How Britain's Wind Turbine Controversy Blows Oop Narth

By Tom Pritchard on at

Energy production always manages to cause a great deal of tension in this country, and certain people in power are even trying their very best to get on-shore wind farms banned. I live in Rochdale, which is roughly ten miles north of Manchester, the home of the largest on-shore wind farm in the country – Scout Moor.

Scout Moor currently has 26 turbines that generate roughly 40 per cent of Rochdale’s total energy, with an average capacity of 27 per cent efficiency. That’s roughly 154,000 MWh of energy a year. Each turbine is 100 metres high (a 60 metre body, plus three 40 metre blades), and are able to rotate to face the incoming wind. The site also reportedly displaces around 160,000 tonnes of atmospheric CO2 every year.

Plans are currently in motion that will see the existing wind farm site double in size, as well as construction of a new wind farm on the adjacent Rooley Moor. Rochdale is no different from the rest of the country, and there are people here who are stirring up a huge fuss about these plans. In fact some groups, local politicians especially, seem to be losing their minds over the prospect of having more turbines constructed. While both sites are being protested, it’s worth mentioning that the expansion on Scout Moot received planning permission in 2010 and will go ahead at some time in the near future. Rooley Moor, on the other hand, is still in the initial planning stages and no proposals have been submitted for approval.


"But They're Ugly!"

What needs to be understood right now is why people don’t like wind power, so let’s talk about that. I have come across a number of reasons, ranging from fairly sensible and reasoned, to downright stupid. The most prominent anti-wind-farm argument, by far, is the opinion that they are unsightly or ugly. Back in 2007 before the original Scout Moor site had finished construction, Catherine Dilling -- a Lib Dem councillor from Rossendale -- was quoted as saying that, “Rossendale is an area of outstanding beauty, and you have to ask: Would they be building a similar thing in the Lake District?"
Hindsight, as they say, is a bitch, because over the past seven years multiple wind farm sites have been constructed in the Lake District, and more are on their way.

There is some logic to the idea that they’re an eyesore. If you want to see a landscape that has been untouched by human hands, then the Lancashire hills aren't a bad place to find it (just don’t look south or you’ll get a lovely man-made view of Manchester). Let’s face it; enormous white windmills don’t exactly scream discretion. But consider the following picture, one is of the current site at Scout Moor and the other is of the San Gorgonio Pass wind farm outside of Palm Springs, California.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The San Gorgonio site is an eyesore; there is no doubt about it. As a child I always assumed wind turbines were there for decoration, since they tend to be spaced out and more in tune to the natural landscape in this country. San Gorgonio, on the other hand, is so industrial in design that there's no hiding what it’s there for.

Now, I like wind turbines. I vividly remember driving past them on the way to visit my grandparents in Anglesey -- seeing them pop over the horizon meant that the long journey was nearly at an end. But let’s ignore my opinion for a second, and compare wind farms to other, more traditional, forms of energy production: coal, nuclear, and oil 1.  

Fiddler's Ferry Coal Fired Power Station, Cheshire. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Wylfa Nuclear Power Station, Anglesey. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Stanlow Oil Refinery, Chesire. Source: Wikimedia Commons

I may be biased, but I think wind farms are definitely the least horrific to look at. They stick out, sure, but I think that they’re a much nicer sight than the other three. Some people may well think they're why not get local school children to decorate them? Some have already started!

Obviously I'm joking; decorating existing wind turbines is going to break more than a dozen health and safety laws, but if new turbines can be made to look more interesting then it’s worth giving it a go. Just without doodles of male genitalia.

Image: Tom Pritchard, 2014


"But They're Noisy!"

As always, noise is also a major concern. While construction will cause an increase in the amount of traffic to and from the sites, people are more concerned about the noise after the new turbines are operational. Construction is a limited time period, but the turbines will be there for another 25 year or so. The turbines themselves do make noise, some from the spinning of the blades and some from the machinery inside. For Scout Moor residents this isn't an issue because the turbines are well out of the way of any residential areas.

