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Archive for the ‘myths’ Category

Firstly, I’d like to draw your attention to the following blog on the Guardian’s site: Why there’s only one honest objection to wind farms.

I have been forming much the same opinion over the last few years. Sure, there are a few that sound like good objections until you give them any sort of thought:

  • health impacts have never been proven at any sort of scale and what studies have been done are generally low statistics, self-reported or otherwise flawed. I’m not discounting the fact that psychosomatic effects are very powerful, but it’s simply not logical to hold a particular industry or technology to account for psychosomatic effects, however powerful.
  • government subsidies go to all forms of power generation in one guise or another. Besides, you only get subsidised for power generated which gives a powerful incentive to take great care in your developments and particularly in your initial spend. You don’t get subsidies to build wind farms; that risk is the developers’ and the banks’ own. The big driver of rising fuel bills has been gas prices, not renewables.
  • paying sums of money to the already rich land owners — well there you have an issue with capitalism, not with wind farms. I’m not disagreeing that it’s better to give money to the poor than the rich, who would? But that’s the system we’ve got and wind developers have no greater moral responsibility to tackle unfairness than anyone else.
  • intermittant, unpredictable, small scale. Turns out wind farms, and the wind, are predictable enough; they are also highly responsive and can be quickly shut down or curtailed (run at reduced power) if necessary. They can’t provide more energy if the wind isn’t there, but they’re a powerful tool for the grid when it comes to balancing supply and demand.
  • carbon cost of building and land space. There’s a carbon cost to all building projects but an airport, for instance, takes up a lot of land and then creates pollutants. Wind farms later reduce carbon output. And while they do take up a lot of land if you look at the boundary, in fact most of the land remains available for crops and livestock as normal.
  • noise and shadow flicker. Shadow flicker is known to be a hazard to health in some cases, but only at high frequencies, far higher than large wind turbines get to even at high wind speeds. Because the sun follows a predictable path, it’s easy to demonstrate when it will happen and where and to be honest it’s pretty rare. It’s also easily reduced by closing curtains during the appropriate time of year, or facing a different direction. Since I live and work in the city I find it hard to take the noise complaints seriously as a mass issue (rather than on the level of individual nuisance): at high wind speeds the wind itself is louder if you’re outside or near a forest. Most of the time the noise of a working wind farm even actually inside its borders, isn’t much more than a medium-busy road, and we’ve learned to all but tune out road noise.

There are others, obviously, but none that I can think of which aren’t similarly easily rebutted.

I don’t think the author of the blog intends to suggest that people who object to wind farms and quote other reasons than looks are actively lying, just that they’re failing to acknowledge that they give disproportionate weight to minor issues because ultimately they don’t like 1) wind farms themselves or 2) their position in our landscapes.

Confirmation bias is a known phenomenon where we hear what we want to hear and discard evidence which contradicts our own preferences. I am aware of this, and I do make a conscious effort not to apply it to wind farms. The evidence I’ve seen for any of the objections up to now has generally been poor and even with a genuine effort to keep an open mind it hasn’t raised any real concerns.

I do worry about the number of people who are willing to argue “Wind farms are pointless: we should be investing in tidal farms!” or championing some other form of technology. We are investing money in researching tidal farms, and wave generation, and offshore wind farms, and even nuclear fusion, and these things are, indeed, very important to our future supply. But none of these technologies can generate the electricity we need now. They’re still in the pipeline. Wind farms can, and are. If, in ten, or twenty, or fifty years, wave or tidal becomes a significant contributer to our electricity networks, it will be built on lessons learned through onshore wind farms on how to cope with variable supply, and with supply that relies on weather conditions. Stopping the development of onshore wind farms would make it harder, not easier, for wave and tidal to reach deployment scale.

Apologies for my lack of presence on twitter at the moment, I’m really pushed for time with one thing and another and it’s only my one-post-per-week New Year’s Resolution that’s keeping the blog going.

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I didn’t make it to the Scottish Renewables conference this year in Edinburgh, though I would have liked to. It’s not really an analyst’s sort of place; more somewhere that policy makers get together. There’s a whole other blog in the problems that can and do stem from continually keeping the policy makers and the scientists apart, but perhaps I’ll come back to that another day.

I did stumble on this blog post, titled “Intermittent Wind” by Matthew Taylor of The RSA (I adore the RSAnimate talks, for what it’s worth). It makes some good points on the nature of the wind farm debate north and south of the border.

