Exploring the visual impact of wind farms on landscape

Harvesting wind in Somerton, Norfolk

Harvesting wind in Somerton, Norfolk

East Anglia lies at the heart of a heated debate on the expansion of onshore wind farms across England. The battle to secure or defeat planning applications for new wind turbines is in the balance, as the following two stories illustrate. In May 2012, a High Court judge ruled that it is “not correct to assert that the UK national policy promoting the use of renewable resources negates the local landscape policies or must be given ‘primacy’ over them”. The small community of Hemsby, Norfolk had defended the countryside against the unwelcome “invasion” of four 105-metre high turbines. This judgment provided the inspiration for my decision to choose Norfolk and East Anglia as the starting point for a photography project that explores the visual impact of wind power on the landscape. Fast-forward to January 2013 and take a short drive through the pleasant Norfolk countryside to the communities of Bagthorpe and Stanhoe. An application to erect 11 turbines on two wind farms reached the High Court again. But this time the same judge, Mrs. Justice Lang, rejected claims that the turbines would spoil views from nearby Bloodgate Hill Fort (it should be mentioned that no structure or ruins actually exist here).

A multitude of reasons are put forth for opposing wind farms but the truth behind many claims is simply that some people don’t like the look of them (Why there’s only one honest objection to wind farms). Ill-informed or misleading attempts to discredit technology, cost, subsidies and efficiency are often used to disguise the true reason for opposition. Having said that, visual impacts of wind farms on landscape are certainly a legitimate concern and deserve to be debated in an open and transparent way. After all, does landscape not inspire us, inform our sense of identity, nurture our soul, and underpin our quality of life?

Now time for some number crunching to dispel myths and inaccuracies on the size of the wind industry. The UK Wind Energy Database (UKWED) is the most comprehensive source of data on wind power in the country. It currently lists 370 wind farms containing more than 4,300 wind turbines across the whole of the UK (both onshore and offshore). These generate around seven gigawatts of power and save almost seven million tonnes of CO2 that would otherwise be generated by fossil fuels. The East of England, which includes East Anglia, has 24 operational wind farms with 253 turbines, 87 of which are onshore (an average onshore wind farm contains just four turbines). A further 110 turbines (77 onshore) are currently under construction and another 84 turbines (83 onshore) already have planning consent. In all, we are looking at a potential 247 wind turbines onshore spread across the second largest region of England. Too many for some people, but to put this in perspective, the single largest onshore wind farm in Scotland (Whitelee) has 140 turbines with construction of a further 75 turbines due to be completed next month. That said, visual impact on landscape is not a simple numbers game.

So where do the leading organizations that champion the English landscape stand on the visual impact of wind farms? Before we go any further, it should be noted that all the organizations mentioned in this article have taken an official position that recognizes the need for positive action on climate change. Leading the charge is the environmental charity, Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), which claims to be “standing up for the countryside for over 80 years”.  The acclaimed author Bill Bryson, is currently President of the CPRE and happens to live in Wramplingham in rural Norfolk. A recent newspaper article in the Telegraph quotes him as saying that, “the wave of planning applications for wind turbines across the country risks unacceptable damage to the landscape; to localism and people’s confidence in the planning system; and, ultimately, to the battle against climate change”. Ironically, the English countryside is already losing the war against climate change due to extreme weather events, such as flooding, with 2012 officially classed as the wettest year in England on record. More on localism and confidence in the planning system later.

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) leads the UK as a whole in terms of publically available guidance with a well-written and comprehensive document, “Siting and Designing wind-farms in the landscape”. Their process of assessing landscape and visual impacts is rigorous and easy to follow. English Heritage appears to play a much more limited role than it’s Scottish counterpart with respect to landscape, focusing solely on the historic environment and cultural heritage. The last report available on their website to address the issue is dated from 2005 (Wind Energy and the Historic Environment). Similarly, the Landscape Institute (LI) has not updated its guidance since the publication of “Guidelines for Landscape and Visual Impact Assessment” in 2002, although it has posted a number of responses to reports from other organizations such as the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). Incidentally, the LI is an educational charity and chartered body for landscape architects that champions the protection, conservation and enhancement of the natural and built environment.

