With the UK on the verge of a ‘green’ industrial revolution the number of wind farms are likely to increase. But the nation is divided over their suitability and visual appearance.
It doesn’t seem that long ago that Greenpeace demonstrators were out in force over the building of nuclear power stations in the UK.
And as the future of nuclear power in the UK hangs in the balance those dissenting voices are once again shouting to be heard. But they aren’t the only campaigners. With global warming firmly on the political agenda, governments are keen to find eco-friendly power sources offering both security of supply and reduced carbon emissions.
Earlier this year Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond vowed to make 80% of the country’s electricity supply green by 2020. It’s an ambitious target and, on face value, a laudable one as the warnings over climate change become realities.
And last week Environment Secretary, Chris Huhne, announced that the UK would reduce its carbon emissions by half by 2027 setting a precedent for the rest of Europe.
For wind farm manufacturers the greening of the UK’s political agenda couldn’t be better news. Already well established across Europe particularly in Scandinavia, Germany and Holland, wind farms are being hailed as the clean alternative to fossil fuels – and a safer one to nuclear power.
Other carbon friendly sources of power such as clean coal and carbon and capture and storage (CCS) are still some way off from being a reality. Moreover, they need massive investment.
However, saving the planet wasn’t ever going to be that simple. Although the erection of wind turbines has an insignificant environmental footprint compared to the building of a power station their presence in the British countryside is seemingly unwelcome.
In fact, few planning applications escape the wrath of local residents determined to preserve the horizon in aspic although many embrace the principle of renewable energy. But while hydro-electric and tidal power schemes provoke less negative attention wind farms are a bit more ‘Marmite’. People are either absolutely for or against them.
The arguments against are invariably based on the same concerns. That wind farms reduce nearby house prices, they’re noisy, have a negative effect on tourism, are heavily subsidised, and use more energy than they generate. There are also allegations that they have a negative impact on local wildlife such as migrating birds and bats.
The British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) has responses to all the above.
It argues that recent UK studies show no clear relationship between the proximity of wind farms and property prices adding that a survey by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors on the potential impact of wind farms on house prices concluded that ‘proximity to a wind farm simply was not an issue’.
Similarly a Scottish Executive study found that those living nearest to operating wind farms are their strongest advocates stating ‘the overwhelming majority of people living within 20 km of a wind farm support an increase in the proportion of electricity generates in Scotland through the use of wind power over the coming 15 years (82%) while just 2% feel their should be a reduction.
The body also refutes accusations that wind farms damage tourism. A Scottish government report in 2008 showed developments have a minimum impact on tourism with 93-99% of visitors surveyed saying they had no impact on their decision to return to Scotland. Around 70% were positive that “well sited” wind farms did not ruin the landscape while 12% were neutral.
In 2007, Salford University published a report stating that out of 133 wind farms in operation only one had been found guilty of causing a nuisance to local residents.
As for efficiency concerns, three reports commissioned by the National Grid, energy firm Poyry and non-govermental organisations (NGOs) came to the same conclusion – that large amounts of wind energy capacity on the system need relatively small amounts of ‘back up’.
The BWEA claims that once the UK has 33GW of installed wind capacity only around 7GW to 10GW will be required as back up up from around 3.5GW used today. Moreover, it estimates that the 4GW of installed wind energy capacity is already saving six million tonnes of coal per year and the associated CO2 emission of more than 4.3 million tonnes of CO2 annually.
Existing coal and oil-fired power stations are around 33% efficient as a result of the energy used to produce electricity at a constant rate no matter what the level of demand. It’s a problem that Cruachan Power Station beautifully exploits as it captures and stores ‘off-peak’ electricity. Moreover, it only takes two minutes for the hydro-electric power station to come ‘on-line’.
Finally, the BWEA argues that the planning and construction of wind farms is entirely financed by the private sector.
But still the protesters are out in numbers most recently for the proposed Clachan Wind Farm on Seil Island, North Argyll. Although a formal application has not yet been submitted locals have formed a group – People Against Clachan Turbines (PACT) – to voice their concerns.
No-one was available for comment from PACT at the time of writing this feature.
Rory Young, the developer behind Clachan WInd Farm, whose family has farmed in the area for more than 30 years, says he has tried his best to be sensitive over the issues raised.
