James Lovelock of Gaia Hypothesis is dead wrong about wind energy

In his 2009 book “The Vanishing Face of Gaia”, Lovelock describes the obsession with wind energy as “one of the great follies of the twenty-first century – an example of impressive engineering misused by ideology”. Putting aside his declared aesthetic dislike of wind farms, he makes several assertions about the efficiency of wind energy, including:

… they are almost useless as a source of energy. It would take 1,000 square miles of countryside to provide enough land for a 1 gigawatt wind-energy source. The wind blows only 25 per cent of the time at the right speed to generate electricity; therefore this monster would need the back-up of a near full-sized fossil fuel power station to supply electricity whenever the wind blew too much or too little.

A wind farm of twenty 1 MW turbines requires over 10,000 tonnes of concrete. It would require 200 of these wind farms covering an area the size of Dartmoor to equal the constant power output of a single coal-fired or nuclear power station. Even more absurd, a full-sized nuclear or coal-fired power station would have to be built for each of these monster wind farms to back up the turbines for the 75 per cent of time when the wind was either too high or too low. As if this were not enough to damn wind energy, the construction of a 1 GW wind farm would use a quantity of concrete, 2 million tons, sufficient to build a town to 100,000 people living in 30,000 homes; making and using that quantity of concrete would release about 1 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air.

The above figures are stated without references to any literature (although it must be noted that the book is intended for a popular science audience, and is not a peer-reviewed publication).

Do these claims stand up to scrutiny? What are the sources of these figures?

Short Answer:

James Lovelock is grossly incorrect in every statement. His claims are vastly inflated, not supported by any evidence and ignore full-lifecycle analyses of differing energy sources showing wind energy to be the fastest payback, lowest CO2e-form of electrical generation we have.

It is a shame that such a great contributor to our international dialogue on the environment has fallen so far. His aesthetic dislike of wind farms was not set aside, but poisoned his judgment.

Long Answer:

Taking the arguments point-by-point:

  1. Modern wind farms take up around 1-2% of the land on which they are constructed.Mr. Lovelock: It would take 1,000 square miles of countryside to provide enough land for a 1 gigawatt wind-energy source.Mr. Lovelock takes a common myth — a gigawatt would require 200 square miles of land — and blows it up to five times the size inflating inaccurate hyperbole to something even worse.  There is an argument for a conservative 1-2% of 200 square miles, or 2-4 square miles in total consumption.  The other 196-198 square miles are still usable for virtually every use that they might have had before: crops, christmas trees, grazing, fallow land, scrub land, hunting, hiking, etc. [1]

    When people use this argument, they are saying that they don’t want to see any wind turbines on land that they wish to use for other purposes.

    For context, a wind turbine takes about a quarter of an acre or about a tenth of a hectare out of production on a farm (if it is even arable land).  In Ontario, an acre of prime agricultural land returns an average of $500 USD revenue per year.  The wind turbine will provide $6,000-8,000 per year, roughly fifty-sixty times the likely return in pure agriculture.  Two to three wind turbines on a farm — usually in less valuable corners — can make the difference between keeping the farm or losing it, and can make the difference in keeping the next generation interested in the farm as a viable career.

    Mr. Lovelock is guilty not only of completely mis-stating land usage, but grossly overstating even the initial counter-factual myth used by anti-wind lobbyists.

  2. Modern wind farms have capacity factors of 35-47%Mr. Lovelock: The wind blows only 25 per cent of the time at the right speed to generate electricityA 35-47% capacity factor doesn’t mean that wind turbines only spin 35-47% of the time — instead of the inaccurate 25% Mr. Lovelock quotes –, but that they generate 35-47% of their maximum faceplate energy over a year. In actual fact, wind turbines typically generate electricity for 75-90% of any given year.

    This is a false argument in any event, as it assumes that this level of capacity factor makes the electricity uneconomic. If this were true, the many natural gas plants that commonly have 10% capacity factors wouldn’t be economic, and the hydro plants that frequently have 40% capacity factors wouldn’t be economic.  And nuclear, which has had its ups-and-downs in terms of uptime would have arguments against it from periods and locales where it was running at 60% capacity factor as opposed to the industry average of around 90%.

    In reality, the full lifecycle cost of electricity is the lowest common denominator which is used to assess different forms of generation.  This takes into account materials, manufacturing, construction, maintenance, fuel costs and decommissioning.  Under this analysis, wind energy beats virtually every other form of generation on virtually every potential category including the key categories of time-to-break-even-on-energy and time-to-recoup-CO2e. Wind turbines pay for themselves very rapidly, in periods counted in single-digit months, with financial break-even 2-3 years into their 20 year+ lifespans. [2], [3]

    Mr. Lovelock is grossly wrong in three different ways on this point, not only about the percentage of time a wind turbine is generating electricity annually and how much electricity it generates, but also in ignoring the only useful figure, the full-lifecycle cost of electricity compared across generation types.