Stepping into the void is Natural England, the public body with statutory responsibility for protecting and improving England’s natural environment. Their 2010 report “Making space for renewable energy: assessing onshore wind energy development” calls on the Government to allow local planning authorities and the Planning Inspectorate to put greater emphasis on local plans when making decisions. In theory, a county council should have a deeper understanding of local landscape and the residents that are part of it but local politics is far more complex than that. Just how can the UK meet its own carbon reduction targets under the Climate Change Act unless it adopts a strategic approach at national level that recognizes wind farms have to be built somewhere? I recognise that some people firmly believe onshore wind farms should not be built at all but offshore is still too expensive, and no other renewable energy source currently exists that is scalable and relatively affordable today. Unfortunately, local communities are largely not the beneficiaries of wind power (apart from landowners) and until public policy is changed, local communities and councils will continue to be naturally predisposed to oppose wind farm development.

Let’s take a look at the process behind making a decision on the landscape impacts of wind farms. A Landscape and Visual Impact Assessment (LVIA) is a standard process of examining the landscape and visual effects of a development. This is most often performed by a Chartered Landscape Architect in a structured and consistent way using professional judgment. An LVIA is usually required for every wind farm proposal regardless of whether a larger Environmental Impact Assessment is carried out. Visual tools such as photographs, photomontages and Zone of Theoretical Visibility (ZTV) maps are used to present the information clearly and concisely for all to understand. The local planning authority then makes a decision to reject or approve planning consent based on all of the evidence gathered (economic, technical, environmental). A disappointed applicant has the right to appeal to the Secretary of State, where a Planning Inspector is normally appointed to review the application. A further level of appeal is possible in the High Court.

Natural England assesses landscape and visual impact by taking statutory protected sites, landscape character and historic and culture heritage into account. Landscape character is the result of the unique combination of elements that makes one place different from another including geology and ecology, culture and history, aesthetics and perception. A Landscape Character Assessment (LCA) tries to objectify judgments but there will always be subjectivity when dealing with aesthetics and perception. The sense of relative remoteness, tranquility, artistic, literary and historic associations are difficult, if not impossible, to quantify as they vary from person to person. Nevertheless, the CPRE has attempted to quantify “tranquility” by producing a colour-coded map largely according to the urban/rural divide and plotting wind farms alongside.

CPRE published a dedicated report with recommendations in April 2012, “Generating light on landscape impacts: How to accommodate onshore wind while protecting the countryside”. Their website expresses a vision where green energy is in harmony with the landscape; increasingly in small-scale networks which benefit local communities and minimize damage to the environment. However, small-scale networks are potentially more damaging to the landscape and make less efficient use of infrastructure, as more grid connections, access roads, substations and pylons need to be constructed. Additionally, extra caution is needed due to the greater cumulative effect on the landscape. SNH offers useful guidance on this topic suggesting that new wind farms should take into account existing ones, avoid dominating existing focal points or distinctive skylines and complement the landscape character in terms of positioning, extent and density. This ties in closely with the capacity of the landscape to absorb man-made structures such as wind turbines. Perhaps fewer and larger wind farms located in the most appropriate landscapes could be a better solution overall? Or well-dispsersed if on a small-scale that benefits local communities?

CPRE has expressed its concern that wind farms “are increasingly being directed towards more remote, tranquil areas”. The Lake District in Cumbria stands out as one protected region that has a cluster of wind farms lying close to the northwest edge of the Park. One reason for this is public opposition by local residents to proposals for wind turbines near inhabited areas. The UK has precious few wilderness areas confined largely to remote parts of Scotland and a handful of large National Parks. Such landscapes are most sensitive to any human footprint no matter whether a whitewashed bungalow, an electricity pylon or even a wind turbine. England currently has no legal separation distance between housing and wind turbines, although an independent study on noise limits suggest a minimum distance of 350 metres. In Scotland, which is much less densely populated than England, the recommended distance is 2km and this figure drops to 500m in Wales. If England were to follow Scotland’s lead (some councils such as Lincolnshire are already pushing for this), then it would force wind farms into ever more rural and remote landscapes thus destroying the unique visual amenity that these few remaining landscapes provide. A concerted campaign of NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) means that onshore wind turbines are either pushed into (or close to) uninhabited and protected landscapes, or they are not built at all.

