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'My job is to make sure the project can be built'

EUROPE: Guiding the process of building a wind farm calls for an experienced hand. As project manager for RES, Helen Hall supervises everything from complex planning negotiations, environmental assessments and grid issues to turbine selection.

Planning delivery of turbine parts is just one of the many jobs to be co-ordinated
Planning delivery of turbine parts is just one of the many jobs to be co-ordinated

Managing wind farm projects is a complex process that involves working with a wide range of people from many different backgrounds and areas of expertise -- the basic team can involve as many as 30 people. But your end goal is to install renewable energy, and wind is such a marvellous technology and a good all-round technology -- so that's a goal I think is really worthwhile.

The project can take several years to complete. Six years is typical, from finding a site to actually starting construction. We work through major issues before we make any planning applications, and we constantly review the project to see if there are significant issues that we need to resolve. I am currently managing one project, The Grange, a flat fenland site in Lincolnshire, England, which has been in development for four years, and we hope to gain consent later this year. An aviation objection took two years to resolve — there was visibility from a radar and we worked with the Ministry of Defence to minimise effects.

As well as designing and organising consent for a project, I also need to ensure that a project is economically viable. Every developer has their own way of assessing this, based on wind speeds, energy prices and capital costs. Planning issues can make sites not viable, especially with smaller projects. For example, if a solution to an aviation problem involves installing a new radar, the cost may be prohibitive. However, because we plan each project very carefully, we know from a very early stage if there are going to be any major problems. Our company has been developing wind farms for over 25 years so we can see very quickly if something will cause a problem.

Generally, our strategy is to address critical issues early in the project-management process. In Wales, for example, there is a shortage of grid capacity, and some sites cannot be connected to the electricity supply until 2016. This is factored into the project plan with input from our in-house grid engineers, who work with the grid operators and arrange connections.

The majority of our wind farms require an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), which we use to aid the iterative design to minimise environmental effects. We have a whole range of specialists from external consultants, like ornithologists, landscape architects, archeologists and hydrologists, who survey the site and provide us with baseline information about the site’s environment. At The Grange, we undertook two years of bird surveys because early consultation identified that there were concerns about a nearby special protection area designated for, amongst others, its pink-footed geese population. Survey data feeds into the design of the wind farm so if, for example, an archeological feature is found, then we design the wind farm to minimise any direct effects or impacts on its setting.

We also refer to consultation responses from key stakeholders, such as environment bodies, local planning authorities and local communities, to build up a constraints map that will help us to design the layout. We favour early consultation and communicate openly using newsletters, exhibitions and meetings.

During the design of the site, we work with landscape architects to achieve a balanced layout from key viewpoints around the site and avoid visual clutter. Designing a wind farm is a balancing act involving several iterations from the EIA process, where we look to achieve the best possible layout with the least environmental effects. Once baseline survey and consultation data has been gathered, this design process can take three to four months. 

As soon as we have completed our EIA and finalised our turbine layout, we submit the planning application for the wind farm to the decision maker. In England and Wales, if the scheme is less that 50MW, it will be the local authority that makes a decision. For larger schemes, there is some uncertainty as the government is changing the process.

The planning application usually takes 12-18 months for a decision to be reached. This can involve a public inquiry if the local authority refuses the wind farm.

Post consent

Once planning permission is obtained, there is still a lot of work to be done before construction can begin. Consent for a wind farm usually has a number of planning conditions, such as requirements for traffic management or issues around regulating noise from the wind farm and mitigating interference to TV reception. My job at this stage is to work with the local authority and other stakeholders to meet these conditions by providing further information and commitments. This often involves submitting schemes to the local authority, outlining in detail the work we are going to do. For example, we would draw up a habitat management plan where we would establish what species of plants we would plant and where, and how this would be managed once the wind farm is operational. This stage typically takes between six and 12 months, depending on the type of conditions that a project has to resolve.

Our company develops, constructs and owns its wind farms, so it is easy to integrate the various stages of the process. Where different companies are involved, it is important to communicate their findings along the way.

Assessing turbine selection

Once the planning is completed, I will work with our in-house procurement team in selecting the turbines. We look at the different options before choosing the best model for the site. The major factors to consider are the size, energy yield, noise, cost and availability. One of the conditions of a planning application may be that the turbines cannot exceed a certain height, so you will need a specific turbine to fit within those parameters, which may reduce the options available. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to turbines. We choose them on a site-by-site basis. Some are suited to sites with higher wind speeds, some for lower, and all have different inherent costs. All these factors must be considered when choosing.

Establishing the route to transport the turbines to the site normally involves a dry run, which will feed into a full transport assessment. We drive the route with a trailer the size of the largest component (usually blades), to establish any issues that we might have with delivery. Although we also use computer modelling to map the route, it tends to be quite conservative. So we go and look ourselves — which I have often found to be a very valuable exercise.

Typically, we use project finance to fund our projects and we have an in-house team that works with the banks and deals with financing. The due diligence requirements of the investors must be kept in mind during the design and consenting of a project so we feed back experiences from financing into the development process.

As a project manager I am responsible for the whole process of the project, right up until we hand the site over for construction work to begin. And as well as working with teams at RES, I liaise with many diverse groups in developing a wind farm. 

Project managers very much see things with their own eyes and get involved in every stage of the process. It’s a team effort, but the project manager needs to pull it all together and make sure that a project can be built.  

Helen Hall is a wind farm project manager for renewable energy developer RES UK & Ireland

Overseeing the build A project manager’s checklist

Among the many things to be done when overseeing a project from development to hand-over:

  • Look at any potential major objections on the site, such as aviation issues
  • Consult with local communities and stakeholders from an early stage and maintain an open dialogue throughout the development
  • Work with in-house teams to secure an offer of connection to the grid
  • l Environmental Impact Assessment work begins, with studies by external consultants co-ordinated by the project manager
  • Oversee teams of specialists to build a constraints map of the site
  • Design the site working alongside landscape architects
  • Submit a planning application and an environmental statement to the decision maker in question
  • As public consultation and communication is key, set up community liaison groups and community funds that benefit local people
  • l Once permission is granted, the project manager can then oversee:
  • Turbines are selected
  • Planning conditions are met
  • Financing is obtained
  • Detailed design is undertaken ready for construction work to begin

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