Wind turbines: the future of renewable energy or a blight on UK countryside?

| 24th February 2012
Scroby Sands offshore wind farm in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk
Scroby Sands was the second offshore wind farm to be built in the UK and the third anywhere in the world
The wind farms debate rages on as the need for renewable energy grows. But is the UK in danger of putting aesthetics before the need to cut carbon emissions and adopt greener technologies?

Eerie, almost alien-like, inhabitants of otherwise natural landscapes, wind turbines have come to represent both positive change and unwelcome progress. As more farms crop up both onshore and offshore, a heated debate has arisen around the aesthetic impacts of these whirring giants, and the necessary move towards greener energy.

Set against a fiery sunset or cobalt sky, the starkness of their white physiques is difficult to ignore. For some they represent a move towards sustainable energy, and are beautiful because of that. For others they are scars on once pristine landscapes, certain to discourage tourism and ruin areas of outstanding natural beauty.

Donald Trump is halting construction of his luxury golf resort in Aberdeenshire due to a proposed offshore farm, and has publicly accused First Minister Alex Salmond of aiming to ‘destroy’ Scotland. And Trump is not alone. A myriad of anti-wind action groups have emerged throughout the UK.

But research shows that most people aren’t turned off by propellers. ‘The vast majority (93-99 per cent) of tourists that had seen a wind farm in the local area suggested that the experience would not have any effect on their decision to return to that area, or to Scotland as a whole,’ according to a 2007 report conducted by Glasgow Caledonian University and commissioned by the Scottish Government. 

According to Partnerships for Renewables, 68 per cent of those surveyed in 2003 on behalf of the Wales Tourist Board said, ‘that if the number of wind farms increased in Wales it would make no difference to the likelihood they would take holidays in the Welsh countryside.’

In 2011, 36 more wind farms were built in the UK, Wales and Northern Ireland, bringing the grand total to 326. And in January, RenewableUK announced the country’s wind sector has reached 6 gigawatts of installed capacity – enough to supply electricity to more than 3.3 million homes. But more needs to be done. 

A looming electricity shortage

In an interview with the Ecologist, Charles Hendry, of DECC, said if we don’t act now we will face an electricity shortage in the UK in about 10 years time. With the UK aiming to source 15 per cent of energy from renewable sources by 2020, wind seems like an obvious route to take. But it isn’t the only solution, Hendry says.

‘With all renewable technologies there’s time when the resource isn’t there – the sun doesn’t always shine; the wind doesn’t always blow; the tide isn’t going in and out at the time we necessarily need it,’ he says. ‘With every single one there is a drawback and that’s why a balanced approach is the best way of trying to deal with it.’ Hendry says a mix of nuclear, fossil fuels and renewables will create that balance.

In 2010 the UK was responsible for emitting 590.4 million tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent, according to a February 2012 release by DECC. Thirty-five per cent of emissions were from the energy supply sector, which showed a 2.8 per cent increase, due to the switch from nuclear to coal and gas for electricity generation. A greener energy alternative is needed.

Hendry is confident the country will reach the 2020 target and says the majority of wind turbines needed to meet that goal have already been built, or are in the planning system. As for the opposition, local impact is always part of the development process, he says, but the government needs to be cognisant of community concerns. 

‘We recognise that to be sustainable we have to carry public opinion with us; we have to carry communities with us,’ he says. But Hendry worries that a push against development will lead to the exportation of wealth and jobs. ‘From a security of supply perspective there’s a real benefit in using a technology that uses our own resource – where we’re not dependent on imports.’

‘A wind farm too far’

In the Scottish Highlands, plans for the Allt Duine Wind Farm, which will be situated on the edge of Cairngorms National Park in the Monadhliath Mountains, have also been met with opposition. Cairngorms is Britain’s largest national park, covering 4528 sq kilometres and housing five of Scotland's six highest mountains, meaning a wind farm would be visible from surrounding summits.

Chris Townsend, who lives in the park and represents the action group Save the Monadhliath Mountains, says they are not against renewable energy, or wind farms for that matter, but are opposed to the proposed location of the Allt Duine farm.

‘We’re objecting to a major industrial construction on wild land,’ he says. ‘It happens to be a wind farm. But I would certainly object to anything else being built up there, whether it was a tourist development, like a ski resort, or a hydro scheme or any other type of development.’

