Wind energy: How clean and sustainable is it?

Profiles of Norwegian Science

wind turbines

Photo: Ilan Kelman
Smøla, near Trondheim, is home to Norway’s first large-scale wind farm, opened in 2002.

Agder, Norway

In September 2002, the Norwegian company Statkraft opened Norway’s first large-scale wind farm, on the island of Smøla near Trondheim. And thus, the eternal debates on wind energy came to the fore, with the fundamental question, How clean and sustainable is it?

Prominent and recurring concerns include reliability since the wind can stop blowing, the materials and maintenance required for the turbines, noise when they operate, bird kills, turbines being damaged in high winds, and the aesthetic impact on the landscape. All these potential drawbacks need to be compared with other sources of electricity generation along with other approaches to power, such as smaller scale, more localized and focused supplies—including the use of smaller, local wind turbines.

Smøla’s wind farm comprises 68 turbines, which are 230 feet high, topped by blades around 40 meters long. Access roads crisscross the area, fragmenting the ecosystem. Nearby, the noise and throbbing are palpable. Sea eagles and ptarmigans are occasionally killed by the blades.

Yet, the farm generates enough electricity for 17,800 Norwegian households, so it could be enough for all the residential, industrial, and commercial needs of Smøla and nearby islands, whose residents total around 8,000. Provided that the intermittency of wind could be redressed, in theory these communities could be entirely off-grid, apart from the off-site electricity needed to manufacture and transport the turbine parts.

Over a dozen direct jobs and perhaps two- to three-dozen indirect jobs are supported by the wind power, giving livelihood opportunities to entice living on the island. Tourism has provided a small amount of income, but it would not be expected to expand much, especially as other wind farms open and wind energy becomes more banal. Tourists to Smøla might visit the wind farm while they are there, but they rarely select Smøla for the wind farm.

How does this specific example fit in with wider discussion and implementation of wind energy around Norway? Some recent studies demonstrate how politicized the topic remains.

In particular, decisions regarding land-based wind power around Norway are said to have been mainly technocratic, pushed by energy authorities and those with direct interests in wind-farm development. The political landscape is now changing with politicians, government officials, environmental groups, and the ordinary public adopting increasing roles.

In October, two wind farms lost their licenses when Norway’s supreme court determined that building the farms had violated the rights of Sámi reindeer herders. The turbines might need to be dismantled, with future projects severely impacted.

Meanwhile, analyses of offshore wind-energy development around Norway over the past two decades note how the waxing and waning of interest was mainly political rather than technocratic. Factors promoting and inhibiting the industry include:

  • changing national governmental policy support, sometimes driven by different ministers
  • fluctuating oil prices and discoveries
  • continued reliance on hydropower
  • lack of government and industry cooperation around the country
  • expanding concern about human-caused climate change and assumptions that wind power would make a significant contribution to tackling the problem.

Offshore wind has been especially considered for powering Norway’s North Sea oil and gas rigs, being seen as cheaper and more environmentally friendly than the standard gas-driven turbines. An interesting irony emerges in using ostensibly “green” energy to replace “dirty” fossil fuels to support fossil fuel extraction.

Many research questions remain to develop a comprehensive policy and practice picture. What forms of electricity storage, such as batteries, best suit Norway to overcome wind’s reliability issues? What are the costs of battery options? Should wind farms be constructed to export electricity? In fact, in early October, the United Kingdom and Norway started operating the planet’s longest undersea electricity cable to connect the countries’ grids. How effective are different types of wind turbines, beyond the usual icons of the white towers with three blades?

Where and how could local, off-grid wind power best be implemented? Would a small turbine suffice for a single household, including connecting to neighbors to help during equipment breakdowns? One baseline issue is comparing different energy supply sources for various contexts around Norway. Kirkenes in the north has different needs from Oslo in the south—and both are different from Smøla.

Ultimately, though, the key question for all sustainable energy recommendations should be: No matter how clean and green the supply is, how much could we reduce demand?

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 19, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.