Is the answer blowing in the wind?

I’m glad to see that the RSPB is hoping to have a wind turbine at its Bedfordshire HQ – this has been a long-running hope and I wish the plans well.  And it is a sensible thing to do for an organisation that supports a move to renewable energy.

, via Wikimedia Commons”]Martin Harper, RSPB Conservation Director said: “We are keen to promote the use of wind energy where it does not result in unacceptable impacts to wildlife and we are confident that this is a suitable location to do so.

It isn’t quite right to claim that this will reduce the RSPB’s carbon footprint as everyone knows that you can’t get thin just by eating more lettuce.  It’s only if government makes the right decisions about overall energy production that emissions will drop (or if we just cut our use of energy that would work too).  If everyone had a wind turbine, but also used as much ‘dirty’ electricity as now then all those extra wind turbines wouldn’t have done any good (in terms of reducing future climate changes) – they would just be additional power generation. We do need to reduce our use of fossil fuels and replace that lost generated electricity with cleaner electricity.

But at least a recent study by the RSPB and BTO suggests that wind turbines are not all giant bird mincers! In the uplands there was evidence that some species, such as snipe and curlew, decrease in numbers during the construction phase of a windfarm (presumably through disturbance and habitat loss) and may not recover afterwards.  As the RSPB’s Jeremy Wilson said, it all depends on where you put the turbines – which is what the RSPB has been saying for years (and quite right too!).

One of the things that I have more time to do these days is pay a little more attention to events near where I live.  A few weeks ago there was a public meeting to discuss proposals for a relatively small limestone quarry.  Your views on whether it is small or not may depend on how close to your back garden it is.  None of the locals seemed very keen on the idea (and I can understand that).  The irony of the case, only to be appreciated by those not too closely affected, is that there were proposals for a small number of wind turbines on the same site a while ago which were strenuously fought by locals too.  On the night, many were of the view that they’d rather have the turbines than the quarry so there is an element of out of frying pans and into fires involved.  I’m rather assuming that because the site is (at least partly) in the local minerals plan then it is likely to go ahead and that it will be a victory for the NPPF.  We’ll see.

According to the always reliable Daily Mail, the government has turned its back on wind turbines.

I’ve rather lost track of whether this government does have a coherent plan to meet the legally binding 80% emission reductions by 2050.  Greenest government ever meets presumption in favour of sustainable development?

You may remember that I can see 10 turbines from my house – they are , though, quite a long way away.  I’d be happy to see more in the countryside around me provided they are put in sensible places.  And by that I don’t mean ‘somewhere else’, I mean in places where they don’t do (too much) harm to wildlife, do produce useful amounts of electricity and don’t mar our finest landscapes.

I quite like the turbines in my local landscape – they certainly aren’t the ugliest things around and at times they can be very beautiful.  But even if I hated the sight of them I should be asking myself whether I had a better way of reducing our carbon emissions? We need to find a lower carbon diet and substituting lettuce for burgers, or turbines for coal, will help.  There’s no single measure (except perhaps reducing the human population dramatically) that will get us where we need to be so it will have to be done with lots of smaller measures.

Well done to the RSPB for seeking to generate some green energy, it’s a small but meaningful contribution provided government steps up to play its part properly.



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26 Replies to “Is the answer blowing in the wind?”

  1. Yes putting them in the right place and letting them being run by the community not a load of companies milking the system. I suppose the RSPB's pension fund is also linked to this massive subsidy as well! No chance of opposing them where Golden Eagles and Hen Harriers have been removed by shooting estates then! I wonder how many RSPB members will resign over this. Not to mention landscape!!

  2. I am afraid that their is so much whitewash out there it is hard for me to determined exactly how suitable windfarms are in general.

    With so much already invested in this technology it seems rather late to study the many concerns about them but with so many more windfarms on the horizon (see what I did there?) I would really like to see some independent data on:

    How reliable they are, and what effects the requirements of other backup energy sources for when the wind drops have upon their "green" status
    What damage is done in their manufacture and how this effects their "green" status?
    The damage done to wildlife and landscape in construction and operation.
    And finally the expense, I am sure I read that wind power is one of the most expensive forms of energy production.

    I have just been sent this to read (which you have probably already seen) which I again found concerning and which compounds my concerns that many of these wind farms are being suitated in upland areas where the raptor populations are suppressed, so whilst their might not be an immediate impact what will occur if the raptor population is allowed to stabilise at some point in the future?

    I appreciate that we need a greener way to produce energy and that we cannot rely upon carbon based fuels indefinately in the future, there is also growing population and the growing demands to consider, but are are we in danger of investing large amounts of time and effort (not to mention money) into something that is not fit for purpose instead of spending it on researching more suitable methods? are we going to leave our childrens children an expensive damaging white elephant or is wind power the answer?