Rooley Moor however is close to a fairly sizeable residential area, so some people’s homes will be affected by the noise. Those even closer to the site will be faced with another issue of a whole other kind -- tourists. Since Scout Moor opened in 2008, the turbines have become a minor tourist attraction. If you go up on any semi-nice day the area is filled with people: dog walkers, ramblers, families, and various other people who want to have a closer look. Residents do have concerns that having turbines on Rooley Moor will increase the already significant levels of traffic in the area.

It's not just humans who will be affected. Horses are remarkable stupid creatures when it comes to dealing with loud noises, and Rooley Moor is the home to a national bridleway. It just so happens that the proposed wind farm is right in the middle. I've seen a horse lose it over a plastic bag flying around in the wind, so imagine what they’ll do about the noise from turbines, and more importantly, the construction of said turbines. The British horse Society (BHS) have guidelines for such situations -- guidelines that aim to minimise the impact turbine noise will have on horses in the area. The guidelines state that all turbines should be at least 200m3 (or three times the blade tip length, whichever is greater) away from any route that sees heavy equine traffic. As it stands, the planned site does not adhere to these guidelines – a rather pointless obstruction that could be rectified very easily at this stage.


Fighting Back

It is worth noting, at this point, that the local authorities are being very particular about which objections they actually file. As it turns out, any objections that rely solely on the basis of wind turbines being “ugly”, “unsightly”, or anything else along those lines, will be ignored -- sorry Mr. Cameron. Similarly multiple objections that are identical (word-for-word), are only recorded as a single objection.

The local authorities have almost no stake in this whatsoever, and there is no financial incentive for them to support construction. This is because the wind farms are owned and maintained by private companies, rather than a governmental body, and all the subsidies and profits go to the owners of the site.

In the interest of fairness, it's important to highlight a few of the...less-informed arguments opposing wind farms. One person I spoke to suggested that wind farms are “a waste of land,” because “we’re a small country and we haven’t got much room.” This is Britain we’re talking about, not Singapore; over 10 per cent of our population (as of the 2012 census) lives in Greater London alone. For scale, the total area of Great Britain is 148 times larger than Greater London. With this in mind, remember that most of the land that on-shore wind farms are built on is only really suitable for grazing livestock. All-in-all this argument is not just illogical, it’s downright stupid.

As happens with concepts that people don’t agree with, there are many rumours spreading around local circles on how they can try and fight back, or prevent the turbines from being built. The one that I found rather interesting is that some people are claiming that all wind farm subsidies are due to expire in 2017, and if they can delay the plans until that time then they would be halted indefinitely. This intrigued me. I can’t say renewable energy subsidies are my speciality (everyone here knows it’s apps), and my initial research didn’t come up with anything conclusive or reputable – just rumours that the government would discuss the possibility of reducing, but not cancelling, wind farm subsidies later this year. Then it came out that the Tories do in fact want to end subsidies for new wind farms, so I honestly have no idea what’s actually going on any more.

After trying to get hold of people in the know, I hit some luck and was able to get in touch with Alex Cook, a post-grad student studying Environmental Technology (specifically related to energy production) at the University of Hull.

Alex outlined his research to me, which included the information that plans to stall construction will only achieve short term delays, and in the grand scheme of things it’ll just be a blip in the timeline of the overall project. If companies want to build wind farms, then they’ll find a way to do so.

Regarding the subsidies, he noted that the whole topic is very political and often depends on which political party is in power at the time. Even if the ruling party does stop all subsidies, they will inevitably make a comeback and make it more economical for wind farms to be constructed again. Over many years subsidies may well see an overall decrease in gross value (such as a 20 per cent drop expected this month), but that is usually related to the fact that cheaper, more efficient, technology has become available – so the companies involved will usually end up with the same level of financial benefit. That’s quite a blow to anyone who thought this course of action was an option.


Sustainable Energy Production

Wind power is not the only sustainable method of energy production of course; there are plenty of others out there to choose from that manage to generate electricity without emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (sorry biomass). Some of these, like geothermal or hydro electric power (HEP), are not entirely feasible because they are restricted by a range of geographical and geological factors. Geothermal, which provides a massive amount of power to Iceland, is not possible simply because we’re nowhere near areas of volcanic activity -- without which, geothermal energy is impossible. Similarly, HEP is restricted by the local geography and the UK has already built HEP stations in the majority of worthwhile locations.

