compelled to defend nuclear, I do hate the idea of nuclear, but I did not want to idealize the other possibilities, hence the question.

missingbite's avatar

@JLeslie Sorry if it sounded like I was defending nuclear as I am not. I did really want to know how they compared. When you ask a question like how harmful they are, one leads to the question of how many and how much space they take up to do the job.

Simply put, if it takes 600,000 acres of turbines to do what one nuke plant does, there is a lot of harm to come from them.

Again, I’m not pro nuke anti wind. We need a good mix.

JLeslie's avatar

@missingbite I once read that storing the radioactive material will eventually become a problem for France, and they are just hoping some new technology comes along to store it or something? Not sure how much space it really takes up. I really hate nuclear power, I do have a strong bias.

gasman's avatar

It’s been estimated from computer models that very large wind farms (occupying, say, a few percent of the land area of the United States) could affect global weather in a significant way[from an article I read last week but can’t find now]. Ordinary wind farms may cause local heating or cooling, depending on specifics ref. The turbines cause layers of warm and cold air to mix in ways they normally don’t.

AdamF's avatar

When America allocates a few percent of their land area to wind farms, it’ll be the impact of flying pigs that should worry us.

JLeslie's avatar

@gasman interesting, I had never heard anything like that about wind farms. I actually am not fond of the big wind farm in the middle of the country idea either, but local or private windmills sound good to me. I saw a wind machine type thing that is horizontal and can go on top of buildings, basically just generating power for that building. It was not tall vertically.

AdamF's avatar

I live in Sweden now, and all our house power is provided by windfarms, hydro and biomass energy (it wasn’t even a “green” option, it was just the local provider). So we have a few large Wind power generators in the fields nearby, and a massive sea-based farm between here and Copenhagen.

The impact on birds is highly dependent on the group. Raptors seem particularly susceptible, but it depends a great deal on where the farms are located. Migration routes can be avoided to minimize the worst of impacts. There is also concern with respect to impacts on bats from the air pressure differentials..once again, depending on location.

Frankly I find wind farms quite beautiful.

wilma's avatar

There is a large wind farm being built very near my home.
I’ll get back to you.

JeanPaulSartre's avatar

@missingbite The largest wind turbines I know of power about 4000 homes… at current consumption levels anyway.

missingbite's avatar

@JeanPaulSartre Thanks! Is that per windmill? If so that is pretty impressive.

incendiary_dan's avatar

Wind turbines have been the subject of recent NPR programs, as locally they’ve been suspected of causing massive health problems for residents in Falmouth, MA.

Plus, all of the “green” energy sources require massive mining operations for aptly named “rare earth” minerals. These mining operations leave areas devastated and rivers poisoned. And China has been cutting off exports of these, by the way.

But all of that beats the nuclear waste that will be around for many generations.

But as to the bird thing, while it’s a problem, domesticated cats kill more migratory songbirds each year.

wilma's avatar

I’m still on the fence about the wind turbines in my back yard.
I do know that we are losing many acres of prime farmland to the turbines. I sure hope that it is worth it.

JeanPaulSartre's avatar

@missingbite Yeah – I think that’s a new German model though – probably the “normal” ones you see in wind farms in the US are closer to 3000 per mill.

koanhead's avatar

@incendiary_dan Surely there’s a way to extract power from these cats?

@wilma You may well be correct, but if you are it’s a damn shame. Putting wind farms (NOT individual mills for driving pumps, etc) on good arable land is pointless and stupid. You put them where the wind is- the high desert, mountain foothills, and such like. The United States has plenty of this sort of land, much of it close to existing power-transmission right-of-ways. I recently returned from a trip to Central Washington State, where a number of wind farms have recently arisen. There’s a certain amount of farming that happens in the area, but it’s mostly range land. I suspect the cows and the mills are able to coexist peacefully, but I didn’t have the chance to inquire at the time.

