The infamous wind farms of Udumalpet

My hometown of Udumalpet is located in the state of Tamil Nadu, deep in the south of India.  The town experiences pleasant tropical weather throughout the year.  Because of this, it is famously called “poor man’s Ooty.”  (Ooty is a hill station in Southern India known for its cool climatic conditions.)

The town is located in Palghat Pass and experiences an annual average wind speed of 18-22 kmph (11-13.6 mph).  This provides the opportunity for power generation using windmills.  In 2005, there was an exponential rise in the number of windmills in this region, as more wind projects were sanctioned by the government.

It is critical to remember that these wind projects were created not to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but to use the high wind velocity to generate electricity and help the state of Tamil Nadu, which was under a severe energy crisis.

The windmills were seen as a boon for the local people and economy, as they would contribute more electricity to the energy-starved district and state.  Unfortunately, pitfalls soon surfaced.

In the past decade, according to local residents’ perception, rainfall has diminished, and residents blame the windmills.  Although no official statistics exist to confirm or refute the perception, and no scientific study explains how the windmills could change rainfall, it’s not impossible.  Reduction of wind flow through Palghat Pass could be connected (as turbines converted wind energy to electrical energy), which suggests the need for study.

A more concrete problem is the efficiency – or rather inefficiency – of these windmills in generating power.  Not only wind, but also rain gets channeled through the Palghat Pass, and when rain comes, it disrupts windmill operation, destabilizing the electricity grid.

In August 2014, power generation there almost came to a complete stall because of the rains.  On some of the worst days, only 2 MW was generated from 5,300 windmills, each of which needs about half an acre of land, with the complete wind farm occupying more than 2,650 acres previously used for agriculture.

Incidents such as these worsen the power generation season for the windmills, which is already very short – five months between June and October every year.  This raises serious questions over their productivity, installation, and operating costs. 

Grid connectivity is not streamlined, so problems arise due to inconsistent supply from the windmills.  Local industries blame them for disruptions in power supply, eventually resulting in damage to expensive equipment.

While one can argue in favor of the little electricity these windmills produce, it remains to be seen how much loss has been incurred from their use of farm land, installation, and connectivity costs – and, of course, the costs of frequent disruptions from rain.

The locals, though, are seldom impressed by the little power these windmills generate.  They view them as a burden and prefer the reliable thermal and nuclear power in the state.

Reflecting this sentiment, and to meet growing energy demand, the Indian government recently approved installation of a 1,600-MW coal-based thermal power plant in Tamil Nadu at an estimated initial cost of $8.4 billion.  Unlike the windmills, projects like these will bring respite to factory owners and small industrial entrepreneurs who have been heavily impacted in the past decade because of energy deficiency.

The landscape in Udumalpet is dominated by windmills, the darlings of environmentalists around the world, but its agricultural fields, homes, and businesses depend on affordable and abundant thermal power.

Vijay Jayaraj, M.S., Environmental Science, University of East Anglia, England, is a research associate for developing countries for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, lives in Udumalpet, India.

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