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Archive for the ‘planning’ Category

I found this article interesting: Women And Clean Energy: Overcoming The Double Standard.

I don’t know if it’s just that I care more about renewables, but I have been gaining the impression that renewables are held to far higher standards than any of their more established competitors. This holds for planning constraints imposed (met masts often have “bird diverters” attached, but I’ve yet to see them on a telecoms mast), and it certainly holds for the press coverage. The “women must be twice as good as a man to be thought half as good” idea does seem to fit this reasonably well.

But it is true that in both cases it’s a subjective thing which is being measured, so it’s harder to demonstrate an effect. I don’t know of any research done into the public dialogue for wind, nor of any comparisons of the planning procedure for wind farms compared to other technologies. Still it was interesting that someone else, in the US at least, has a similar impression.

I don’t know if you care greatly, but the gender balance in wind resource assessment isn’t too bad in my experience in Scotland: I’d say women have made up about 30-40% of analysts. Engineering teams and people working on operational wind farms still seem to be overwhelmingly male though.

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Wind farm layouts are pretty controversial. The bare fact is that putting turbines in the most lucrative positions which catch the most wind generally means putting them on top of hills. Which makes them visible for miles around.

There’s not really much that can be done about this conflict.

Besides, developers of wind farms don’t, as a general rule, actually buy the land they’re building on. Usually they rent it under contract from the landowner. And although the area of the wind farm is usually large, there’s usually a fair bit of spare ground around the turbines which can continue to be used for livestock or crops. In Scotland, we have laws protecting the right to access land; this means that if you want to go mountain biking at an operational wind farm the law is on your side (up to the point where you do any malicious or criminal damage etc obviously).

Once a contract has been drawn up with the landowner or landowners for a particular wind farm, it’s time to design a layout. This remains a challenging issue.

There are a number of criteria which are likely to restrict your options before the wind can be taken into account. These will include bird and wildlife surveys; land use and availability for roads; waterways and steep valleys which restrict access to heavy plant; planning restrictions on tip height; noise considerations; nearby residents; ground suitability; and local considerations such as archaeology, sites of scientific interest, and so on.

From there, the best practice is to use actual wind measurements to model how the wind flow changes across the site. Because you need at least a year’s worth of data from a met mast before you can really use the data (to cover all seasons), the reality of this part will vary substantially depending on how far into the project we are. If the project has two years’ of measurements at one or more masts on site, then great. Otherwise there are other sources of wind information we can use: bought data from a Met office measurement station; a virtual met mast built from a model; reanalysis data based on satellite measurements; extrapolation based on a combination of measurements. If the worst comes to the very worst the rule of thumb that “higher elevation = windier” would provide at least a guide.

Once you have an idea of the wind flow, you need to decide where to put the turbines. There are a number of things to take into consideration when doing this.

Each individual turbine removes a little of the energy from the wind it encounters, resulting in a slower wind speed for those turbines behind it. It also increases the turbulence, which further reduces the effectiveness of the turbines behind: it’s harder to extract energy from turbulent air. The combination of these is called the “wake” effects in the industry. To reduce the impact, it’s considered best practice to leave between 4 and 7 rotor diameters’ worth of gap between the turbines. Larger spacing is generally left in the predominant wind direction so that the overall wake effect is lower. (Offshore the spacing is larger, because wakes travel further offshore for reasons to do with atmospheric effects. Best practice will also vary from region to region based on the appropriate climate drivers.)

Trees and slopes will have several impacts on your positions. The top of a hill will be the windiest location, but steep slopes can provide huge challenges for accessing the turbines for construction or maintenance. Steep slopes also tilt the wind to an angle, and above 17° or so start to cause real problems for accurate wind flow or turbine performance modelling. Forestry increases turbulence directly above the forest, and can have other effects on the wind flow (increased change in wind speed with height, for instance, and boundary effects at the edge of the forest) which reduce the efficiency of the turbines.