Townsend describes the Monadhliath as lonely, wild, beautiful and peaceful – a vast area of rolling moorlands and stream valleys with a few dramatic peaks. A councillor described it as a place for connoisseurs, he says. ‘You have to go into it, and appreciate the details and the quiet and the wildlife. But all of this will be completely destroyed by having a huge wind farm bang in the middle of it.’ There’s also concern about the rare golden eagles that inhabit the area, and the impact spinning turbines could have on the birds.

Townsend worries wind has become a free-for-all from which wealthy landowners reap the benefits. ‘Most of these Scottish Highlands are in private hands, and there’s not that much control over what the landowners can do.’ He says owners of such huge estates agree to take money from turbine companies in exchange for building rights, which encourages such companies to submit applications. ‘I think this is unsatisfactory all round,’ Townsend says. ‘The only people who really benefit from it are the landowners.’

Despite his concern for conservation, Townsend does recognise the role wind can play. But, like Hendry, he says a mix of renewable energies would be ideal while relying on any one would be risky. ‘I would also think that offshore is a better place for wind farms,’ Townsend says. ‘The wind is more reliable. You can build bigger ones. You can use sea cables to bring the energy ashore.’

Communities protest

Kim Terry has lived in South Ayrshire, Scotland, for eight years. She had only been living there a year when the Hadyard Hill wind farm went up about five kilometres away from her home. 

‘It’s broken the view of the valley totally,’ she says. ‘It was a lovely valley and it sits at the end of it. And what is proposed now are another two wind farms in the same valley.’

When Scotland became a prime location for wind farm proposals, Terry took action and helped form Communities Against Turbines Scotland (CATS). 

‘Southwest Scotland started to become saturated with applications for large wind farms and it was having such an effect on the area and the residents that we decided to form a local group,’ she says.

But, unlike Townsend, Terry does not support wind energy at all. Aside from aesthetics, she says the health, safety and livelihood of residents are not being considered.

‘The way it’s been done, it’s created a system where the developers cannot lose whether they generate electricity or not,’ she says. ‘They are guaranteed a profit and no other business is run like that. And it’s the people who have to pay for it on their electricity bills.’ In addition, she says residents closer to the wind farms have been terrorised by noise and shutter flicker, and are unable to sell their homes, which are no longer desirable.

Terry’s own house has even been on the market for six months and the one prospective buyer who came to see it turned away immediately when he found out how close the proposed wind farm would be to the property.

She says nuclear power, along with fossil fuels, is the way to go.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

The Scroby Sands wind farm in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, was the second offshore farm to be built in the UK and the third anywhere in the world at the time of its commission in March 2004. The farm’s visitor centre was erected to educate people about what, at the time, was a new technology. The centre was only supposed to be open for five years, but proved to be so popular that it was expanded and refurbished. Now a tourist destination, the centre attracts more than 35,000 visitors each year.

‘It’s not just passing traffic that comes,’ says project manager Jon Beresford. ‘We do get people who actually have heard about the visitor’s centre and have made a special trip to Great Yarmouth just to see it.’

Beresford says those with preconceived perceptions about turbines are difficult to sway, but there is hope for the next generation. ‘Children are very aware of climate change, and you find that they’re a lot more open minded,’ he says. Scroby Sands often hosts school groups, aiming to educate youth about renewable energy.

On a sunny day in Great Yarmouth the majority of deck chairs near the beach are pointed toward the wind farm, Beresford says. ‘I even had a request two years ago from a guy whose mother had died and her dying wish was to have her ashes scattered amongst the turbines on the seabed because she lived opposite the wind farm and loved it.’

It may be fear of the unknown that needs to be conquered. Glasgow Caledonian University’s report says that those who had seen a wind farm were less hostile towards them than those who had not. 

Will Dawson, of Forum for the Future, says what is missing in the UK is a proper democratic process that gives people a say in where wind farms are placed, and ensures they benefit from the energy produced.

‘If we had a much better system in the UK, like we do in Germany, Denmark and Sweden, which really enables community ownership of energy systems, then that would really start to switch the attitudes toward wind turbines,’ Dawson says.

Forum for the Future recently launched Discover Community Energy, a project which aims to do just that. The project is spearheaded by a coalition that includes The Co-operative Group, The National Trust, The National Federation of Women’s Institutes and The Church of England, and aims ‘to start a revolution with communities at its heart which will drive a clean, affordable and secure energy system.’ Currently, in the UK, less than 1 percent of renewable electricity is generated by communities. The coalition hopes to ‘dramatically increase this figure by 2020.’

But when it comes to aesthetics, Beresford says it may be difficult to change people’s minds. ‘The one thing you can’t argue about is the look,’ Beresford says. ‘You either love them or you don’t.’

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