Wind turbines for dummies*

“How I learned to stop worrying and love the sustainable energy”

This is likely to a bit of a ramble and possibly go off topic.

Last night our parish council had to consider separate planning applications for wind turbine and two solar panel installations. In addition, there was a presentation from a company that is offering to erect a wind turbine on parish land in return for rent and a share of power generation income.

Many rural areas, especially around north Devon are seeing an explosion of sustainable energy developments. The conditions are ripe. We’re in an area designated under the old structural plan, or whatever it called itself, as wind energy “ground zero”. The prevailing wind whips off the Atlantic and believe me it blows 12 months of the year. (Although this is the most lamb like March since we moved down here.)

There’s also a good supply of farmers looking to improve the yield of their acreage. North Devon still bears the scars of foot and mouth. Many farmers have diversified. It’s said that the population of our parish increases by about 50% in summer months what with second homes and holiday accommodation on former farms.

Would you begrudge a struggling farmer being charmed by the turbine salesman? It’s more or less free money.

Anyway, the point I’m going to get to in a minute – I said I’d go off topic – is that our parish council is poorly equipped to make a sensible decision on wind or solar energy proposals.

Let me deconstruct that last statement. The parish council has some wise heads. It has the knowledge of the community and the land. Individual members do their best to represent the ordinary folk. But, they are not acoustic engineers.

Last night, councillors were asked to decide whether several sheets of out of context numbers and graphs should persuade them to change their minds. All of this in the context of a heated meeting that had already lasted two hours.

Their statutory planning role is as an advisory role. Planning authorities – in our case the district – make the planning decisions. The district is under no obligation to agree the advice of parishes, but in practice it will have regard especially on such contentious issues.

The council has little in the way of guidance. Our district council has produced a wind energy policy document. But, that policy has to be set against national guidelines and energy policies.

Perhaps more problematic, the parish council – like the district planners – has to consider each application on its merits without any overriding plan. The current “plan” paints a blob on a map and says insert x number of kW generation around here. It could all be on the same site or scattered around the farms of the culm and combe.

In practice, supporting or not supporting (remember, approval rests with the district) is subject to precedent but not without a long winded, unstructured, emotive debate.

What our collection of teacher, car mechanic, farmers, retired union official and so on need is impartial, informed, expert advice and guidance.

Fat chance.

There’s three classes of people: those vehemently supportive of wind turbines, possibly because of pecuniary interest; those vehemently against; and, those who leave their lights on all night.

Wind turbine public meetings usually descend into fractious, rather pointless chaos. Of course, most who turn up are against. Organise any public meeting about a contentious issue and you’ll usually get 90% antis.

There’s too much anti-science, cherry picking of factoids and plain nonsense littering the debate.

Last night we were treated to the “health issues linked to wind turbines” statement. Really? Which peer reviewed study would that be?

It’s very much like the mobile phones cause cancer argument. Intuitively there must be some cause:effect from this nasty technology. But, er, the evidence is inconclusive. I’m surprised that we’ve not yet seen a “wind turbines cause cancer” Daily Mail headline.

On the other hand, the wind turbine company kept talking about “green energy” as though turbines are completely benign. If you say it often, I guess it becomes fact. Ignore: road miles to get the equipment on site from a distant manufacturing plant, concrete plinth (very eco-unfriendly), visual intrusion, noise, flicker and all the other collateral effects.

I try approach this subject as a technocrat. Any decision needs to be made on the facts of the case, evidence based and set in public policy terms. Any decision must weigh the pros and cons for all sides. Unfortunately, that usually means that the application should be supported.

The only fact is that wind turbines – both on and off shore – are here (next week, there, and next month, everywhere) for the forseeable future. This may or may not have anything to do with the “facts” or “evidence” in each individual case.

We’ve got a short to medium term energy crisis driven by inertia, climate change and a failing planning system.

We’re stuck with wind and a lot of hot air: pity the poor parish councillor.


* – I’m not implying parish councillors are “dummies”!


One Response to Wind turbines for dummies*

  1. […] Wind turbines for dummies* by Peter McClymont. […]

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