  3. At penetrations of up to 20% of grid demand, renewables including wind only require backup capacity of 4% of grid demand.Mr. Lovelock: therefore this monster would need the back-up of a near full-sized fossil fuel power stationanda full-sized nuclear or coal-fired power station would have to be built for each of these monster wind farms to back up the turbines for the 75 per cent of time when the wind was either too high or too low. According to major grid management studies in the UK and Finland, renewables at penetrations of up to 20% of demand will require only 20% of their capacity as backup and that backup can and will be from neighbouring jurisdictions’ excess capacity, whether from unused hydro capacity within jurisdictions and from already existing fossil fuel generation capacity that is maintained as backup instead of being decommissioned.

    Mr. Lovelock therefore makes two major mis-statements. The first is that 100% backup is required.  No one suggests that wind energy provide 100% of grid demand, but that it makes sense in the range of 10-20% of grid demand for the majority of jurisdictions (outliers including Spain, Holland and one state in Australia). In that range, it requires about 4% maximum of demand as backup.  The second is his assertion that nuclear or coal capacity has to be built to provide this backup capacity.  As backup will come from existing nearby jurisdictions, unused hydro and existing generation capacity that is no longer used full-time, no new backup must be built in the vast majority of cases. [4]

    It is also very worth noting that grid managers must maintain sufficient hot-standby backup capacity to support the loss of their largest individual generation unit, typically a major hydro, coal or nuclear plant.  These are typically in the 1 GW to 3 GW range, and can fall off of the grid very rapidly due to technical failures in the generating units or in transmission line failures.  As an example, in Ardrossan Scotland in December 2011, a severe wind storm blew through. A single wind turbine failed in the 165 kph gales, taking 1.2 MW out of generation. The remainder of that wind farm and the remainder of the wind farms in Scotland were back generating electricity immediately after the winds dropped.  In the meantime, the same gale force winds knocked down the transmission lines from the nearby Hunterston nuclear plant, taking roughly 17 gWh of electricity out of Scotland’s grid over 54 hours and plunging thousands of homes into darkness and cold. [5]

    Mr. Lovelock grossly overstates backup requirements, is completely wrong about how those backup requirements will be met and does not understand current grid backup requirements.

  4. A modern wind turbine requires about as much concrete as about 6 modern homes Mr. Lovelock: the construction of a 1 GW wind farm would use a quantity of concrete, 2 million tons, sufficient to build a town to 100,000 people living in 30,000 homesA modern wind turbine uses about 300 cubic meters of concrete in its base which would suffice for from two to ten modern homes depending on anchoring approach and size of home.  A modern wind turbine is much bigger than 1 MW. The required concrete’s CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) is included in the full lifecycle analyses which show wind generation has the lowest CO2e emissions of any form of generation.Regarding concrete usage, the best analogy is that a modern wind turbine of 2.5-3 MW in scale using straight concrete foundations the same amount of concrete as about 10 modern detached homes do for foundations, basement walls etc. A 250 square meter / 2,500 square foot home requires about 36 cubic meters of concrete, while a wind turbine foundation requires about 300 cubic meters. [7]  Rock-anchor systems have seen 56 cubic meters of concrete used.  Let’s call it an average of 6 homes equivalent concrete per wind turbine.Modern wind turbines are typically in the 2-3 MW range, with much larger ones offshore and larger ones often considered for most wind farms.  Assuming 2.5 MW average for a modern wind turbine, this would require about 400 wind turbines to enable a gigawatt of generation capacity, resulting in about 2,400 homes equivalent, not 30,000 homes worth, as Mr. Lovelock asserts. If you scaled up for apartments, townhomes and bungalows, you might get to 6,000 homes, but nowhere near 30,000. This is gross hyperbole.

    Concrete use is factored into the full lifecycle cost analyses comparing various forms of generation. The best available meta-analyses of all forms of generations’ lifecycle costs of energy show that wind energy has a full-lifecycle, CO2e emission lower than any other form of generation, lower even than nuclear, 1 / 50th of natural gas and 1 / 100th of coal. [6]

    Mr. Lovelock has overstated the amount of concrete required by an order of magnitude and focused on a single factor related to wind energy instead of comparing full-lifecycle impacts across generation forms. He is, yet again, dead wrong.


[1] Quora: http://www.quora.com/How-much-land-does-1-gigawatt-of-wind-energy-require/answer/Mike-Barnard
[2] http://barnardonwind.wordpress.com/2013/02/18/how-effective-are-wind-turbines-compared-to-other-sources-of-energy/
[3] Quora: Mike Barnard’s answer to How long does it take a typical wind turbine to generate more power than what was used to create it?
[4] http://barnardonwind.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/how-much-backup-does-a-wind-farm-require-how-does-that-compare-to-conventional-generation/
[5] Quora: Mike Barnard’s answer to Wind Energy: How significant was the Ardrossan wind turbine fire?
[6] http://en.openei.org/apps/LCA/
[7] http://www.alternet.org/story/61523/big_houses_are_not_green%3A_america’s_mcmansion_problem?page=0%2C1

This material originally developed on Quora here:  http://www.quora.com/Wind-Energy/What-is-the-scientific-research-upon-which-James-Lovelocks-negative-assertions-about-wind-energy-in-“The-Vanishing-Face-of-Gaia”-are-based/answer/Mike-Barnard


  1. Reblogged this on SMIPP Ltd..

  2. [...] Post (USA), James Lovelock (sadly, UK), Barry [...]

  3. […] 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. […]

Be nice, be respectful, be relevant.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,229 other followers