Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Wind farms - some thoughts



The Walkway Wind Farm at Wynyard, when it was under construction

I suspect that the planning application submitted by Banks Ltd for a wind farm to the north east of Barmpton will attract a lot of interest - and not just in the village itself.

The role of the Council, of course, is not to take sides for or against the principle of wind farms when dealing with applications, but to ensure that the proposal is dealt with fairly and in accordance with established planning rules and guidelines. Local residents need to be heard, and so it is helpful that the company have scheduled a fresh round of consultation sessions in the rural (Sadberge) and urban (Harrowgate Hill) areas.

Anyone who's taken a passing interest in the issue will know that passions run high on the matter - wind farms are either gigantic white elephants, sucking in public subsidy whilst making a neglible contribution to the country's energy needs, or they're part of the only solution to the energy crisis avaiable.

As I'm not on the Planning Committee, I can publicly declare where I stand on the matter. I'm all for wind farms. I believe that wind, wave and solar technology will play a key role in replacing our reliance on fossil fuels in the future. At the same time (and this is where I part company from some in the environmental movement), I agree that an expansion of the nuclear energy programme is essential if we are to bridge the gap between the current energy production mix, and a time when renewable technology has moved ahead and can provide for all of our needs.

Personally, I don't agree with the argument that condemns wind farms as blots on the landscape. I respect people who hold this view, but I find wind turbines striking and attractive additions to the landscape. Given the proliferation of static, dull, intrusive electricity pylons across our countryside, I can't see how wind farms detract.

Still there are other, more tangible arguments about winds farms, currently being played out in local communities the length and breadth of the Great Britain. It's important that planning authorities retain the confidence of their residents in dealing with applications about wind farms, whatever the outcome. So I was pleased that plenty of training has been laid on for Planning Committee members about the issues that characterise these applications, and on Tuesday members visited the Walkway site near Wynyard to hear how a neighbouring planning authority dealt with the issue, and to see for themselves up close what these turbines are actually like. Given my portfolio, and interest in this matter, I joined them.

It was a chance to explore issues such as how far turbines should be sited away from houses. Noise and light flicker are also important considerations.

Helpfully, it was a very blustery day, and the turbines were operating at their maximum capacity. You could certainly hear the machinery from 300 metres - but it was a swishing and not unpleasant sound. As we walked underneath one of the turbines, we watched the shadows of the sails against a nearby wood as the sun moved from behind the clouds.

I can't speak for members of the committee, who had contrasting thoughts and questions, but I came away with a sense of the complexity of these matters - what is appropriate and right in one site will be unacceptable elsewhere. Not just the proximity of houses, but the extent to which there is background noise (from a nearby road, for example) and even in which direction houses' windows face could all be critical considerations.

I understand that the application for Barmpton is being formally lodged by Banks next week.

18 comments:

miketually said...

I think we probably feel the same way about wind turbines and I, like many environmentalists (even Monbiot if certain conditions are met), am resigned to nuclear as a short-term stop gap.

There's an interesting class element to the arguments against wind turbines.

Wind turbines tend to need to be built in pretty places, where lots of middle class people live. The Campaign to Protect Rural England lodges complaints against many/most/all.

Open cast coal mining tends to take place in former coal fields, where rather less middle class people live. How many complaints against expansion of open cast coal mines do you think the CPRE have lodged?

david walsh said...

Good comment pal !

Another point that amuses me is that the same people who campaign against wind farms will probably be the same people who would venerate an old wooden windmill from the last 200 years if it was in their village !

Mike Barker said...

The most beautiful wind turbine, and the biggest in the country, is in my home town of Reading, in Green Park right next to the M4 beside the even more beautiful Madejski Stadium. People down there love it!

Go to www.ecotricity.co.uk to see how much energy it produces and carbon it saves. The figures are impressive.

There are some great photos of the turbine on this website. Frankly, I don't see it as being any more intrusive or less beautiful than The Angel of the North.

Paul Cain said...

The attempt to make this a class issue is beyond parody.

Dave Spart is alive and well.

So, only middle-class people live in the countryside, eh?

Councillor Wallis, who as we know from his blog moved to a rural location last year, should contribute here.

I've got a fair idea of the general area in which he lives. I happen to know a lot of families who live within, say, 5 miles of him.

I'm certain he'll agree with me that the area, although rural, is far from the land-owning, get-rich-on-the-backs-of-the-workers idyll.

Also, as a native of Northumberland, which has and has had its fair share of opencasting, I know it's simply not true that organisations of the ilk of the CPRE do not object.

Also, opencasting tends to bring vital local jobs and are generally welcomed by local populations, at least in my experience, as a result.

Windfarms aren't known for their local employment opportunities.

Credit where it's due: Councillor Wallis recognizes that there is complexity in this issue. He, at least, does not appear to have a stupid chip on his shoulder regarding 'class' on this very important issue.

Long may that continue.

miketually said...

As of December last year, CPRE had not opposed an open cast mine expansion: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/video/2008/dec/18/monbiot-cpre-wind-coal?commentpage=1

ian h said...

Like many, my views on this are not cast in stone.
I believe that windfarms do have a valuable role to play and we must avoid objections simply on the grounds of "nimbyism"
Of course, there can be very real reasons to object to specific locations. ie near airports etc. I also understand that they can develope a significant amount of noise and this must be taken into account in relation to residential properties.

I do think however, that there are very significant areas across the country that would not be significantly or negatively impacted upon by windfarms, and all proposals should be examined on their merits, rather than taking a dogmatic aproach either for or against (and for gawds sake dont make it a "class" issue!)

Anonymous said...

Is Cyndi Hughes the leader in waiting? Good press today with her at Polam addressing the gals.

Anonymous said...

