United Kingdom

United Kingdom

An atmosphere of wait and see


Google Translate

Britain's 16th annual wind energy conference opened in June on an industry signalling its determination to win over and maintain public support. Most in the industry concede that after sitting on its environmental laurels for too long it has lost ground to the opposition in the wind energy debate. "Many of us thought that the environmental argument was won," said BWEA chairman Ian Mays. "How wrong we were."

Mays believes, however, that over the last few months the industry has not only answered its critics but its proactive stance has set the agenda for the future. Keeping up the momentum, he unveiled the BWEA's plans for its own best practice guidelines at the opening session. "It is vital that the grass roots popularity we currently enjoy is maintained and that developments are undertaken with sensitivity to maximise environmental acceptability," he said. The guidelines, which are to be published in September, will act as a working document for developers to ensure they address all the issues that are relevant to local communities. "They give us the opportunity to demonstrate that developers are not here today, gone tomorrow opportunists out for a quick buck, but responsible and caring companies who want to work with local communities in developing appropriate and mutually beneficial long term projects," he said.

A wait and see mood of anticipation pervaded the conference which saw dramatically fewer delegates than last October's event. Held at the University of Stirling in Scotland, BWEA-16 attracted only 215 -- a reduction of more than a third from last year's highest ever attendance of 340. However, scarcely eight months have lapsed since the last conference and this year's event fell in the middle of the tendering process for the forthcoming tranche of Non Fossil Fuel Obligation (NFFO) contracts. The deadline for non-binding bids had only just expired on June 9 and developers were -- and still are -- engaged on their detailed sums in anticipation of submitting price bids in September -- the next stage of the process. This meant that several companies lacked the manpower for a forceful presence in Stirling. Many delegates also grumbled about the choice of Stirling as a venue, arguing that Edinburgh would have been more accessible. Others would have preferred a location even further south. A national rail strike, which coincided with the first day of the conference, did not help attendance levels either.

Mays refutes these complaints. Scotland was an appropriate choice since much activity is now underway in bidding for contracts in the country's very first Renewables Order, he said. In spite of its far superior wind resource Scotland is only now getting a taste of the premium prices for renewable energy that its neighbours, England and Wales, have enjoyed for four years. As he remarked in the opening session: "We have campaigned long and hard for the NFFO to be extended here and look forward to enabling Scotland to benefit from its enormous natural wind resource."

A speculative buzz

All thoughts in the British wind industry are currently focused on the announcement of NFFO contracts due towards the end of the year. The conference was buzzing with speculation about the outcome. "There are going to be a lot of disappointed people in November," commented one developer, voicing the thoughts of many present. Predicting that the larger companies would each emerge with a clutch of contracts, he wondered where that would leave smaller developers.

Meanwhile, all players in the third round are keeping their cards very close to their chests and not giving away too much about their plans. There was also a marked absence of discussion about wind farm performance in contrast to previous conferences. Evidently wind farm operators are loath to discuss the profitability of their projects. This secretiveness is one of the characteristics of the British commercial wind scene.

Giving the view from Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), Godfrey Bevan said that bidding for the next round of contracts would be extremely competitive. With 230 applications competing for maybe only 20 wind farm contracts in England and Wales and a further 70 applications in Scotland for its much smaller renewables order, Bevan was not about to be accused of overstatement. David Lindley from National Wind Power said there is evidence that developers have been bidding for contracts at around £0.056/kWh. With almost 140 MW of installed capacity already in place in Britain, representing a total investment of some £140 million, he said the industry has demonstrated to financial institutions that wind energy is a low risk technology. He suggested there could be opportunities for some £900 million of investment in wind farms over the next few years. But he warned that although wind energy still has broad public support, the industry needs to be careful in nurturing that support. "We must ensure we don't destroy the public acceptability we already have."

Looking in more detail at generation costs, consultant David Milborrow's findings were consistent with Lindley's predictions. Prices bid into NFFO 3 could go as low as £0.055/kWh, he said. He also believed that further reductions could lead to wind energy costing only £0.04/kWh by 2000. However, very little attention has been paid to the value of wind energy, he said. Although renewable energy is ostensibly valued only at pool price -- the price of electricity traded through the "pool" or spot market for electricity -- he argued that wind should be given a higher value since it generally feeds into local low voltage distribution networks and is therefore worth more to them.

