Will the UK run out of wind farm sites?

11th May 2012

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  • Renewable ,
  • Energy ,
  • Central government



With tough energy targets looming, Gillian Beauchamp asks how the UK will balance the importance of the environment when the optimal sites for wind farms have been taken?

We all use electricity – at home, at work and at leisure. The UK on average requires around 50GW per hour to keep everything running. Power stations fuelled by coal, oil, gas, nuclear fission and hydro technology have supplied us in the past and will continue to do so, but as we move forward renewable sources of energy are becoming more important.

Onshore wind farms are tested and, typically, the preferred means of generating renewable energy, though they are not without controversy. The sight of turbine blades turning (or not, when there is too much or too little wind) can evoke some strong emotions, both for and against the technology.

Similar emotions will have been evoked when the first high voltage electricity transmission pylons were seen marching across the countryside, though now these barely merit a sideways glance. Turbines are now starting to become familiar features in the view as you travel around the country.

The UK government is clearly committed to the use of renewable energy in meeting demands for electricity, having set a range of challenging targets in recent years. Wind turbines, both onshore and offshore, will remain in the picture, but where should they be located?

There is a clear need for turbines to be situated where the wind resource is good – ideally, a steady supply and at the optimum strength for electricity to be generated. A close connection to the grid transmission and the public road network, are also advantageous.

Avoiding adverse effects on the environment and people is also important. Locations away from settled areas and without areas designated for landscape, nature conservation, cultural heritage and the water environment are also preferable.

Logic suggests that the most obvious sites for wind farm development will, by now, have been promoted within the planning system and granted consent. But where do we go once the obvious sites dry up?

Offshore wind is one option, though the same sorts of constraints will apply in terms of impacts on the natural environment (though less so on people). Recent DECC guidance suggests the third round of sites for offshore wind energy development will require to be at least 12 nautical miles offshore.

This will bring its own difficulties in terms of the cost of the supply, connections to the grid and technically in terms of obtaining baseline data with which to undertake environmental impact assessments (EIA).

A target of 33GW of energy from offshore wind by 2020 has been set by DECC, but this still leaves a considerable gap to be filled from other renewable energy resources. While hydro-electric generation is playing a part, onshore wind remains the most likely candidate for filling this gap.

Although turbines continue to increase in size, increasing their capacity for energy generation, a shortfall remains in terms of the requirement for electricity generation, if government is to meet its targets and its commitment to carbon emissions reduction.

But where are we going to be able to put these wind farms considering the logistical constraints of wind speed and access? A more pertinent question may be what can be sacrificed in order to build the farms. Conceivably:

  • The peat resource, or the flora and fauna of an area
  • The views from people’s windows and gardens, or from public rights of way
  • The qualities of wilderness that can be experienced in the more remote parts of the country
  • Some, or all of the reasons for which certain areas (such as national parks, or areas of outstanding natural beauty) have been designated as being of national or international significance

As a nation we will have to balance whether fewer, bigger wind farms, that make more of a contribution to electricity generation, will be better than a larger number of smaller developments. And whether extensions to existing wind farms might be better than new sites. But yet another problem is who should take these decisions.

In Scotland, the Cairngorms National Park (CNP) has argued that the national importance of the park should outweigh the national importance of meeting renewable energy targets.

However, the recent decision by the Scottish government to provide consent for the Dorenell wind farm (59 turbines at 126meters tall), in Moray, just 2.3km to the north of the CNP suggests that in this instance, meeting renewable energy targets was the priority.

Similar concerns have been and are being expressed in relation to the Lake District and other national parks around the UK, and will no doubt be tested further in the future.

The question remains: where should the remainder of the wind turbines we need, be located? And is anyone looking at this from a sufficiently high level to ensure decisions are being made consistently in terms of their attitude to the environment, to designated sites and to people?

This article was written as a contribution to the EIA Quality Mark’s commitment to improving EIA practice.

Gillian Beauchamp is an associate director at Wardell Armstrong LLP


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