  3. I’ve much enjoyed ‘lurking’ around your blog Mark and this is my first comment. I'm driven to it because I think its a shame you slightly spoiled a well articulated (as ever) case for an alternative energy source by rather glibly introducing population reduction. This is a huge distraction and a comment that often appears in blogs at some stage by those that would control population. The jury is back and Malthus was wrong. The population rise is falling, if you follow, and will level and begin to decline before the end of the century and in terms of energy - it is absolutely not how many people there are, its all about the sustainability of their lifestyles - the per capita energy use.

    I'd like to better reference all the above, but I'm at work and I get paid for doing other (less important) stuff.

    1. Bimbling - thank you for 'lurking' and for your comment, though I think it's a shame that you slightly spoiled it by suggesting that the human population level is a huge distraction. We could halve our total carbon emissions by halving our per capita emissions and holding population levels still, or by halving population levels and keeping per capita emissions still. Those are the maths. I didn't really suggest which way we should go but my strongly preferred route would be through drastically reducing per capita emissions in the highly polluting 'west'.

      Global population reached 7 billion this year and is expected to reach over 9 billion by 2050. When my father was born the world population was under 2 billion. That is a big increase, there's no denying.

      Keep lurking and commenting, and thank you for the 'well-articulated' which slightly mitigated the 'slightly spoiled'.

  4. "Martin Harper, RSPB Conservation Director said: “We are keen to promote the use of wind energy ... "

    A reasonable person could interpret this as: "We would like to cream off a load of money from taxpayers in return for providing an intermittent energy supply requiring the constant availability of conventional power generation reserve, and an eyesore to boot. We know this stinks, but we are too feeble-minded to resist."

    When government tears up the FITs and ROCs, there will be a lot of tears. But not from me.

    1. Filbert - I think it would be eminently possible for a reasonable person to interpret it differently from the way your reasonable person has interpreted it.

      1. Quite - there is ample heterogeneity within Homo sapiens ssp. aequus. But only just.

  5. I suggest people read the original scientific paper (not the journalists' view) about birds and windfarm impacts by RSPB & BTO researchers. Find it here in the highly rated Journal of Applied Ecology.

    I do find the title of the paper a little misleading, as it is only concerned with UPLAND windfarms, and there was still some clearly negative impacts on vulnerable and declining species, like curlew. And that is the problem. The studied windfarms had a variable impact across sites and species. There needs to me many More research studies like this in a greater range of locations & habitats, types of turbines, their density & design, and above all continued research into POPULATION impacts, not just a short-term 3 yrs study. Paid for by the developers.
    There is huge concern about the offshore windfarms, and their potential impact on seabirds, notably those species that have a life history strategy of very slow reproduction but long adult life.
    If all proposed windfarms within 20 miles of the Norfolk coast get approval, there will be between 444 and 760 wind turbines out there, each >100 m tall + the blades. There are genuine concerns about the future of the Norfolk Sandwich Tern colonies, as the little research carried out so far puts their population trend right on the cusp of decline.
    So - more debate about energy policies please!

  6. With regards to the limestone quarry that you mentioned, Mark, if it is indeed inevitable that it goes ahead, then I hope that at least the restoration plans for the site once the stone is extracted will involve the allocation of part or (better still) all of the land for wildlife conservation purposes. Disused limestone quarries have the potential to become great sites for various butterfly species, other invertebrates and many interesting and uncommon plants.

  7. Hi Mark

    Very interesting blog entry and I'm pleased that you like your local wind farm. I was responsible for the design and planning of that site, and I have been delighted by the public acceptance and support of the project. At the time that we went into planning Country Life had branded that particular site as one of the top landscapes in the UK under threat by development, but the overall response of the built site has been extremely positive.

    I have worked in wind for some 14 years now and I am pleased to see the RSPB developing their own project. As with all development the siting of a wind turbine involves a careful balance of the impacts and, of course, the benefits.

    I understand the other comments on this blog which express confusion over the impacts and benefits of wind. There is a lot of information on the internet. With any wind project, the planning application should be accompanied by an EIA or Environmental Report. These documents are generally produced by independent consultants employed by the developer. They clearly report the potential impacts and the benefits of the development, and they must be clear and accurate - after all many are tested through public inquiry.

    With respect to the benefits - I can assure that they do work, you just need to read the meter! There is now over 230GW of installed wind capacity across the world generating significant amounts of electricity - this huge uptake of wind energy should comfort those that this is not some global conspiracy to install generation that doesn't work. It certainly does!