Best practice

In a move designed to counter criticism of UK wind farm developers, the BWEA announced the industry was setting up its own best practice guidelines. These are aimed primarily at developers to help them in preparing projects, but the BWEA believes they will also be of interest to local authorities and other bodies. "The objective is to produce a set of guidelines which will act as a working document for developers to ensure they address all the issues that may be relevant to the local community," said Ian Mays. "Of course there are other audiences. Most notably planning officers who can use them as a yardstick when considering applications." The guidelines will cover site selection, environmental assessment, community consultations and communication, and community involvement.

The association has invited a wide range of organisations to take part in drawing up the guidelines. These include planners, environmentalists, government bodies and even Country Guardian, a wind farm opposition group. The BWEA's Marcus Trinick, a solicitor specialising in wind farm planning, explains: "To give confidence in what we are going to produce, it is important not simply to write it internally. We need to reflect the concerns of a wide variety of interests, including those who oppose the very concept of wind energy development."

Trinick admits that pressures under the first two rounds of NFFO led to some developers making errors -- particularly through a lack of early consultation. "All of us made some mistakes. And although we are unlikely to make the same mistakes again, that does not mean we should not have formal guidelines now." He denies the initiative is a cynical reaction to wind farm opposition. "The industry needs to respond to concerns and to take a responsible attitude to development," he firnly told the conference. Government planning guidance covering wind energy development already exists in the form of the Department of the Environment's Planning Policy Guidance Note on Renewable Energy -- PPG22. However, most people on all sides in the wind energy debate acknowledge this to be rather thin in content offering little specific help. The BWEA initiative also follows closely on the heels of Friends of the Earth's own guidelines for wind farm developers -- Planning for Wind Power.

The exercise is being part funded by the Department for Trade and Industry and the guidelines are expected to be published in September. The BWEA will then circulate them widely to planning officers, councillors, MPs, local community and environment groups and the media.

Focus on Scotland

On day two of the conference, a session was devoted to looking at wind energy from a Scottish perspective. John Twidell from the AMSET Centre at De Montfort University criticised the government's lack of vision, claiming this led to the demise of Scotland's potential wind turbine manufacturing industry. One of Scotland's major companies, the James Howden Group, pulled out of the wind business in early 1989. Twidell said the first round of NFFO came too late, adding that investment by Scottish electricity consumers in the Scottish Renewables Order (SRO) will now be for machines made outside Scotland and the UK.

Several speakers drew attention to the weakness of the grid in the north of the country. The grid aspect is a more limiting factor on wind energy development in Scotland than either noise or visual intrusion, said Paul Gardner from consultants Garrad Hassan. Twidell saw no reason why wind development in the Caithness area could not substitute for the output from the recently closed 250 MW Dounreay fast-breeder nuclear reactor.

Lawyer William Craig from Aberdeen University noted that the general lack of recognition of the Scottish legal system had been highlighted in some of the earlier presentations. As he took the audience through some of the key differences between Scottish and English law that could affect wind energy development, he warned of structural as well as cultural differences. He highlighted the Section 50 Agreement which enables developers to enter into an agreement with local authorities prior to a planning application. This is a useful tool peculiar to Scottish law that can ease the way through the planning process. It could be of particular interest to the British wind industry which has counted the cost to date of 13 public inquiries in England and Wales. Developers should also use indigenous expertise, he recommended. "Don't get an expensive London expert. This only puts local people's backs up and you still need to use local expertise."

The dangers of developments in Scotland by "foreigners" from England and elsewhere that provide few benefits for local communities were also stressed by Philip Roberts of Ascurry Engineering. He, too, advised a local input to wind energy schemes. "If you go it alone and do not take Scottish partners you will not be successful." Not all delegates were happy at being lectured to about the touchiness of the Scots. "The we-are-Scottish element is a bit much to take," said one. "They should not get so parochial. England and Wales now have real experience of wind power and have welcomed people of other nationalities with experience such as the Danes."