‘I understand their concerns,’ he says.
“They are the ones who live here and many have moved to this beautiful area to retire. It’s natural they want to protect it.”
He adds that he has consulted with Kilninver and Kilmelford, Seil and Luing community councils and in response to concerns has altered the layout of the farm and reduced the number of turbines from 11 to nine. Particular attention has been given to the importance of tourism to the local economy and Clachan Wind Farm has proposed to create a website to provide advertising for local tourist businesses and events free of charge.
Young also argues that wind farms can in fact boost tourism such as the success of Whitelee Wind Farm, near Fenwick, which attracted 120,000 visitors in its first 12 months. Enquiries to other wind farms such as Tiree, Tangy, Bein Ghlas and Ardrossan have revealed no detrimental effects to tourism.
There’s also a potential financial benefit. If planning is granted, the communities could benefit either from a financial contribution of around 3% of the annual turnover, which could give up to 80,000 or 10,000/MW installed. The money could then be used to support local businesses, residents and students. Another alternative is the gifting of a consented site for the installation of a community owned wind turbine.
Other schemes have seen the gifting or purchase of several turbines, the profits of which are diverted into a community trust. Alt Dearg, near Lochgilphead is one such example while Neilston in East Renfrewshire have opted for a joint venture model.
Young hopes that working closely with the residents will result in support for the wind farm. However, a similar strategy adopted by the developers behind nearby Raera Forest wind farm failed to woo residents or the support of the community councils and the proposal was rejected by Argyll & Bute Council in December.
According to Michael Russell, newly elected MSP for Argyll & Bute, community support is vital to any renewable energy proposal.
‘The important thing about all these developments is that the community’s views are take into account,’ he says. ‘To get a plan through, developers need to pay attention to community concerns.’
And community pressure is powerful. Earlier this year, Scottish and Southern Electric (SSE) abandoned controversial plans for an offshore wind farm at Machrahanish although it cited its decision on the negative impact on pleasure sailing rather than caving in to public opinion. Somewhat ironically, the group announced a joint venture with Marsh Wind Technology in March to secure the future of turbine manufacturer Skykon, which had gone into administration.
The deal, which has now been secured, includes new facilities for the production of turbine tower for offshore wind farms at the site is almost complete enabling it to participate in the next phase of offshore wind developments.
According to Dave Youngman, of Argyll-based R&D Engineering Consultants, communities should appreciate just how much influence they have over planning decisions.
‘In Germany, the government offered to match every 1MW of ‘green’ energy produced. As a result, wind farms have been put up in where wind levels are poor. The UK incentive is much more plausible.’
He adds that community involvement can be in many forms either wholly owned as in the case of Gigha, partnerships like Alt Dearg or simple financial arrangement.
‘In all cases it benefits the community to take advantage of the opportunity to share in income derived from local resources.’
Youngman also believes that the majority of people understand the urgency to develop alternative energy sources to help reduce carbon emissions but overlook the importance of security of supply.
‘The UK has to import oil and gas, often from volatile nations, and prices are high,’ he says.
‘In Europe, reducing carbon emission isn’t the main incentive for renewable energy. Supply security is. After all wind is free.’
He argues that although wind farms may be a compromise other alternatives aren’t realistic.
‘Whether wind power is to be a permanent component of the energy mix or not there is no doubt at this moment it is both the simplest and cheapest method of electricity generation among the alternatives. It lends itself to mass production and may be decommissioned and recycled very cheaply, the fuel resource is free and onshore wind required no significant infrastructure or operation cost.
‘The variable nature of wind energy is cause for concern but energy storage will be addressed in time.’
So with wind farms on and offshore creating such heated debate just how is the UK going to reduce its carbon emissions? Admittedly a good number of proposals aren’t appropriate and don’t deserve to go ahead. Developers need to listen to concerns and to make amends or compromises to ensure permissions are granted.
But will the views of protesters stifle what is surely a good move for the planet no matter the glitches? With few alternatives on the table and a recent report from an independent nuclear expert who claims that few if any changes need to be made to plans and models for a new British nuclear fleet, rejecting wind farms could prove a gamble to far.
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