    Finally the cost - all new generation and new infrastructure whatever it is costs money. In the UK we have been utilising coal, nuclear and gas built and paid for through the taxes and bills of our parents. The fact that we need to pay for replacement generation (whatever it is) is not new. 3% of our electricity bills pay for the Renewables Obligation and 1% for the Feed in Tariff. Over 60% of our bill is on the cost of energy - i.e the hedge we all take on the oil, gas and coal markets - it is that which causes the large fluctuations in our bills. The Governments have cost the plans for new generation (Estimated impacts of energy and climate change policies on energy prices and bills, 2011) and the good news is that under current policies our bills are expected to fall by £100 by 2020, and then go up a bit by £4 by 2030. Not bad really!

    1. John - welcome and thank you for a very interesting comment. I have always been a supporter of wind energy (with the provisos about 'the right place') and I have always taken it for granted that the wind generation was profitable as well as 'unpolluting' but since I am not an expert I have sometimes wondered about the profitability because it is criticised so often in the media. Thank you for your comments which are clearly based on real experience rather than 'what someone said down the pub last night'.

      I don't have any problem with wind energy being subsidised - after all everything in the countryside seems to be!

      And one way of looking at it is that part of the cost of say, coal-based electricity, is climate change which we will all be paying for in many ways for decades to come. And if we continue with carbon-based energy generation then we are imposing heavy costs on future generations and disproportionately on the poor across the globe.

      If you, or anyone else, would like to write a guest blog here on the economics and 'efficiency' of wind energy then that would be very welcome , but thank you anyway for your excellent comment.

      1. Mark - Many thanks for your comments and I'd be delighted to write a guest blog on the above - and I can see from some of the other comments that there is a chance to put a few things straight - never been called greedy before! To be honest I have been thinking about some form of wind blog for a while, but I haven't looked at how to do it. If I write a guest blog do I send it over to you directly?

  8. And one of the more obvious benefits of wind turbines is that when one catches fire you don't have to evacuate large areas of the country, or even your capital city, as very nearly happened in Japan after Fukushima. Of course there, ironically, it was a change in the wind that saved the day for Tokyo.

  9. "I can assure that they do work, you just need to read the meter!" What is the reading in still air?

    "... this huge uptake of wind energy should comfort those that this is not some global conspiracy to install generation that doesn’t work. It certainly does!" It certainly doesn't. Just confirms that there are a lot of greedy people grabbing the grotesquely over-generous subsidies.

    "... all new generation and new infrastructure whatever it is costs money. In the UK we have been utilising coal, nuclear and gas built and paid for through the taxes and bills of our parents. The fact that we need to pay for replacement generation (whatever it is) is not new." Carefully omitting that wind generation is intermittent, so not only is there the cost of its generation but the replacement generation to maintain continuity of supply remains unaffected.

    "The Governments have cost the plans for new generation (Estimated impacts of energy and climate change policies on energy prices and bills, 2011) and the good news is that under current policies our bills are expected to fall by £100 by 2020, and then go up a bit by £4 by 2030." Oh be joyful! Would that be the same Governments who have allowed the sale of all our utilities abroad, ruined our economy, sold all the gold, sucked up to despots, lied through their teeth about just about everything possible - and we are expected us to swallow this fairytale because it is somehow different? In what way?

    Here's a simple thought-experiment: Disconnect the consumer board, get a large crocodile clip and a long cable, fasten it to the nearest turbine then blog about the experience. Until the battery runs out, then go round next door and ask for a cup of electricity. No cheating with PV, back-garden hydro, tidal, hamster-powered treadmill or a dynamo on Mrs Blogger's exercise bike, mind.

  10. Really nice to get the view of a expert John Fairlie,think we can be sure he knows more about this subject than almost anyone else,he has changed my mind anyway.

  11. In Scotland Donald Trump has suggested that he will bankroll the anti-wind turbine lobby with £15 million as he claims to be offended by the prospect of offshore turbines being visible from his housing and golf development north of Aberdeen. Golfers will be so appalled by the turbines in the distance disrupting the view of the pristine tower blocks of the city, oil rigs and the constant traffic of oil supply vessels that none of them will ever want to play on his course.
    Adverts have appeared in the Scottish papers urging people to protest at the Scottish Parliament where Trump has been invited to give evidence to a committee considering the windfarm application. It is not really clear why he has been called as he is not a Scottish voter and does not live in Scotland. His conversion to defender of the environment has come too late for the important sand dune SSSI which was pointlessly destroyed to create his golf course but it appears to be the latest in a list of excuses for him to abandon the project which many people expect him to do as soon as he can find a buyer for the site.
    The Scottish Government must be hoping that he will leave soon, having been a major supporter of his development, ensuring that it received planning permission after Aberdeenshire Council's planning committee rejected it and now facing his embarrassing and well-funded opposition to one of their key policies on renewable energy. So far the political fallout from allowing Trump into Scotland has been limited but MSPs will get the opportunity to see Anthony Baxter's award-winning film 'You've Been Trumped', which demonstrates how the environment has been destroyed and the local residents bullied in one of the most shameful developments in recent Scottish history, at a special screening in the parliament building the day before Trump appears there.