We need to recognize that since the UK has the highest population density of any large country in Europe, rural communities and wind farm developers have a greater likelihood of coming into conflict as they compete for access to limited land resource. This article does not intend to debate the potential solutions to this conflict although it would appear that there is a need to increase community engagement in renewable energy. Two-thirds of turbines are owned by individuals and local communities in Germany where acceptance of wind farms is unsurprisingly far greater than in the UK (only 10% of wind farms are community owned here). A change in government policy to incentivize community ownership could be one way of encouraging people to view wind farms differently. Nevertheless concerns about the visual impact of wind turbines  on landscape character are real and should be respected. The current process for assessing such impacts may not be perfect but at least it has been formalized and is open to influence by the main stakeholders already mentioned. Sensitive landscapes such as National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest should continue to be rigorously protected when reviewing wind farm applications. But it is in the bordering areas and in the open countryside where the greatest risk of conflict lies.  One thing is for sure; the debate is far from over.

 

Can Obama deliver on climate change in his second term in office?

 

Navajo coal-burning power plant near the entrance to Antelope Canyon in Arizona

Navajo coal-burning power plant near the entrance to Antelope Canyon in Arizona

President Obama’s inauguration speech yesterday gave some well-needed hope to the environmental movement by signaling that he is prepared to take action on climate change during his second term in office. It’s fair to say that many commentators and the wider public were caught on the hop. Obama’s silence on the issue during re-election campaigning has been noteworthy. And yet he devoted an entire paragraph (13 lines) to climate change in yesterday’s speech compared to just a single line in his first term inaugural speech 4 years ago. Back then he pledged, “We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.” This sentence appears poetic, almost biblical as if he was prophesizing a future that could only be achieved by divine intervention. It also seems rather distant and disconnected from reality.

This time round, he spells out the consequences of inaction. On the squandered employment opportunities by failing to invest in renewable technology, he exhorts that, “We must claim its promise”. Indeed such inaction on the part of the US is allowing other nations such as Germany, South Korea and China to steal a march. Despite some pragmatism, his speech still carries religious undertones as he talks about “how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God”. In this regard, it appears that he is attempting to reach out to Republicans by reframing the debate on climate change as a duty to God and country to protect “our national treasure, our forests and waterways, our crop lands and snow capped peaks”. However, if someone refuses to believe that man-made climate change is even real, then this new narrative is something of a dead-end. Instead, we could be listening to Obama’s own personal convictions. Obama knows only too well that just four years remain to make history and to be remembered not just for the colour of his skin but also for the legacy he leaves behind. As a family man with two young daughters, there is little doubt that they are a driving force and inspiration that reinforces his personal conviction to tackle climate change. “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations”. Fine words indeed but is he actually able to deliver on them?


The President of the United States may be billed as the most powerful man in the world but if Obama really does possess superpowers, then the Republican Party is surely his kryptonite.  The GOP controls the House of Representatives and has vowed to frustrate any attempts to pass legislation that harms the fossil fuel industry and other backers of the party. Even some within his own party have yet to be convinced of the need for action on climate change. A Cap-and-Trade bill proposed during his first term was defeated even at a time when the Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress.  Perhaps this was for the better, as European attempts to control carbon emissions using the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) have failed miserably so far. The current price of carbon is trading at a measly five euros with carbon allowances flooding the markets. Hardly a meaningful incentive for power plants and heavy industry to curb their carbon emissions.


