Under the red sandstone steeple of Lockerbie Town Hall, late in February, an event took place that some top officials might prefer to keep quiet.
It was a public inquiry into a proposal to erect 21 wind turbines at nearby Newfield. If it were permitted, the ensuing 63 megawatts would produce enough power to satisfy more than 30,000 homes. That’s about seven Lockerbies, but still a relatively small amount of power – it’s not enough to get the population of regional capital Dumfries through a winter’s evening, for instance.
But behind this hillock of a wind farm is a mountain of restricted green energy that could, by some reckonings, add up to the equivalent of one of Scotland’s biggest traditional power stations. It is at the centre of a tale of angry wind farm developers, unyielding civil servants and heated controversy over scientific research.
Eskdalemuir is also prime wind farm territory. As well as the wild weather, it enjoys excellent grid connections and councils that have been relatively keen on turbines down the years. It is exactly the sort of place where the UK needs to build multiple green developments if it is to meet its 2020 renewable energy targets.
The surrounding area is home to a few unusual neighbours. There is the Samye Ling Buddhist retreat, the first Tibetan Buddhist centre to have been established in the West. There is also a British Geological Survey observatory and a Ministry of Defence site which has been there since 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and which is equipped with seismological equipment for detecting nuclear explosions as far as 10,000km away.
As one of several hundred such sites worldwide that discharge duties under the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty of 1996, its hi-tech ears picked up the Fukushima disaster in Japan and North Korea’s various nuclear tests.
The so-called Eskdalemuir Array would probably have remained in the shadows of the country’s national security activities were it not for the fact that the noise from turning wind turbine blades is capable of interfering with the site’s detection work. At the dawning of this new industry, the MoD duly imposed a total ban on wind farms within an 80km radius.
Then in the early 2000s the MoD was persuaded that this was unnecessarily draconian. In association with a working group set up by the then Scottish Executive, it devised a more flexible system with help from academics at Keele University in Staffordshire. This team was led by geologist Professor Peter Styles.
Under this new system, the MoD loosened its restrictions in 2005. It still banned all wind farms within a 10km radius, but then set a maximum amount of wind power within a 50km radius – to be available on a first-come, first-served basis only. This was based on a formula derived from the Keele work now known as the Styles Algorithm.
The amount of megawatts of power that this permitted depended on where in the restricted area the wind turbines went up. Based on figures from last autumn, 639MW of turbines have been built and another 288MW are either under construction or have received approval.
The MoD declared in 2009 that the “noise budget” threshold had been reached. The wind farm project that broke the camel’s back is called Earlshaugh – the MoD agreed to a couple of the 24 proposed turbines, but objected to the rest. The result is that a circle 100km wide, covering swathes of Dumfries and Galloway, the Borders, Cumbria and South Lanarkshire, is completely out of bounds for new wind farm proposals.
Developers have reacted in one of two ways. Many submitted proposals anyway, in the hope that either some projects with permission would fall by the wayside before they were built and free up space within the threshold, or that the authorities would reform the system and permit more wind farms. Consequently there are some 800MW of projects in planning limbo.
A second set of developers decided there was no point in wasting time submitting applications that would not go anywhere. But if the situation changed, it is believed that many would submit proposals. No-one knows how many projects are in this category, but sources suggest it adds up to hundreds of megawatts at least.
Some proposals in both camps would probably fail on other grounds, such as aesthetics, ecology and radar interference. Nevertheless, the MoD’s rules could be thwarting 2GW of potential green energy – enough to power about one-quarter of Scotland, and close to the size of output of Fife coal-powered behemoth, Longannet.
Three public inquiries have been triggered. One concerns two Cumbrian wind farms (of 18MW each), and is being handled by the English authorities. The other two, Rowantree (47.5MW) and Newfield, are on this side of the Border.
Rowantree and the English inquiry have both concluded and are respectively awaiting decisions from the Scottish Government and the Secretary of State for Energy. Both sets of developers challenge the MoD’s first-come, first-served procedure, contending that unbuilt projects should be removed from the noise budget. According to one source, this could allow several hundred megawatts of projects to progress.