  12. Talking about bullying when a wind farm company offers back hands to a community but not the right to run the whole scheme what is the difference between Trump and these so called green developers! I worked with wind farm companies in the 1990s but were appalled at how they worked the so called 'Environmental Assessment'. If it does not fit their needs they change it or water it down. So much for expert independent consultants! Many ex RSPB staff are involved with these schemes and seem to prefer to take the money rather than stand up for nature.

    1. John - thank you. I can think of some ex-RSPB staff who do work for ecological consultants and they will no doubt be involved with windfarm applications, and I can think of one (there may well be more) who works for an energy company in its wind energy work, but I don't think the ranks of wind energy people are full of ex-RSPB staff. I remember you speculated I might head that way when I left the RSPB but that hasn't happened has it? There will be many RSPB staff, ex staff and members who, like me, believe that wind energy may be a part of our solution for climate change and that despite its potential downsides for nature it has upsides too. It's not really a big natural conspiracy you know.

  13. @ John Miles
    "So much for expert independent consultants!"

    Quite. If they are paid by the developer, they should lose the "independent" tag. They should be employed by the relevant authority, who should be reimbursed, plus a premium, by the developers. But it won't happen - too much gravy on the train.

  14. "too much gravy on the train" Filbert, its more like too many developments to allow any local authority to employ enough ecologists to cover them. Local authorities employ at least 1 ecologist who provides an independent review of the quality and integrity of ecological assessments and EIAs, and advise accordingly to the appropriateness of the surveys. The same way those same reports are reviewed by CCW/NE/SNH staff who also advise the local authority on the same. "Watering down" as John Miles put it is easily picked up; I know because I am someone who reviews these sorts of reports day in, day out and believe me it gets very tiring reading comments from people who jump to the conspiracy and "its all money money money" theories.

    As for the "independance" of consultant ecologists; again perhaps you should talk to some of the people you are taking about. I know plenty of consultant ecologists and they do more for conservation, both professionally and personally, than most of their detractors I have met. They work for the conservation of the ecological features on the sites they survey and advise their clients accordingly; its not their fault if the client refuses to accept or acknowlegde the ecological constraints to a development.

  15. @Rich Facey
    April 22, 2012 – 4:25 pm

    This is a late comment, I know, but something came up that has occupied me for ten days. I had drafted a scathing ascerbic response, aided by fatigue and Grant's Cask Conditioned, but I binned it - far too rude.

    Nevertheless - "... believe me it gets very tiring reading comments from people" - is not a reason for for people to withold their objections to planning applications. I'm tired, Mrs Cobb is tired, we're all tired of labouring so that our taxes can be used to grease the axles of the gravy trains, and pay the salaries of the fat controllers and soft wheeltappers and shunters. We get no choice in that. If you are tired, do something else.

    "... conspiracy and “its all money money money”. There is no conspiracy, because the money and its recipients are there in plain sight. I don't doubt the professionalism, independance (sic) or integrity of consultant ecologists - I do know some. Or that they "do more for conservation, both professionally and personally, than most of their detractors" - well they would do, wouldn't they? None of this is relevant. The point is the amount of public money pouring into wind schemes, and the number of passengers on this gravy train.

    Your comments conspicuously omit mention of the issue of continuity of supply.

    The blogoshere recently carried, among other wind-fails (Texas, q.v.), some interesting revelations about the beneficiaries of Big Wind money - explaining why organisations that would normally go to war over the mere risk of damage to a sparrows kneecap have been overwhelmed by complacency over the impacts of wind-farms. Money talks, the train keeps rolling ...

    Finally, despite the rising red mist I was cheered by the memory of a wind-power workshop in February, where a consultant from the power industry gave a very illuminating talk about reducing power consumption and the economic benefits and rapid payback of replacing out-moded equipment. I don't think many of the Soldiers of Trendiness noticed the implications of his message for business. It certainly wasn't that we should invest our own money in wind-turbines ...

  16. We have a proposal for a wind farm near us - nine big turbines and it's currently refused planning. However what seems to be happening is individual farms starting to put up smaller turbines. If every farm ends up with one it will have a considerably greater visual impact than one big farm. Also having cycled down the coast of Germany where there are literally thousands of them I have to say i would not like that situation to happen where I live.


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