Dwellings should generally be avoided as far as possible. I think the guideline in Scotland is 500m (note: there are experts on these constraints, and I’m not one), but a much larger buffer zone is wise. The issues of noise and shadow flicker are only relevant with regards to nearby homes. The danger of ice throw from blades or of blade throw is not thought to be a risk beyond tip height of the turbine (so if the turbine is 160m tall and you’re more than 500m away the risk to your property from these things is vanishingly small). To be honest I think the main driver here is the good will of the community. Big wind farms are generally built by bespoke developers, and there is much to be lost in appearing to trample over communities.

You want to maximise both the number of turbines and their output. Developers (or the banks who lend to them) take on the financial risk of a project when they sink their money into constructing the wind farm; they get nothing back until they start to produce electricity. If the costs of building and maintaining the wind farm turn out to be more than the wind farm can generate, the project is a failure. So the energy output is actually critical to project success.

Ultimately, then, from an industry perspective, the challenges of layouts are as follows:

  • Comply with all planning restrictions
  • Keep the local community on-side as far as possible
  • Space the turbines 5 by 3 rotor diameters, which for an 82m rotor diameter machine (about average for large wind farms at present) is 410m by 246m
  • Keep the turbines away from steep slopes, forestry, and dwellings as far as possible
  • Install as many turbines as you can to increase your maximum production
  • Put your turbines as high up as you can manage

I’ve often seen the accusation “poorly sited” levied at wind farms in newspaper letters. Reading between the lines, I suspect that this is because the writer objects to wind farms on hills where they can be seen, rather than that they know a secret way of establishing the best place to put wind farms that the industry hasn’t stumbled on yet.

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As I said earlier, I’ve been reading the Geek Manifesto lately. This is the sort of thing you don’t read if you want a quiet life of rolling your eyes when people are wrong rather than gathering friends to overdose on homeopathic remedies outside a chemist.

It has come to my attention that one Mr Griff Rhys Jones has recently weighed in on the wind farm question. He has been quoted as claiming that wind farms are “green tokenism”, and being “randomly deposited” across the country. (Apparently this is from a column in the Radio Times, which is not online.)

Fresh from my perusal of the Geek Manifesto, it occurs to me that there are some parallels between this occurence and the British Chiropractic Association vs Simon Singh libel case. In the BCA case, Simon Singh had claimed Chiropracters made bogus claims; the BCA then sued for libel claiming damage to their reputation. In the case of Mr Rhys Jones, a celebrity has similarly made comments which are highly damaging to the reputation of an industry.

Only I can provide all sorts of evidence that wind farms are not “randomly distributed”, and that far from being “green tokenism” they actively contribute to our electricity networks saving on fossil fuels.

(I’ve not linked to much for the first statement about not being randomly distributed because to be honest it’s a bit of a blog post in itself and I don’t think anyone’s written it yet. Basically I need to demonstrate that there are financial incentives to build in the windiest places, that there are well established procedures in the industry for establishing windiness before construction, and that these procedures are generally followed. Some of the evidence may be commercially sensitive, but certainly there’s a solid case there.)

Has the reputation of the wind industry been libelled? Well, let’s be honest, Mr Rhys Jones is no more guilty of that than dozens of journalists, editors and commentors in print and even more random people online. But maybe they are all guilty of libel. Because I see far more accusations of bad practice from random people than I’ve seen any evidence of it. I’m not saying that the industry as a whole should start suing for libel when critics make rash statements which aren’t backed up by even a modicum of evidence. Neither am I saying that the wind industry is perfect. But no industry is perfect.

I do wish that celebrities, whose opinions are magnified in today’s culture, would try to remember that if it isn’t backed up by evidence it’s only an opinion.

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There are some people who feel that those who are pro-wind-power must by definition be anti-nuclear. This is far from true in reality: both power sources include very different challenges but actually complement one another in some ways. Most engineers will tell you that we need a variety of generation sources to keep the power flowing on demand; running the grid with wind energy only would be a recipe for blackouts unless something really changed. Like hydro, nuclear is a generation method that doesn’t burn carbon and that is basically controllable on demand. Some environmentalists argue that in fact it is essential to include nuclear in the mix if you want to reduce carbon emissions in your electricity generation.

I don’t have any moral objections to nuclear; but I appreciate that it brings enormous challenges.

