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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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I’m starting to get really worried about the wind industry. I think it’s an important industry, for several reasons:

  • It brings jobs to Scotland, even in a time of recession,
  • It allows for our dependence on imports for electricity supply to be reduced,
  • It reduces the carbon intensity of our energy,
  • It serves as a point of learning on the road to making real use of our renewable resources: solar, wave and tidal, and whatever new technology comes after.

What worries me is that the debate on wind energy, from the pro-wind side, is totally dominated by three voices: the economists/business leaders, the politicians and the green activists.

The way I see the world, politicians are there to tell us if something should be done; economists tell us if people will pay for it; and activists are there to lobby for a pre-existing set of ideas. When it comes to “can something be achieved”, that’s where you need the geeks: specifically the scientists and the engineers. And the scientists and engineers are very, very quiet on the issue of wind power.

Part of the reason for this is that wind energy for large-scale electricity is still very much in its infancy. Ten years ago, the procedure for installing a wind farm was completely unrecognisable compared to what happens today: masts were smaller, turbines were smaller and closer together, and the softer requirements like bird surveys and protection for peat lands weren’t as well established. Ten years in a career is a long time; but it’s hardly any time at all when you look at how quickly the onshore wind industry has grown. (Offshore wind has barely begun its journey yet, so I’m not talking about that.)

Within that huge rate of growth, large companies have grown from small groups of tinkering engineers, and somehow the managers, the politicians and the economists have become the dominant voices. And they say: protect our IP, don’t say anything which will bring the industry into disrepute, keep to the party line. It’s scientists who say, share data, do best practice and let people see it’s being done. But somehow the scientists and the engineers aren’t making the decisions in this industry. And where they’ve risen to the top, they seem to do so by falling in line with the industry position. Don’t question, don’t talk about any issues, don’t ever suggest there’s anything wrong. And so they become the business leaders, the economists, the politicians.

One result of this is that an industry which employs hundreds, perhaps thousands of highly-qualified engineers, and a fair few scientists too, doesn’t seem to have the geeks on their side.

I’m talking about this blog. The author of the blog is Colin R McInnes, a professor of engineering at the University of Strathclyde. As a citizen, he’s been writing to newspapers fairly often lately. His letters tend to be good engineering, as you’d expect, but they tend to come down on the anti-wind side.

He’s not correct. But, and this is important: IT IS NOT HIS FAULT THAT HE’S WRONG.

He’s an engineer. More than that, this guy researches into solar sails for a living. If you asked him about whether solar sails were worth investing public money in, presumably he’d say yes. This is frontier research: it can’t fund itself without huge subsidies. Yet this same man is essentially arguing that if offshore wind farms, a very new attempt at large-scale deployment of technology to an extremely challenging environment, can’t fund themselves commercially then they should be scrapped. So what’s the difference?

He doesn’t know that we’re here. The scientists and engineers who are tasked with building wind farms and actually making them work. He’s not in the industry, doesn’t go to conferences or meetings. He’s only engaging with the public discourse. Which is, as I stated earlier, dominated by politics, activists and the party line. He is operating in a complete vacuum of technically-literate information on wind farms.

We need to start talking in a language that the technical people can understand. That means demonstrating good practice and actually letting the numbers out there. How much are wind farms generating? Why are they being installed where they are? What are the measured capacity factors? How do we determine the layouts? What actions do we take to mitigate public concerns? How do we re-power or decommission a wind farm at the end of its life? Are we held to account if we breach our planning?

I don’t know if I can make this happen. This blog is a start, I suppose. Perhaps you can. The time for secrecy is ending; if anything I’m very concerned that we’re already too late. What might have been good for an individual company is threatening to doom an entire industry. And that industry matters.

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“The Geek Manifesto” is a book by Mark Henderson which has been making quite a splash with a few science-minded people I know: I think I’ve had it recommended to me about four times by different people. So I bought it for my kindle and I’m now about half way through.

Because I’ve been following a lot of science people on twitter for a while, a lot of the issues raised by the book aren’t new to me. I followed the sacking of David Nutt for commenting on his scientific findings on drugs, I followed the libel reform case between Simon Singh and the BCA, and I also saw the birth of the Science is Vital campaign as a response to the 2010 Spending Review. These issues, and other similar ones are covered in the manifesto. I’m sure there’ll be others as I work my way through the book.

As a scientist, these issues do matter to me. I want decisions to be based on evidence, and I want politicians to try to compile high-quality evidence where it’s needed. It is true that it is easier in general to find examples of policy-driven evidence than evidence-driven policy; for instance, the War in Iraq was not justified by the evidence available at the time.

If there was evidence to show that wind farms don’t work — that they don’t produce power that can be used, that they fail to reduce CO2 emissions, or that they are ultimately more polluting than they save — I would want to know about it. I would want to say to my colleagues, look, it’s not working, let’s find another way, some other technology. I don’t want to bet my career on something that doesn’t work.

Of course, wind power may not be the best long-term solution to all our energy needs. That’s different, and fine by me. I’m not trying to build a panacea for all humanity’s ills, I just want to change the world a little bit to be a better world.

The truth is that the evidence /doesn’t/ say that. Wind farms produce more electricity than they use and they save enough in carbon to balance their construction costs in only a few months of their 20-year lifetime (also see here.

I wonder if part of the reason that the wind industry has failed to engage with its detractors is that most of our talking comes from the CEOs and lobbyists that are a crucial part of our industry, but who aren’t actually scientists or trained in assessing evidence objectively. That’s one reason why I set up this blog; I wanted someone to be presenting the balanced viewpoint that the energy debate demands.

Scientists are good at that, and we need to be here; we need to be heard.

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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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Scotland:
Hydro generation ‘high’ after warm and wet winter.
“A wet and mild winter has contributed to record levels of energy production for many hydro power stations across Scotland.” (2 March 2012)

England:
Drought may last until Christmas: Environment Agency
“Official drought zones have been declared in a further 17 English counties, as a warning came that water shortages could last until Christmas.” (16 April 2012)

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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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