Beyond the rhetoric

In a well attended session on public attitudes Friends of the Earth's Fiona Weightman explained that FoE wanted to move beyond the rhetoric in the wind energy debate and get at the true level of public opinion. "There are no easy choices in energy supply, but we need to focus on the environmental imperative for renewable energy," she said. Although wind power does have an impact in the countryside, it is not emitting pollution or using up finite resources. She outlined details of FoE's recently published guidelines for wind farm developers -- Planning for Wind Power. It is crucial for developers to realise that public acceptability is necessary, she warned. They have to recognise there are genuine local concerns about their plans. But there is also a failure by some local planners to understand the true level of opposition. It is important they go beyond the traditional yardstick for measuring local opinion and look at the broader support out in the community, she said.

National Wind Power's Peter Musgrove took issue with FoE's blanket ban in their good practice guidelines on development in designated areas such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest. "The problem is that some sites may be designated part way through the planning process," he pointed out -- evidently with NWP's planned wind farm at Flaight Hill in Yorkshire in mind.

The DTI's Ian Page said that public acceptability of wind energy relies on having the correct information. He discussed the results of recent public opinion surveys -- some undertaken with DTI backing -- which revealed favourable attitudes towards wind power. But he complained that the industry is not doing enough to make the results of its surveys available. "There is a lot of hearsay knowledge, but I cannot get my hands on the data," he said. "The information is no good if it is sitting in someone's office." He revealed some of the results of the latest survey conducted in two stages around Cemmaes wind farm in mid Wales. The findings showed a high level of awareness of wind power issues. More than 90% listed all the usual advantages while 86% were in favour of the wind farm at both stages. "Only three people out of 134 interviewed indicated concern about noise," he said. Page's final warning to developers echoed many before: "The study shows there is a lot of goodwill out there towards wind energy, but don't take it for granted. You will have to work at it."

In a presentation that did not go down well with some, but which was singled out for praise by others, Caroline Stanton, of the School of Landscape Architecture at Edinburgh's Heriot-Watt University, discussed the aesthetic appeal of wind turbines in the landscape. It is essential to design wind farms with this in mind, she said. "As a building needs an architect to make it a positive visual element within the landscape, a wind farm needs a designer. If the industry ignores this process, it will only lead to further professional and public dissatisfaction and antagonism." She dismissed the idea that wind farms should not be built at all in areas such as National Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty saying they should be developed in "areas determined by the suitability of their landscape character and the merits of an individual design, rather than by planning designations." Sticking her neck out, she opted for three-bladed machines which can be related to the traditional image of windmills in preference to two-bladed machines. Turbine towers should ideally be solid and cylindrical, rather than lattice, she also said.

In an exercise in crystal ball gazing, Tim Kirby of renewable energy developer Ecogen looked at one of the biggest causes of fear about wind energy: just how much of it will we need? Giving his personal view, he said Britain should aim at around 30 TWh/year by 2010 -- or some 10% of current demand. Believing -- rather optimistically -- that improvements in energy efficiency could by then reduce consumption by half, this would mean wind energy could provide 20% of needs. Given more improvements in capacity factors this could be achieved with an installed capacity of only 8500 MW, he said. His scenario split this capacity between onshore and offshore. His forecast, however, does not seem to be shared by the DTI which has discontinued all financial support of offshore wind research and development.

Kirby reserved some criticism for the NFFO mechanism. It creates protracted periods of limbo, he pointed out, which is just where the industry is now. Developers are awaiting the results of 230 applications for contracts which will result -- as the industry expected -- in no more than 20 wind farms. "A system that forces long delays is not conducive to favourable attitudes and good public relations for the wind industry," he said. This shortcoming of the NFFO was the subject of intense discussion during the open forum at the close of the conference. It is a major issue that the BWEA is determined to address with the DTI. Of a number of options discussed for a reform of NFFO that the association could put to Energy Minister Tim Eggar, the consensus among members was that a rolling programme of contracts would be the preferred way forward.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles
and free email bulletins.

Sign up now
Already registered?
Sign in