The march of the wind turbine

The one thing you can say about Britain is that it’s windy. Until recently, this may have seemed a rather doubtful benefit, but, as fossil-fuel prices rise, and the EU imposes ever stiffer targets on reducing carbon-dioxide emissions, wind is increasingly being seen, in some quarters, as an asset. According to the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA), Britain possesses as much as 40% of the entire ‘wind resource’ in Europe. How best to exploit it, however, remains the subject of heated debate. Your reaction to wind turbines depends, literally, on how you see them.

If you’re Tim and Debbie Allard, at Whistley Farm outside Milton on Stour in Dorset, the arrival of one 550 yards away from your house could loom very large indeed. ‘It’s a small farm, and we have diversified into renting out two log cabins by the lake,’ says Tim. ‘The first thing people will see at the end of the drive is a 400ft turbine.’

The Allards would receive no compensation, with only the possibility of a reduction in their Council Tax as an acknowledgement that their house will be worth less. ‘At the moment, it’s like the gold rush. The energy companies would put them in every field if they got their way.’ To the developers behind such schemes, however, the visual impact seems far less intrusive. In the material they bring before planning committees, turbines perform a disappearing act worthy of the Great Houdini: they become practically invisible. It seems to John Constable, a Cambridge academic-turned-director of the Renewable Energy Foundation, who happens also to be a descendant of the great landscape painter of the same name, that some of the planners are not playing fair.

‘Photomontage is an important ingredient of the planning process,’ he states. Although the Scottish Parliament recently adopted rules for how visualisations should be produced, there is no formal standard in England or Wales. Not everybody hates wind farms. According to a spokesman for the electricity giant EdF, the Durham Wildlife Trust requested that a parking area and picnic tables should be sited next to one development.

Indeed, Britain’s first wind farm, built at Delabole in Cornwall in 1991, has become something of a tourist attraction. On a more local scale, communities and individuals across Britian are becoming excited by the prospect of producing Green electricity that can be sold to the National Grid. Over the past year, the number of small wind projects has increased by 80%. Alex Murley, small systems manager at BWEA, expects the numbers to rise from 6,500 now to ‘hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions’ over the next 20 years.

Since Delabole, the scale of the turbines has grown, the new generation being twice as tall as the old ones. (Their design is changing, too: out with whirligig blades, in with a more efficient, cylindrical shape.) And the novelty has worn off. To date, 189 wind farms have been built around Great Britain, and there are an additional 42 under construction. More than as many sites again 264 in total are being considered. Having started late in the production of renewable energy, Britain is already overtaking Denmark as the biggest producer of wind energy in the world.

Most wind farms are bitterly contested by the people living nearby. In remote areas of Scotland, developers have won acceptance through the simple expedient of offering sums of cash for community projects, and, in October, the CPRE revealed that the practice has begun to take hold south of the border. Not that sweeteners will sugar the pill for everyone: wind farms tend to be sited in wild and hilly areas such as southern Scotland, Northern Ireland, Cumbria, Northumberland, Cornwall and Wales (although there is also a concentration in East Anglia). These are often beautiful landscapes. With the exception of a single turbine for which permission has been given at Glyndebourne, in East Sussex, none is projected for a national park, but in the Lake District and elsewhere, they are ringing the outer boundaries.

Public opposition to onshore wind farms has forced the industry to turn its eyes increasingly to Britain’s windy shoreline. Compared to the half-dozen turbines that comprise the average wind farm on land, the scale of offshore developments is massive. More than 270 turbines are proposed for the London Array in the outer Thames Estuary, the world’s largest offshore wind farm, being built by the energy company E.ON, Dong Energy and Masdar (which recently bought a 20% stake in the project), a business vehicle owned by the Abu Dhabi government.

The blades of each turbine will be longer than a football pitch. Eventually, about 5,000 will be constructed around  Britain’s coast—only 206 turbines have been built so far. Nearly all the sites are in the shallow waters along the east coast of England or between Anglesey and the Solway Firth. Offshore wind farms will contribute about the same proportion (4%) of Britain’s electricity supply as onshore ones by 2010. Just before he left office, Tony Blair committed Britain to producing 20% of our energy from renewables by 2020.

His Government had always favoured wind power as the Green technology of choice, not least because it cost the Treasury less than major infrastructure projects such as the Severn Barrage would have done, and it avoided having to take a decision about a new generation of nuclear power stations. Now, with time running out, wind is the only form of renewable energy capable of being built on a big enough scale to meet the deadline. Critics maintain that an over-reliance on large-scale wind generation is storing up problems beyond the eyesore of power lines marching through Scottish glens.

Although cheap to the Government, as wind farms are largely financed through the trade in Renewable Obligation Certificates, which energy companies must obtain to show that they have met their Green targets, it is charged to the consumer through higher electricity bills. Earlier this year, the former Government chief scientist Sir David King wrote a powerful book about the imminence of climate change, Hot Topic. Yet even he believes that too great a
reliance on wind ‘would become a major problem’. Not least, the rising cost of electricity will push more people into fuel poverty. There is also the strain that wind, an intermittent power source, puts on the National Grid. As yet, no method exists for storing the surplus energy produced by industrial wind farms. Too much energy from wind, fed unexpectedly into the National Grid, could cause power cuts.

The need for back-up systems of generation to take up the slack when the wind doesn’t blow means a greater reliance on gas. Could our dependency on wind power prove as great a blunder as the failure to spot the dangers that lurked unnoticed in the financial markets? If so, people like the Allards won’t be the only ones paying the price.

The downside of wind farms

If a wind turbine is built near your home, rather than being given compensation, you may merely receive a reduction in Council Tax

More than 270 turbines are proposed for the London Array, in the outer Thames
Estuary, the world’s largest offshore wind farm. The blades of these turbines will be longer than a football pitch

There will eventually be 5,000 giant wind turbines around the British  coast—there are currently only 206 smaller ones

Tony Blair committed Britain to producing 20% of energy from renewable sources by 2020, and wind is now the only form of energy capable of being built in time to reach the target

Wind farms are cheap to the Government, because they’re largely financed through the trade in Renewable Obligation Certificates, which energy companies must obtain to show that they have met their Green targets. However, costs can then be charged to the consumer through higher electricity bills Wind, an intermittent power source, could put strain on the National Grid.

No method exists for storing the surplus energy produced by industrial wind farms. Power cuts could be caused by too much energy from wind fed unexpectedly into the National Grid There could be a greater reliance on gas to power back-up systems for when wind fails to blow

Wind farm statistics                    

There are 189 wind farms in Great Britain

A further 42 are under construction, with 264 sites being considered for planning

Currently, there are seven different offshore sites around the UK, comprising 206 turbines altogether

One wind turbine at a reasonably windy site produces more than 4.7 million units of electricity each year, enough to meet the annual needs of more than 1,000 households

According to the British Wind Energy Association, the UK will require 5,000 giant offshore turbines by 2020, or 8,000 of the existing smaller ones, to meet EU targets

UK wind energy costs up to 2020 are estimated at £64 billion

Wildlife issues

The rotating blades produce a change in air pressure that can kill bats. They use echo-location to avoid hitting the blades, but can’t detect the sharp pressure changes around the turbine The RSPB argues that wind farms can harm birds through disturbance, collision and habitat loss. Wind farms are sometimes located near major migration routes and important feeding, breeding and roosting areas of those bird species known or suspected to be at risk