Still, it’s looking increasingly like nuclear power — or at least new nuclear power stations — will not be contributing much to the UK’s electricity generation in the near future. A summary of the situation:

There’s a lot there to suggest that the privatised electricity market in the UK simply doesn’t have the stomach for new nuclear generation.

Meanwhile, the UK’s existing nuclear facilities are aging; Germany intends to stop using nuclear at all and Japan has hardly started back up after the tsunami over a year ago.

Locally and globally the message is the same. Nuclear power — fission at least — may well have had its heyday.

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Donald Trump making waves in the Scottish Review

There are certainly people in Scotland who don’t like wind farms. There are people who are very vocal about their dislike. They like to claim they have the “silent majority” on their side, but recent polls indicate that simply isn’t true. Their concerns are raised, mitigated when valid and investigated when unsure. There are lots of concerns which have proven to be unreasonable and although the message is out there (the Viking Energy FAQs is a good place to see some concerns debunked) it takes time to filter through. Also some people don’t believe it, which is unfortunate but unavoidable. Changing people’s beliefs is hard, as monarchs and theocrats through the ages have discovered.

When concerns are raised, you work towards a compromise as far as possible. My experience of the wind industry is that companies in the UK are generally scrupulous about obeying planning restrictions, even when it costs them, and as I’ve said before, companies who flout environmental restrictions should be held to account. I think they are, as there are several national news outlets who would pounce on any breach with gusto. As Mr Trump should be, but seemingly isn’t in anything like the same way, for his golfing resort and its impact on a highly sensitive part of our environment.

His objections are NIMBYism, pure and simple. Put it in someone else’s back yard. Find some poor people: when they complain no-one listens. They’ve got no hotel to take home with them.

He is also apparently a hypocrite.

I still can’t decide if his money will be a genuine danger to the wind industry or whether he’ll make the whole anti-wind campaign into a laughing stock. I wish we weren’t talking about him so much as though his opinion matters.

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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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I see so often on anti-wind opinion pieces a variation on the theme of “it’ll never work”. It might be “wind power will never work” or “we’ll have blackouts if we rely too heavily on wind power”. It might be a comment on wind power’s intermittency or unpredictability.

All of which ignores the one blatantly obvious fact: wind power is currently here, and currently working.

That one fact marshalls all of the variations of “it’ll never work” into some sort of logical reductionist argument with unspoken assumptions. The first and most obvious unspoken assumption is “apart from under current conditions”. The contribution of wind power has been gradually increasing without experiencing blackouts (even under extreme wind conditions). This leads me to the conclusion that the speaker is generally assuming that there’s some sort of event horizon, beyond which the cataclysm will occur. I’ve never been able to figure out what precisely that event horizon looks like, because that particular assumption is never made clear. Still, the speakers do have a few facts on their side — there’s more to making wind power work on a country-wide scale than simply building the wind farms and plugging them in.

As we increase the market share of wind power, the important thing is that we are continually checking that today and tomorrow we can keep the lights on. Whatever we’re changing, we need to know we have it under control, even given the difficulties of predicting the wind. This will get more important, not less, as other renewable technologies begin to form part of our electricity supply, because instead of simply worrying about how windy it is, we may also have to consider what state the tide is in, if there are large waves offshore, and whether there’s been a lot of sun.

I was therefore glad to see the news that planned upgrades to Scotland’s electricity grid have been fast-tracked. Grid upgrades don’t tend to get an easy time from the planning process; people don’t like pylons any more than they like wind turbines. Still, we cannot ever lose sight of the sheer scale of the changes we, as renewable energy generators, are pressing on to our aging grid structure. Not only is the power source (relatively) unpredictable and intermittant, it’s also situated on windy hillsides far from the population centres of demand.

Coping with these challenges requires greater connectivity between countries, a more flexible network, and of course more capacity in the windy but sparsely populated north of Scotland. Energy storage and demand mitigation are other techniques which are actually happening to a greater or lesser extent.

It’ll never work, if the grid remains the same old aging structure and we simply keep piling in more wind farms. Thankfully the clever people who operate and maintain the grid know that too, and are working on it. It’s not a “so we should just give up” situation, it’s another “let’s rise to meet the challenge”.

It can work, and it is working. With ingenuity, attention to detail and positivity, it can continue to work.

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