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NEW REVIEW

The Quarterly Newsletter for the UK New and Renewable Energy Industry

ISSUE 40
May 1999

IN BUSINESS

Carno Wind Farm, Powys, which successfully abtained approval from the local planning authority

WIND ENERGY - THE PLANNING ISSUE

Crispin Aubrey, editor of "Wind Directions", the magazine of the European Wind Energy Association, reflects on the difficulties currently experienced by UK wind power projects as they seek approval from planning authorities.

Wind energy in the UK has hit the doldrums. From the high hopes of the early 1990s, the rate of installation has slowed dramatically. Last year, only 5.7MW developed net capacity (DNC) of wind farms were built, bringing the total capacity to 140MW DNC. Other countries, such as Denmark and the Netherlands, are making more use of their wind energy potential despite the fact that the UK has the largest wind resource in Europe.

The reason for this state of affairs is not the technology itself. Wind turbines are now among the most cost-effective ways of generating renewable energy. Around the world, wind is the fastest-growing energy source of all. In the UK, generation costs have fallen to less than 2p/kWh. But whilst dozens of economically viable projects have obtained 15 year contracts under the UK's Renewables Obligations, they have repeatedly foundered at an all-important hurdle - obtaining planning permission.

The Planning Barrier

PPG 22, the Planning Policy Guidance Note which covers wind energy, spells out the Government's positive approach towards renewables developments, which of course represent an important weapon in the battle against global warming. In the mid-1990s, however, the tide began to turn as local planners (and particularly their committees) became increasingly liable to see wind farms as a potential blot on the landscape.

Such is the dearth of planning successes that, in the past three years, less than 9MW of schemes have gained consent in England and Wales. Even on appeal, developers are increasingly failing. Up to 1994 nine out of 12 wind farm appeals were successful; since then, only three out of 19 have been upheld. (Statistics compiled by solicitors Wilbraham & Co. for National Wind Power.) Meanwhile, over 1000MW of NFFO wind schemes are waiting in the queue.    

Large and small projects alike have hit planning problems. Two recent examples in particular have focused the frustrations of the wind energy industry. One was an application by the country's largest developer, National Wind Power, to build 25 turbines at Barmingham High Moor in County Durham. This scheme was supported by local people at a parish meeting, was not in a nationally designated landscape area and was described by Friends of the Earth as an example of "good practice".

However, Teesdale District Council rejected the application, and this decision was firmly endorsed by a Public Inquiry. In his conclusions, the Inspector said that the wind farm's output would be "insignificant and unreliable" and would not "translate directly into pollution savings". National Wind Power is now taking the case to the High Court.

The other example was a proposal for six turbines in an area of Cumbria previously earmarked as suitable for small clusters. The developers, The Wind Company, had already successfully launched Britain's first wind co-operative (Baywind see NEW REVIEW 31) not far away and were aiming to repeat the exercise. Despite having the support of all the nearby parish councils, the project's planning application was turned down by South Lakeland's planning committee by eight votes to six.

The controversy which wind farm proposals throw up can be seen from reading the local press in parts of the country where planning applications are being submitted. Stories refer to "horrendous" turbine plans threatening to destroy the landscape. One newspaper in the north-east has launched a campaign under the slogan "Stop the Monster Turbines". The increase in planning rejections since the mid-1990s has coincided with the rising influence of Country Guardian, the national anti-wind farm group. A negative approach of varying strength has also been adopted by conservation groups ranging from the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales to the National Trust.

The central strand which unites this opposition to wind power is the perceived damaging visual effect which a wind farm is expected to have on a particular stretch of countryside. Other issues may include noise and the alleged danger to birds. Moreover, the amount of energy produced is seen as insignificant.

The Wind Industry's Response

In response, the wind industry does not pretend that wind farms can suddenly become invisible. Instead it argues that the opponents are an unrepresentative minority. Time and again, the industry claims, independent surveys carried out after wind installations have been built show that even previously controversial schemes are accepted by the vast majority of their neighbours.

The most recent survey was carried out in the district of Stroud by Roberston Bell Associates in connection with the turbine now operating just outside the village of Nympsfield. Almost three-quarters of those questioned said the turbine made the scenery "more interesting" or was "hardly noticeable", whilst 70% said they supported a plan for three more machines on the same site. The survey was commissioned by Triodos Bank, the Gloucestershire Water & Energy Forum, the British Wind Energy Association and Western WindPower.

Other explanations have been put forward as to why wind developments have had greater difficulty in terms of planning in the UK than elsewhere in Europe. One is that the highly competitive nature of the NFFO system has clustered projects around the windiest sites and encouraged a feeling that certain areas are being engulfed. Another is that there is very little grass roots involvement in schemes, and certainly much less of the environmentally led input into local politics to be found, for example, in Germany. A third argument holds that the developers themselves have sometimes encouraged opposition by misjudging the sensitivities of local communities.

In the light of the Barmingham High Moor outcome, one particular worry for the wind industry is that the tendency of wind farm planning decisions to uphold concerns about visual intrusion has now been taken on board by Public Inquiry Inspectors. It argues that the Government should ensure that its policy in favour of renewable energy is translated into projects actually being built.

One suggested way forward is for regions of the country to be given specific targets for wind energy (and other renewables) as part of a national goal. They would then have to find the sites to satisfy this contribution. A system like this already operates in Denmark and Germany, with local authorities expected to allocate certain zones where wind turbines would be acceptable.

Meanwhile, a brief ray of light, from the industry's viewpoint, has been shed by a recent Planning Inquiry result. Approval was given at the end of January for three turbines at Kirkheaton in Northumberland by a Planning Inspector whose conclusions - that the "valuable contribution" made by wind energy outweighed any visual intrusion - were almost completely the opposite of those at Barmingham. The fact remains, however, that without an avalanche of decisions like Kirkheaton, ambitious targets for the UK wind industry will remain a distant dream.

NEW REVIEW is produced by ETSU on behalf of the DTI. Views expressed in the publication do not necessarily represent the views or policies of the Government or the views of ETSU.  Neither the DTI nor ETSU endorses any of the products or services featured in NEW REVIEW. Please address correspondence to: Dr Barry Hague, Editor - NEW REVIEW, ETSU, Harwell, Didcot, Oxon OX11 0RA. For more information about the DTI's New and Renewable Energy Programme, contact: New and Renewable Energy Enquiries Bureau, ETSU, Harwell, Didcot, Oxon OX11 0RA; Tel: 01235 432450/433601, Fax: 01235 433066.