A lot of the negative press I’ve been responding to here has its genesis in the English press; particularly the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. Both are vehemently anti-wind-farm, but both are also highly English in character rather than Scottish. The sort of rhetoric they employ to sell their papers is far less common in specifically Scottish publications.

In his post, Taylor suggests that there is a fundamental difference between the overall cultural attitudes of the Scots and the English towards renewable energy in general. Is it fair to conclude, as Taylor does, that “the Scots’ enthusiasm for renewable energy… crosses party lines and includes most of the public”?

My simple answer when people ask me what I do is that “I build wind farms”; so far answering that to strangers has only provoked active disagreement once, and most people I’ve spoken to have gone on to confide that actually they quite like them. But that’s far from a large or representative sample. The Scottish Government’s research on attitudes held by people living close to wind farms suggests that the majority of respondents don’t mind their local wind farm, and generally, with a few exceptions, found the reality of having one nearby to be less burdensome than they had anticipated. Similarly, a 2005 summary of attitudes (pdf) published by the BWEA suggested that even in England positive views of wind farms are more common than negative views. This University of St Andrews paper from 2005 (pdf) also concludes that most Scots (“[l]arge majorities”) support wind power.

So anecdotally, and through industry, government, and academic research, it seems as though wind power is more popular than might be concluded after reading the comments on a Daily Mail piece. Is this more true in Scotland than England? I suspect not, based on the BWEA piece, but then Scotland is starting to rely heavily on the renewables industry and therefore has a real economic interest in assessing and demonstrating public support in a way that Westminster simply doesn’t.

More crucially, Taylor leaves with a warning that the success of the renewables industry which we’re investing so heavily in up north may well depend on English support, even if Scotland goes on to independence.

Is this true? Well, perhaps. It seems pretty certain that England will not meet its carbon reduction targets without Scottish windfarms, although not being a lawyer I don’t know how the legally binding targets would be applied if Scotland and England became separate entities. It’s also true that in an electricity system which relies heavily on intermittent energy sources, a handy centre of demand to which excess energy can be sold certainly helps. If Scotland were to go independent, England would still have to meet their demand, and it would seem foolhardy to rely on the goodwill of another independent nation to supply your needs. The most likely scenario as far as I can see is that England would buy Scottish electricity on some sort of market to meet both electricity demand and legally binding targets.

Such a system provides an easy answer to the question posed by Taylor’s imagined speaker:
“‘Why’ he asks ‘ are we paying a poll tax on our energy bills – a tax that hits the poorest hardest – in order to send money up to an independent Scotland, much of which is then repatriated to the overseas HQ of large energy companies lining the pockets among others of German investors (EON) and the French Government (EDF). It’s time to stop subsidising the Scots and making foreigners rich on our energy bills. It’s time for English clean coal (or nuclear, or simply imported gas)’
The answer would be because England didn’t have sufficient clean energy to meet its targets. In other words, England would be paying Scotland to develop wind farms so England didn’t have to. And what would the Daily Mail find to object about in that? I certainly can’t imagine them suggesting that more English wind farms should be built.*

In his third warning, Taylor warns the renewables industry against taking it for granted that the environmental credentials of our industry are known and falling into complacency. Instead he extorts us to join in with the wider green movement to get our voice heard and place the industry firmly within its environmental context. I think that’s an important message to be heard. I also think that the wind industry is training up the people who will go on to form the wave and tidal industries, and perhaps the energy storage and electric vehicle industries.

There is also no harm in more people in the industry standing up and having their say. After all, we can’t let the vocal minority have it all their own way, can we?


* I still object to the tax rhetoric. Energy companies are privately owned, because the Government decided to sell them off. Private companies charge for their product, and reinvest some of their earnings in infrastructure and staff etc, with the rest becoming profit. If the government believes private enterprise alone will not support the necessary infrastructure then they agree subsidies with an industry, and renewables are far from alone in receiving them. While this does represent an investment of taxpayer’s money, it’s hardly a tax. Neither can the energy bills themselves be equated with a tax: it’s a price. If the speaker wants wholly subsidised energy with a fair, non-market driven cost to consumers then they should be discussing renationalisation. Building nuclear power/gas/coal power won’t significantly help, as they also require subsidies and investment. Back

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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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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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