Archive for the ‘balance’ Category

I’m talking about this Herald article.

SSE’s renewables arm have applied for an offshore wind turbine testing facility near Hunterston power station. Planning was applied for as usual and was granted.

According to the article, though, the villagers are worried that although planning is granted for five years it was simply a sneaky corporate scheme to get a wind farm approved through the back door. Which is simply paranoia: SSE renewables are an enormous developer of onshore and offshore wind energy, with SSE recently announcing that they have more wind generation capability than the Hydro power which gave them one of their operating names of Scottish Hydro Electric. If they’re going to build a wind farm that’s what they’ll apply for in planning. They’re far too big a company and far too reliant on their own good name to be able to risk that in underhanded tactics. Also, if they wanted an onshore wind farm, why on Earth would they claim they wanted an offshore testing facility on land? It seems a bit paranoid to suggest this duplicity. Certainly there can be no evidence for it as the facility hasn’t been built yet: I’m sure if the turbines are erected and then duly either removed or planning permission re-applied for in five years time, SSE will get a heartfelt apology from the villagers for their accusation.

Quoted in the article:

    But Mr Telford said: “The inhabitants of the village of Fairlie will have our homes and our home environment blighted, our population made ill by noise and coal dust, our local climate altered, our property devalued.

    “We are being made unwilling guinea pigs as a part of this extremely dangerous experiment.”

Coal dust? From a wind turbine? (OK, fair enough, three wind turbines.) “Our local climate altered”? I assume the gentleman doesn’t mean that it’ll be slightly less windy as some of the energy will be producing electricity so we can all watch Corrie. Property devaluation… well, yes. I’d maybe accept that as an issue if we weren’t talking about land a bare 3 miles from a large (and incidentally incredibly ugly) nuclear power station. If you’re interested, the photomontage showing what the turbines will look like from Fairlie is available online. It’ll look like:
Photomontage of the proposed facility as seen from Fairlie.

There do remain people who fervently believe, despite no scientific evidence, that wind turbine noise can make people ill. The interaction between health and belief and the environment and the mind is a complex one, and not one I’m going to go into here. But really, the rest of his argument is a bit of a storm in a teacup. Not only that but since planning has been granted, isn’t it all a bit late as well?

The most ludicrous part, to my mind, is the opening sentence, though: “Residents on the Firth of Clyde claim their human rights are under threat from the giant structures – thought to be the second-highest of their kind in the world.”

Their human rights? To a sea view?

That’s easily the most middle class argument I’ve ever heard. The article quotes the clause in question: “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right…” However it is not clear to me where exactly the public authority is interfering. No homes are being knocked down, no forced evictions; the land in question is currently sort of industrial wasteland so there’s little could be done to make it worse. No, I can’t see a single part of this clause which is actually relevant to the proposed development. It reads like that middle and upper class assumption that owning property gives you inherent rights to all developments within eyesight of said land. And where have we heard that one before?

No wonder the court of human rights gets such a bad press.

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I often read anti-wind letters to newspapers, which get linked to in various round-ups of renewables news which land in my inbox each day. Most of the time, they simply annoy me. The one above, on the other hand, made me want to clap my hands when I read it. It hits quite a few of my own personal list of things that make a good argument: it’s based on fact, it doesn’t rely on hyperbole or insult to make its point, and it bases most of its point on things which can be objectively verified or argued.

This is a good paragraph, for instance:
“Whilst [the assertion that wind turbines produce energy for 70-85% of the time] may well be true, it is grossly misleading. It should be pointed out that for much of this time the turbines will not be producing much electricity at all. For example when the wind speed falls by half, the generation falls to a level of around 10% of capacity (a cubed power law). And additionally we already know that the timing, or volume, of electricity generated is seldom matched to demand, often high when we don’t need it and low when we do. And don’t mention the shut-downs when the wind is too strong.”

The energy available in the wind does indeed follow a cubic relationship with the wind speed, meaning that if you multiply the wind speed by half, you get an eighth of the energy available in the wind. It’s not quite as simple as that, however. The turbine of course doesn’t actually remove all of the energy in the wind and convert it to electricity; in fact the Betz limit tells us that no theoretical machine ever could. Rather, it follows a power curve which remains at or near zero until the wind reaches a certain level, rises steeply (but not as steeply as the Betz limit) until a given point and then generates at capacity above that. That means that the energy in the wind is reduced by an eighth if the wind speed drops by half, but the power generated by a turbine will not drop by the same amount.

“Grossly misleading” is an interesting term when applied to a true statement. It suggests the statement was intended to detract attention from some other idea or issue. Without access to the original content I can’t really comment on that. However it is true that wind turbines generate electricity most of the time. Personally, I consider it misleading to equate the behaviour of a wind turbine power curve with the energy in the wind, but I suspect the writer is talking from knowledge of general engineering principals rather than specific knowledge of wind turbines so I think it’s forgivable.

A second point is made that Scottish wind farms generally quote a capacity factor of 30% whereas in the first part of 2011 Irish wind farms only managed about half this.

Again, this suggests limited knowledge of the intricacies of wind energy. It is not currently possible to predict how windy it will be next year, or the year after that (when your planned wind farm will be available for generation). Weather systems are chaotic, and resist any attempts at accurate predictions on a timescale longer than a few days. Before construction, the capacity factor quoted is usually based on what’s known in the industry as a “P50” value. This a target value which we expect the wind farm will meet about half the time over a long-term period. Essentially the pre-construction capacity factor is an expected annual average. Comparing it to a short-term value is not going to yield meaningful results; it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. Really if you want to compare how realistic it is you’d want to go back ten years and calculate the average yearly capacity factor over the whole ten-year period for a few sites at similar exposure and elevation, and for a similar turbine model. (People like me earn their living doing that for developers, for banks lending money, for potential purchasers and others with a vested interest in knowing how much a wind farm is likely to generate. We are needed because it’s not straightforward to predict wind farm output.)

In fact this map suggests the Scottish wind resource is slightly better than the Irish wind resource. We have the same climate drivers, but wind speed increases with elevation and Scotland is higher than Ireland. Still, the actual output will vary from location to location.

I disagree with the letter. I think there are a couple of things the writer got wrong. Still, it’s a letter which I feel I can meaningfully answer; where there are misconceptions these can be addressed. No vitriol, no hatred, no assumption that everyone-thinks-like-me. A letter which leaves some potential for compromise, for discourse and even to agree-to-disagree. I think that’s worth savouring for a few moments.

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Let’s talk some sense

People fear change. Those who fear it the most are perhaps the ones with the most to lose; those who have benefitted from the status quo. Worst of all, perhaps, is the fact that those same people who have benefitted often have the money and the influence to disproportionately shape public discourse. What they say isn’t always true.

There are those who will tell you that wind farms are without benefit. They will claim they are ugly and that they despoil the countryside, as though the countryside were a pretty picture to be admired rather than a place where resources have to be carefully balanced. As though there is no room for those of us who believe that wind turbines have a dignity and elegance of their own. They will claim they are polluting, that they keep energy barons rich on subsidies, that they are imposed on an unwilling public without due process… the list is endless.

There is very little a single voice can do in this society, it seems. But I work in the wind industry because I believe that wind power takes society in the direction it should be heading: towards a better use of resources. And so I will use my voice, so that those who are interested can hear a more balanced view.

My intent is to post once per week in 2012, taking a single incident or article about wind power and trying to provide a balanced viewpoint within the fog of propaganda. Wind farms have their faults: they are not The Answer. For today, they are a way forward. It is dangerous to society, to discourse, and to the planet to let the lies go unchallenged. Let’s challenge them.

Let’s talk some sense.

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