God Forbid!

Anonymous said...

See Paul Bielby in the Echo has called for Jonno and Ada to quit over lousy sports facilities in Darlington. And so say all of us.

Anonymous said...

Windy Miller says......

Can I ask a perhaps obvious question please? What happens if the wind drops, as it frequently does, and the turbines do not turn? Will whole swathes of Darlington be plunged into darkness and the computers, TVs, fridges etc etc all go off until the wind picks up again? Will we have to all go out and buy back up generators?

Over to you Mike Tually.

Darlington Councillor said...

Or me. From our briefing at the Walkway site, I understand that the turbines operate around 30% of the time. The power they generate feeds into the national grid, and is not specific to a particular locality - although windfarm applicants are fond of saying that a particular development could meet the needs of local community x

So there will be the 'back-up' of nuclear and other power plants to meet the needs of the nation when there doesn't happen to be any wind.

Longer-term, as sustainable forms of power develop, I'm sure we will be using tidal power, which will produce more consistent power. That's still a little way off, however.

miketually said...

The wind turbines feed into the national grid, and it's generally windy somewhere.

I believe that there are also plans for a Europe wide electricity grid, using different voltages, to transfer the energy longer distances without the transmission losses that current technology causes over longer distances.

Then there's the option of using the energy produced by the turbines overnight when demand is lower to recharges energy stores, by pumping water uphill to use in hydro schemes, for example, or in hydrogen storage.

I've even seen it suggested that banks of electric car batteries could be used as stores, and used to even out demand and production.

Combined with a much lower demand for energy as people switch to more efficient appliances and habits at home and in industry, there's every reason to believe that, in the long term, we can produce all our energy from sustainable means.

We're going to run out of fuel for nuclear generation very soon, and coal and oil is going to get more and more expensive as supplies dwindle, so doing nothing isn't really an option, even if you don't believe in man made climate change.

ian h said...

mmmmm, some rather dodgy ideas there mike.
the idea of using banks of electric car batteries is far from green. As i understand it, the latest battery technology is Lithium Polymer,(as in mobile phones)which is made up of many hard to extract natural occuring materials, it is also very expensive, explosive and poisoness.
All very green then!

(bit like the wonders of catalytic converters on cars...cleaning up their emissions but using lots of expensive to extract precious metals...)

Paul Cain said...

This link is worth a read:

http://www.stopbrixworthwindfarm.co.uk/english-wind-farm-efficiency/

It's the site of an anti-wind farm organisation, but the paper is written by the London Metropolitan Business School.

It makes some very valid general points about wind farms that ought to be digested and understood.

It recognizes that windfarms are a large-ish potential source of energy, but lays stress on the environmental and social impacts they have.

There are also some useful figures about the potential for energy production from windfarms.

Basically, it says the government takes the claimed load factor (in simple terms the amount of energy the turbine is designed to produce) and expects it to produce about 30 per cent of that figure, on average, per year, taking into account factors such as variable windspeeds.

However, its study of 81 onshore windfarms across the UK shows that the actual load factor production is only 22.8 per cent, rising to 24.5 if weighting according to capacity is introduced.

Generally, turbines do not operate in too light winds, or where it's blowing a gale: the cut off is under 4 metres per second, or above 24 metres per second, the latter for safety reasons.

Councillor Wallis, in his original post, said he could hear a swishing sound from 300 metres away from the windfarm he visited.

This paper states: "Research evidence from the UK (for example by Dr. Amanda Harry) and elsewhere (for example by Dr. G.P. van den Berg) points to noise and adverse health effects for occupants in houses up to at least 1.5 miles from a wind turbine"

Draw a circle 1.5 miles around the planned site, and you've got a hell of a lot of the Whinfield area, I imagine.

Councillor?

It would be good to know the mean windspeeds at the proposed site. There must be weather data available: on how many days a year is the wind under 4 m/s; on how many days is it above 24m/s?

Let's have the figures so we can judge for ourselves.

Other issues are raised, which may, or may not, be relevant to the Barmpton plan: will the wind farm be subsidised by our electricity bills, as others are?

I post this link to add, I hope, to the debate. This is a complex situation and happily the Councillor seems to recognise this.

Paul Cain said...

Apologies, but one further point from the link I have just posted.

The appendix lists the capacity factor of all 81 wind farms in the study.

Tow Law (notoriously windy: ask Mike Amos) has a capacity factor of 21 per cent; Nissan of 21 per cent also.

Two others leap out: Barnard Castle and Blyth Harbour.

It's interesting to note that Blyth and Barney are almost at the bottom of the list in load capacity, producing only about 10 percent of their designed capacity.

Is it reasonable to suggest that this demonstrates wind speed variations across the North East which make any wind farm here a bit of a dodgy idea, on efficiency grounds?

Make your own mind up. But the performance of these four (relatively local) wind farms isn't all that impressive, and is nowhere near the 30 percent capacity factor threshold planning rules seem to assume.

Councillor: are you aware of what the capacity factor assumption will be in the Barmpton plan? Could you tell us please?

Ian W said...

I wonder why with all the remote countryside we have why they always are proposed near to residential property, why not build them way up on the moors out of sight and sound of all but the odd farmer.

Anonymous said...

Good points Ian W.

I have no objection to wind farms being up in the high Pennines - "the wild and windy hills" of Kate Bush's hit song about Heathcliffe and Kathy.

I wonder if wind farms are or will be effective in this area because we are in a valley between the Pennines on one side and the Cleveland and Hambleton Hills on the other side. Surely wind farms should be situated where the wind is greatest and that is in the high hill lands.

Anonymous said...

I favour community owned renewables - that way more problematic projects like wind farms can be dealt with in a more equitable manner and the benefits can be shared.

james