Just a few years ago, Britain's Ministry of Defence (MOD) was perceived as one of the biggest obstacles impeding progress of wind energy in the UK. Vast swathes of the UK countryside seemed to be no-go areas for wind turbines due to their alleged adverse impacts on military radar and low flying exercises conducted by the air force. Today, it appears the MOD is trying to shed its former obstructionist image when it comes to wind power.
The man tasked with improving the MOD's performance is Julian Chafer, head of "Safeguarding" at Defence Estates. The military division is based in Sutton Coldfield in the English Midlands and assesses all proposals for projects that could affect MOD operations throughout the UK.
A number of recent developments indicate that the MOD is changing its approach to wind power development. It has undertaken comprehensive trials to assess the effect of turbines on military radar systems; it has put in place, with support from the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA), the government's Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the Scottish Executive, a process for assessing the effect of turbines on the vitally important seismic array at Eskdalemuir in Scotland; it is improving its consultation system to reduce the time taken to consider wind turbine proposals; and it says it is improving communications and relationships with major stakeholders such as the BWEA and individual wind energy developers.
These positive developments are a welcome result of increased dialogue between the MOD and the wind industry, says BWEA's Alison Hill. She adds that this year more projects appear to be receiving planning consent as MOD and the aviation industry show more willingness to be constructive when dealing with wind farm applications. "Historically a rather more prescriptive approach was used," she says.
Yet despite encouraging signs, the MOD still raises concerns with nearly 50% of wind farm proposals each year. Chafer claims these are often unfairly portrayed as the major stumbling block to wind. "Since 1996 we have seen over 4000 pre-application proposals for wind farms and have raised no issues or concerns to over 2000," he says. "Yet in the same period only around 80 wind farms have been built. I would suggest that there are other factors that are causing far more significant blockages than the MOD."
He adds that the combined capacity of wind projects that have emerged uncontested from the Safeguarding process is more than enough to meet the government's target of 10% of electricity from renewables by 2010. Wind is expected to provide 7.5 GW of capacity by then -- some 75% of the UK target. "In 2003 and 2004 alone we raised no issues to 50 GW of wind," Chafer points out.
The Safeguarding group's approach to wind is driven by the needs of the MOD but is also set in the context of a number of goals contained in the government's 2003 Energy White Paper (EWP). "The majority of the targets we have met, but they are the more straightforward ones," Chafer says. He is more concerned with meeting the EWP targets requiring the MOD to shorten the average time taken to assess proposals -- and to reduce the overall number of objections. In the months after the white paper was published, turn around times have grown, not shortened.
"When the EWP was being drafted, we were only receiving a small number of proposals each year so the average of five to seven weeks was reasonable. As the number of proposals rocketed to many hundreds each year it is really not surprising that turn-around time grew." Although numbers are falling slightly -- around 800 in 2004 after a peak of 1000 in 2002 and likely to be 700 this year -- the proposals are, on average, taking longer to assess. "The easy sites have gone early. Now developers are moving into areas that are more likely to cause us concerns," he explains. "We have done a lot to get average turn-around time down but we have to accept that a quick answer is not always the right answer."
As for the target to reduce the number of MOD objections, Chafer is emphatic: he is striving to improve the service, he says, but "the service I provide is to my defence customers first and foremost."
The issue that most concerns Chafer's MOD customers is radar interference from wind farms. "It's accepted by everybody now that wind turbines do have an effect on radar," he says. The moving rotors of wind turbines create clutter and false returns on radar screens which make detection of aircraft more difficult. Moreover, MOD trials have shown that a Hawk jet flying at heights between 2000 and 24,000 feet disappears from primary radar when flying over a wind farm.
Until this year, the MOD assessed all wind turbines which were closer than 66 kilometres to an Air Traffic Control (ATC) radar or 74 kilometres to an Air Defence (AD) radar, provided they were in direct line of sight. Chafer explains that the 66 kilometre and 74 kilometre thresholds date back to a report from the mid 1990s based on a Sea King helicopter being flown over a wind farm near the Royal Naval Air Station at Culdrose base in Cornwall. "It was clear that if we were ever to be challenged by a developer, our body of evidence would be this report, which was not scientific and rather dated. We needed robust evidence and the best way to get it was to point a real radar at real turbines and get real aircraft to fly over them," he says. "We were delighted when the Royal Society agreed to be an independent arbiter of the robustness of our research."
As a result of those trials this year and last, the MOD has removed the 66 kilometre and 74 kilometre thresholds and now considers all turbines which will be in a radar's line of sight, regardless of distance. In practice, the change has so far had little impact on projects. "I am not aware of any project further than 74 kilometre away where we have raised an air defence issue. It just means that the further away you are, there is a slight possibility that we might raise issues," says Chafer.