It would appear that Obama is ready to take a new tack on climate change this time round. The American political system has become so polarized in recent years that attempts at seeking consensus are futile. So rather than trying to take such a radical measure as creating a carbon market in the US, the President is likely to take a more measured approach that allows him to make full use of his executive powers that do not require congressional approval. Rather than aiming high and making little or no progress, he will most likely set his sights lower at a more modest but achievable set of targets. No doubt he and his advisors know only too well the limits of their power after four years in office. This approach obviously has a very real downside in that tinkering at the edges will not achieve the change necessary to reduce carbon emissions in time. Options already on the table are the regulation of carbon as a pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Clean Air Act and a tightening of energy efficiency measures such as the automotive fuel-efficiency standards, which are due to increase to more than 54 miles per gallon by 2025. One way of exploiting his executive decree and thereby circumventing Congress would be to veto the controversial Keystone XL pipeline proposed to deliver oil from the tar sands of Alberta to the heartlands of America. Pressure exerted by Canadian conservatives and US states with oil refineries is likely to be intense. Tar sands have a much greater carbon footprint than even the dirtiest of fossil fuels (coal) and extraction methods scar huge swathes of virgin landscape, polluting rivers in the process. Energy security will most likely be cited as justification to support the project in a similar vein to fracking, which has also exploded onto the scene in recent years.


Obama will need to pick his battles carefully and so tighter regulation of fracking may be an alternative battleground to make a stand on climate change. The Washington Post proposes that EPA powers could be extended to regulate methane leaks from the burgeoning fracking industry. Fracking is a process whereby a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into fissures in shale rock to force natural gas up to the surface. Fracking technology has been one of the saving graces for the American economy in recent years, and nowhere is this better illustrated than in the barren plains of North Dakota where lights from the local fracking industry are now visible from space. Methane is 24 times more polluting than carbon dioxide when it comes to climate change. Any methane that escapes is therefore likely to undo much of the benefit associated with burning natural gas that is “cleaner” than coal.  Equally any attempt to impose additional costs on “frackers” that could make the industry less competitive are likely to result in stalemate. The EPA already has the authority to regulate CO2 thanks to a 2007 Supreme Court decision. However, this only applies to future power plants and not the existing ones, which are responsible for a whopping 40% of the nation’s carbon emissions. Any action to clamp down on power utilities and the fossil fuel industry will no doubt be vigorously contested in the courts. As an outsider, I’m always amazed by the apparent injustice of the American legal system in the hands of obscenely well-paid lawyers who can defeat legislation on some obscure technicality.


One concern is about how many concessions the EPA will be forced to make as it seeks to implement the Clean Air Act. The New York Times reported last week that the Navajo Generating station in Arizona secured a further 5-year extension from the EPA meaning that it now doesn’t have to implement controls on nitrogen oxides until 2023. I was fortunate to visit the US Southwest last March and as I approached the spectacular Antelope Canyon near Page, Arizona, I was greeted by the sight of three towering chimney stacks belching smoke high into the blue skies above pristine red-rock country. The 2,200MW plant provides electricity for customers in California, Nevada and Arizona and provides valuable employment for many Native Americans belonging to the Navajo Nation. But the owners will need to invest in the region of $1 billion to install new catalytic reduction technology to render nitrogen oxides harmless. Are they any more likely to be able to afford the costly upgrade in 10 years time than they are today? And will they be able to afford to meet new and separate requirements on reducing carbon dioxide emissions? Here is a clear example of the true cost associated with fossil fuels, which are largely externalized. Nitrogen oxides not only have health impacts but also contribute to much of the haze that hangs over the Grand Canyon, obscuring breath-taking views. Similarly carbon emissions are directly responsible for the far greater (and as yet unknown) costs of adapting to future climate change and responding to the impacts of extreme weather today.

For now we can only cling to the US President’s every word in hope and attempt to read deeper meaning into those solitary 13 lines of his inaugural speech. We will need to wait until the State of the Union address in February to get a better indication of what real and meaningful action Obama plans to take and whether he is serious about creating a legacy for himself on this issue. In 2009, the President pledged to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020 compared to 2005 levels. Many experts think this is far too little, too late from the world’s second largest polluter. Right now, there’s probably more than a few concerned environmentalists who would settle for second prize.