JeanPaulSartre's avatar

@koanhead I’ve never met anyone from Wyoming (though I hear the air pollution recently passed LA due to natural gas extraction) so I bet that state could power the whole country… one giant wind farm! I’m kidding-ish

wilma's avatar

@koanhead We are quite windy here, but the soil is very good for crops.
Some people will be making a lot of money leasing their land (more than they can, using it as farmland) and some other people will be making a lot of money building the turbines and selling the power.
Many, many other folks will be living with the turbines and not getting anything out of the deal, with the exception of some power in the universe not coming from coal, oil or gas.
The real shame is, once farmland has been used and abused this way, it will never be any good for crops again. That is the reality.

koanhead's avatar

@wilma Please explain how the presence of wind turbines renders the land “never any good for crops again.” I don’t see it.

wilma's avatar

@koanhead the land where the turbine is built is excavated for the foundation and all the topsoil in the area is removed, so there is a large footprint there that is then not farmable. There are access roads built to each turbine, again this land is not farmable. These acres will never be able to sustain crops. Even in the future if the turbines were removed and the roads removed. The land has been irreparably changed/damaged.
During construction huge cranes and other heavy equipment is used. The soil in the area is compacted and can never fully recover from the damage done.
There will still be land farmed around the turbines, but it will never be as good as it was. The yields will be down and some crops that need better soil will not be grown there ever again.

JLeslie's avatar

Personally, I prefer the idea of having solar shingles, or single smaller wind turbines for a small community or house. As long as it is big business or government setting up power plants, they reap the benefit of charging us every month. In the US there is talk of large wind farms in the middle of the country and improving the infrastructure, which means to me a lot of lines across our land for long distances to carry the electricity. I am not fond of the idea. I like the idea of being off the grid, but I think more realistically is being on the grid, smaller local grids, where we sell energy in, and take back out depending on when the sun shines or the wind blows.

wilma's avatar

@JLeslie yes, I feel that way too.
I am concerned about what lies ahead for my community.

JLeslie's avatar

@wilma Just imagine the enormity in the US. I can only imagine how much land we are talking about for the farms and the lines to supply such a huge population. Maybe it is the same for other countries relatively speaking. I guess it is all about the density of the people per sq mile/kilometer, not just total population.

Anemone's avatar

Wind and solar energy have the capacity to completely destroy oil companies! I know… scary!

Mariah's avatar

@talljasperman Wind turbines get a lot of flack for killing birds, but actually each wind turbine kills about one bird per year. Not exactly the bird slayers that their reputation suggests.

To answer the question, though: A wind turbine near my house actually fell over a couple of years ago. But that is extremely rare. They’ll occasionally throw a blade too, and that’s not good. And @worriedguy beat me to the other risk I was going to mention. None of these things are anywhere near as frightening as nuclear meltdown though!

Source: my dad manages a wind farm!

AdamF's avatar

“None of these things are anywhere near as frightening as nuclear meltdown though!”

or climate change.

We need energy. Each source has issues. But I’d prefer the government to put up a windfarm any day of the week rather than see another coal fired power plant built. Also there appears to be a significant trend towards building the really big ones offshore, rather than onshore…at least in Europe.

With respect to impacts on crop lands. I wonder if it depends on the building technique, restoration requirements, and the crop in question. The ones near us appear to be smack bang in the middle of farmed land with the farming continuing to very close to the base of the towers. I also know of farmers who push to have them because of the financial returns…but once again, it depends on the particular arrangements which inevitably vary between regions and countries.

koanhead's avatar

I’m against the idea of large, centralized wind farms anywhere, and indeed against the idea of centralized power generation in general. What we need is lots of small wind turbines, solar arrays, methane digesters, and the like, and a decentralized “smart” distribution system. Generate the power near where it will be used, and you cut down on transmission losses.

@Mariah – I noticed that worriedguy’s link talked about “brakes” failing on the wind turbine. Do you know: do these things actually use a friction brake to keep speed down, or do they use a variable-pitch system or some other method of regulating the speed?

AdamF's avatar

But wind and other natural power sources aren’t evenly distributed on the Earth’s surface. So although I like the idea and the benefits of distributing power generation, I also accept that in some circumstances we’ll need and benefit from the effificencies of aggregated power generation.

We need both.

Mariah's avatar

@AdamF I believe that due to certain regulations (for GE turbines, anyway) crops have to be kept away from the base of the turbine by some specified (fairly large) distance. The techs have to be able to drive out to the base of the turbines because they have to go inside fairly often for maintenance. But even so, many farmers do push to have them on their land because they what they get paid for the use of their land more than makes up for what they lose by not being able to grow on that acreage.