He adds, however, that the "line of sight" rule is under regular review. The MOD is keeping an eye on possible technological fixes such as BAE Systems' Advanced Digital Tracker and the "stealthy" turbines work being undertaken by Qinetiq. MOD helped with BAE's trials of its ADT radar technology by making a Royal Air Force (RAF) mobile Watchman radar available. The ADT software aims to distinguish aircraft from the clutter on radar screens from turbine blades. The trials took place at a site near four wind farms in Wales in July using a variety of aircraft. In addition, Chafer says the MOD has identified potentially mitigating measures in its own trials which will be considered where appropriate.
Meantime, the radar issue is stalling a number of projects -- including offshore. The 90 turbine Shell Flats wind farm off the coast of Blackpool in north-west England is among the few projects from the first UK offshore round that have not been granted planning consent, partly due to outstanding MOD concerns with the effect of the proposed turbines on air traffic control radar at Warton in Lancashire. The irony is that no radar has been sited at Warton since the previous one was damaged in bad weather earlier this year. Nonetheless, air traffic control radar operators insist on maintaining the option to reinstate the Warton radar at a future date. Chafer says the MOD and BAE are still exploring ways to resolve the issue with the project's sponsors, Shell, Elsam and ScottishPower.
MOD has also raised concerns with proposed offshore wind farms included in the Crown Estate's second round of permitting in the Greater Wash area off England's east coast. These are within line of sight of air defence radar at either Trimingham in Norfolk and/or Staxton Wold in Yorkshire. The MOD and the DTI commissioned a study by consultants Aleni-Marconi Systems -- now part of BAE Systems -- to find a way to resolve MOD's concerns. BAE's report is currently being considered by MOD and DTI. Work on a solution continues, says Chafer, and a way forward is hoped for in the first half of 2006.
Low flying is another potential sticking point for the wind industry. The whole of the UK is designated as a low-flying area where fixed wing aircraft can, apart from a number of exclusion areas, fly as low as 250 feet, although in practice, the RAF prefers to conduct its low-flying exercises in the less populated areas of the Scottish Borders, north-west Scotland and mid-Wales.
The issue has blocked several wind projects over the years, including Ecogen's proposed 100 turbine wind farm in Kielder forest in Northumberland. It was finally rejected by government in 2001 after an eight year battle between the MOD and Ecogen.
The MOD maintains that the proliferation of wind turbines can result in significant areas being rendered unsuitable for vital low flying training. Chafer says the MOD recently carried out an exercise in the Scottish Borders Tactical Training Area to explore where wind turbines could be sited so that they would not interfere with low-flying exercises "Now we need to see how to make that information available and, hopefully, repeat the exercise for other parts of the country."
Lines of communication
Making information available and improving lines of communication with the wind industry is an area where the MOD is also making strides. For the past two years it has held quarterly wind energy seminars for developers and other stakeholders where MOD activities and the issues and concerns raised by wind turbines are explained fully and openly. And to cut turn-around times for dealing with project proposals, it has developed a Windfarm Information Notification Database (WIND) -- being piloted this year -- where developers can complete a pro-forma and send it to the MOD by email to initiate consultations. The group also has plans for its own website from which maps showing areas around radar and other defence installations suitable for wind development could be downloaded.
But Chafer wants communication with the industry to be a two-way street. In particular, he is keen for developers to keep the MOD informed of the progress of their proposed projects. In many cases, he says, the MOD has to raise concerns with planned wind farms because of their cumulative impact with proposals that have already been passed by MOD, though many of these may have been dropped by their developers.
"There must be hundreds of projects that have died a death but are still blocking new proposals," he says. "If we can weed out even 50%, this would mean we could delete 1000 dead projects and more accurately assess the impact of new projects." In collaboration with the BWEA, the MOD is to contact all developers requesting the current status of their projects.
To prevent the problem of cumulative impact recurring, Chafer proposes that for future applications each MOD permit will have a six month expiry date. "After six months the developer will have to let us know what is going on. If they miss the six month deadline our approval will lapse." This approach has received full support from the BWEA, he says.
A British problem
Despite the efforts of Chafer and his team to improve the service, the fact remains that getting projects past the UK's defence and aviation industries is a tougher call than in any other country. The obvious question is why should the UK be different? And it is a question that Chafer has become accustomed to answering. "We are often asked how come we have this seemingly over protective approach," he admits. "The answer is that we have different defence requirements, different hardware and software and different approaches to risk. It is not for me to second guess how our counterparts in other countries have arrived at their policies."
But sharing information and experience can be useful, he says. To this end, the MOD is inviting overseas defence experts to London on November 30 and December 1 to exchange views. The question is, he muses, will any other European defence bodies toughen up their act as a result.