Newfield, proposed by Wind Energy/AES, advances the same arguments but also challenges the science behind the Styles Algorithm and proposes a “mitigation” technology that would reduce the noise from the turbines.
If you are prepared to wade through the technical jargon, the legal submissions by Wind Energy/AES’s seismology expert, Dr Brett Marmo of Edinburgh-based Xi Engineering, make uneasy reading. They contend that the Styles team “grossly overestimated” the amount of noise vibration that wind turbines would cause in Eskdalemuir because its algorithm involved “significant errors”. These were to do with processing the units in relation to the velocity rather than the displacement of the vibrations.
Incredibly, the MoD’s technical expert, Dr David Bowers, agreed with this analysis in his own submissions. He conceded that when you use velocity rather than displacement, “it does result in a significantly smaller [multiplier in the formula, which would permit much more wind power]”.
But Bowers went on to argue that Styles’s work was flawed in another way: he concentrated on a frequency range of 4-5 hertz that was much too narrow. Once that band was widened, the wind farm threshold would stop any further development.
However, Marmo argued more turbines would be allowed – and twice as many again if the “mitigation technology” was used on every wind turbine in the zone, providing a total of about seven times the wind power.
The MoD did not accept the science behind mitigation technology, but the Wind Power/AES team argues this is beside the point. Given that the two sides broadly agreed on Styles, said Marmo, it indicated that about 3.6 times as much wind farm development should be permissible at Eskdalemuir.
According to several observers who sat through the four-day inquiry at Lockerbie Town Hall, when Bowers was asked by the Reporter whether the Styles system was fit for purpose, he simply replied “No”. The MoD’s own expert was essentially saying wind developers have been held back by an erroneous system for the past eight years.
Steve Hunter, AES’s project manager for Newfield, told the Sunday Herald: “Using velocity instead of displacement is a pretty fundamental error and it’s surprising to see that kind of error in a piece of work that’s been relied upon so much.”
The inquiry should have been completed last week, but the MoD is late with its final submissions. It refused to discuss the specifics of the inquiry while it is still live, except to say that the Styles work “remains the best available substantive research on this matter”.
In parallel, the Scottish Government reconvened the Eskdalemuir working group a year ago to look at ways of improving the situation. The group includes numerous interested wind developers, the MoD and the UK Department of Energy & Climate Change.
The MoD conceded at the first meeting last February that there was scope to reassess the system. The preliminary work is due to be completed in July, with a possible study to follow. Observers think it would be 2015 at the earliest before this led to any policy change, leading some to complain about the speed. No-one expects a decision from the Scottish Government on Newfield before the end of the year.
In a response to the Sunday Herald, Styles has robustly defended his research, and pointed out that he has offered to carry out further studies to take account of more modern turbines, as further funding from the DECC was available. He said: “For some reason, possibly due to pressure from certain developers and perhaps reluctance on the part of the MoD to change what was a workable procedure from their point of view, this was not carried out. I believe that there is now a plan to carry out a programme of research almost identical to that which I suggested several years ago to clarify these points.”
Styles said that the algorithm “has proved to be reasonably fit for purpose” in predicting the threshold for more disturbing vibrations at higher wind speeds.
He also denies that the use of the 4-5Hz band was an error in the 2005 work, as that was stipulated as a “frequency region where distant nuclear tests were particularly likely to arrive at the station”.
“The suggestion that a broader band from 0.5 to 8Hz should be considered was made at a much later time,” he said, adding that the wider band would “almost certainly further curtail the development of wind energy in the region”.
The MoD said: “The Eskdalemuir Working Group, which has been reconvened by the Scottish ministers, is considering commissioning further research to re-examine the Styles Report.
“Pending the outcome of this research, the Eskdalemuir Working Group will explore and provide recommendations on how further development can be undertaken within the consultation zone without prejudicing the safeguarding of the Seismological Array. The MoD is party to and supportive of the Working Group and considers that this is the appropriate forum to take this work forward.”
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