@koanhead I can ask my dad when he comes home tonight, but I’m about 95% sure myself on this: there’s both. There is a friction brake to stop a turbine’s rotation, but the “head” of the turbine also can rotate (to allow it to adjust for changing wind directions). So when a turbine needs to be stopped for any reason, first they put on the brakes and then they rotate it out of the wind’s path. Probably the video was referring to the friction brake. There is a maximum rotational speed they’re supposed to be able to reach for safety purposes and if the friction brake fails, that maximum speed goes out the window and what you see in the video can happen if it’s windy enough.

AdamF's avatar

Always a pleasure to have a direct source! Thanks for the insights.

JLeslie's avatar

@AdamF we probably do need both, but we also need to be willing to look at which source of energy might work for each community. Maybe the lower thurd of the US can easily get 75% of its power from solar? The coasts and along the Mississippi might use hydro power, etc. I don’t know enough about energy to give specific answers, but my fear of people seeking to make money makes me question almost all motives behind each power source.

AdamF's avatar

Always good to check the underlying stats and the motivation of those who provide them.

At the same time we also have to be honest about where the balance of power currently lies, where the wealth is, and the length of time an industry has had to ingratiate itself with government and receive the associated perks in terms of subsidies, tax concessions, etc.

Where I come from (Australia), that’s coal. I imagine in the U.S. it’s coal and to some extent nuclear.

So, to be honest, although where and when we promote a particular energy source should always be assessed, regardless of what it is, I can’t help but feel positive with every win for renewables.

Even the misplaced step is at least a step in the right direction.

mattbrowne's avatar

When talking about solar power we have to distinguish between solar thermal (heating water) and photovoltaics (creating electricity directly). The abovementioned downsides (which I wouldn’t call scary) mostly apply to present photovoltaic systems, not solar thermal.

Tastentier's avatar

Power outages when there is not enough wind or sun light.

mattbrowne's avatar

Not necessarily. More and more solar thermal power plants use oil heated to a temperature of 400 degrees Celsius. During the night the oil produces steam which generates electricity. Desertec will apply this principle.

wilma's avatar

I’m following this thread closely, since I will be living with huge wind turbines very soon. I appreciate all of the input from everyone.
I’d really like to hear more about what @Mariah has to say on this subject. She has a very good source of direct and knowledgeable information about these large wind farms and turbines. She also lives with them. I wonder what kind of neighbors they make?

Mariah's avatar

@wilma The wind park my dad works at is actually about 10 miles from my house, so I can’t speak for being a close neighbor unfortunately. But I can take a shot at answering (and/or ask my dad) anything you’re wanting to know.

Ladymia69's avatar

From what I have seen on youtube from neighbors of wind farms, some are really bothered by the noise when the wind is more still, especially at night. One said it sounds like a jet or train is about to crash into the house.

JLeslie's avatar

@ladymia69 I had no idea they are noisy.

Ladymia69's avatar

Go to youtube and type in windmill or wind turbine noise, and you will get a lot of clips of the sound they make, which travels pretty far to the houses nearby.

AdamF's avatar

From my understanding the older designs were noisier…but for modern designs, I think the noise thing is often massively overstated. We have very large wind turbines in fields near where we used to live. I could cycle past them (within 150m) and the sound was inaudible over that of the 2 lane road that is next to it. I’ve also stood under a pretty big turbine on someone’s farm, and they make a VUM VUM VUM sound made at slighly loud conversation decibels. I wouldn’t want to try to sleep near it, but they shouldn’t be built near people’s homes in quiet residential areas. So I guess I would argue that it’s not at all the decibles they create, its the consistent repetition of the sound that one wishes to avoid. But because the modern ones are not very loud, it shouldn’t take a large distance between them and residential areas to remove the impact….especially if other common far louder circumstances are also in the vicinity…ie roads.

Frankly though, we have to keep some perspective here, I’d be far more willing to sleep within 500m of a windpower generator, than any other form of power generation.

Here’s a link from a company that did an assessment for a wind power generator…so yes be skeptical. All I can say is that the readings are consistent with my experiences.

and here are similar results from the Danish wind industry

Crashsequence2012's avatar

They can be forced upon the using pubic before the technology is properly refined to meet political agendas resulting in compromised performance while older proven still viable generating methods are abandoned prematurely.

wilma's avatar

They are very loud at times. Not always because they aren’t always operating, at least the ones that are by me. They make a loud whuoop sound, and they also sound like a jet engine. Like a jet is going over, but unlike a jet, it never moves on and goes away. Some of them also whistle, and that can be louder than anything else.

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