Also high on the impossibility scale is nuclear fusion. While it is a constant trope in futuristic science-fiction, and advances in research are happening all the time, it has yet to prove economically viable -- some claim it never will be. There is also nuclear fission, which some see as a major possibility since it does not produce any of the nasty emissions associated with fossil fuels. The problem is that nuclear power, as it currently stands, is not a sustainable form of energy production. It may be far more efficient than fossil fuels, but it still requires a fuel source (in the current iteration that fuel is Uranium). While some of the by-products can be recycled and used again, some of it is used up in the process, making it a finite resource. Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way against nuclear power, but I have to acknowledge that it has its limitations.

Let’s not forget that a large proportion of the general public are still wary, and in some cases terrified, of the negative results of nuclear power. Major incidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima haven’t done much to change this sort of opinion either. The amount of controversy surrounding building a wind farm would be nothing compared to the backlash that would occur if someone proposed building a nuclear power station in the same place.

I could talk about this all day, but I can’t so I’ll move things along.

The only sustainable options that will be made available en-masse in the near future are restricted to wind, tidal, wave, and solar (to an extent). Each of which also have their own limitations. Both tidal and wave still require large amounts of investment and research to make, then work, in the long term. Solar panels may be getting cheaper all the time, but they are still relatively expensive and their effectiveness is diminished by the British climate’s distinct lack of sunshine (though this issue hasn't deterred Rochdale Council, which is considering plans to open Greater Manchester’s first publicly-owned solar farm).

Regardless of your opinion of wind farms, or renewable energy in general, the fact is that it does work. While it's true that throughout 2013 wind energy only accounted for five per cent of the total energy consumed in the UK, last December saw the amount of electricity produced by wind turbines reach record highs. Over the course of the month, wind turbines produced 10 per cent of the UK’s total consumption, and the 21st of December was extremely significant as it saw 17 per cent of the UK’s electricity demand met by wind power – the third highest, after coal and nuclear. This isn't restricted to the UK either; in November last year Norway managed to meet 100 per cent of its electricity needs through wind power alone. Again, that was only on a single day, but it is promising news for the future.

While the Conservative Party recently outlined plans that might see a ban on new on-shore wind farms, Nick Clegg finally decided to grow a pair and veto the proposal. My issue is that, while the Tories seem very big on the idea of fracking, we cannot rely on fossil fuels forever. It might not be in our lifetime, but it’s inevitable, that they will run out. In the coming decades as our supplies dwindle, we will see the price of fuel rise. Look at petrol prices over the last few decades and you’ll see what I mean. It may dip as new resources are found, but these are only temporary solutions. As it is right now, renewable and sustainable energy production might not be as efficient as we’re used to, nor is it particularly cheap, but if we don’t invest in it now then they will never be up to scratch. As technology improves it will become cheaper and more efficient, and we will then see the overall cost of energy production decrease.

Remember, a 10MB hard drive used to cost many thousands of pounds, but now the cost is so pitiful I'm not going to bother working it out.


There Must Be Other Solutions, Surely?

Wind power on its own isn't the answer to all our problems. Instead, we need to invest in every sustainable option available to us and implement them across the country – but only if these options don’t spew pollution into the atmosphere. More importantly, the demand for electricity would be much less if we reduced how much we actually use, by working on our energy efficiency. So go online and buy some LED bulbs this very instant.

In the end it’s in our best interests to invest the time and money into these things now, when our energy situation is fairly comfortable, before it becomes too late. That is of course unless you fancy living as the Amish do, without any electricity or gadgets.

Yeah, I didn't think so.

We need electricity, and we need to ensure we have access to it for many years to come. Objecting to a viable option for a stupid reason is counter-productive, and doesn't really help anyone. There are bigger things to worry about than your bloody view.

1 While we don't use oil to generate electricity in this country, but we do use its components to power our cars.

Featured Image Credit: Tom Pritchard, 2014