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.

 

UK wind-farms – a new landmark ruling against a mark on the landscape?

Dawn breaking behind the Scroby Sands wind farm off the UK Norfolk coast

Hemsby is a rather unremarkable English village – until now that is. Lying on the edge of the Norfolk Broads, an exceptional wetland area with National Nature Reserve status and containing Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSIs), it has recently been lauded by certain sections of the British media as a victory of David over Goliath. Sea & Land Power and Energy Ltd recently had plans to build four 105-metre high turbines nearby to supply power for 5,000 homes. However, a High Court judge, Mrs. Justice Lang, ruled last month 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”, setting a precedence for future wind farm applications. I decided to pay a visit to the latest battle line between conserving landscape and constructing wind farms to make up my own mind.

As I drove into the village, I was struck by the not inconspicuous turbines of a nearby wind farm at Somerton, turning lazily in the late afternoon breeze. These wind turbines are situated equally as close to the protected Broads as the proposed wind farm and yet they obviously had successfully attained planning permission at some time or other.  I pulled into a Hemsby convenience store, which also doubles as the village post office to restock on supplies and chat to the owners about their views of the recent wind farm ruling. The husband and wife team standing behind the counter were unsurprisingly against the development making it clear that they had no desire to be surrounded by yet more wind turbines. They mentioned the nearby Scroby Sands offshore wind farm that they said required “forty engineers” to service them with local boat owners making a good living ferrying them back and forth from the coast.

Scroby Sands was constructed in 2004 at a cost of £75 million and generates enough energy to supply over 30,000 homes saving 68,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year.  A WindPower Programme report using data from 2005 found that the wind turbines at Scroby Sands operated 84% of the time and although maintenance costs are significant at £50,000 to £75,000 per year, the turbines are by no means standing idly. Wind energy in the UK is subsidized but then again, so is the coal and gas industry. A report in the Guardian newspaper in February 2012 found that wind power still gets lower subsidies that fossil fuel tax breaks.

The following morning, I arose at the ungodly hour of 4am to capture the sunrise. Peering out through the flaps of my tent, I almost returned to the comfort of my sleeping bag as the sky looked overcast and lifeless. Nevertheless, I set out more in hope than expectation to a sandy beach at Caister-on-Sea with the intention of photographing the offshore wind farm at Scroby Sands. My persistence was duly rewarded as I raced across the dunes with my tripod and camera to take up position on the shoreline. The seascape before me was simply majestic with the golden orb of the sun poking above the horizon lighting up the sky peach-orange, then lilac-pink. Along the horizon, a line of 30 wind turbines stood to attention connecting the sea and sky and adding to the drama of a magnificent sunrise. From where I stood, they appeared no more alien than a passing fishing trawler as it chugged into view.

I decided to visit the nearby Somerton onshore wind farm to see for myself how the turbines interacted, or indeed detracted, from the surrounding landscape. The 10-turbine farm is situated on a low hill either side of a winding country road and rising almost organically from a green sea of recently planted wheat. My attention was immediately drawn to a striking horse galloping in the neighbouring field situated within 100 metres of the nearest turbine. He seemed unusually friendly coming right up to the fence sniffing at my camera and no doubt looking for a treat. I was somewhat taken aback that such a timid and easily spooked animal should appear at ease so close to the wind turbines. After all, were these structures not blamed by some for causing noise pollution in the countryside?

The next stop on my journey was to the Horsey wind-pump located only 3 miles or so from the village of Hemsby. This imposing structure is run by the National Trust, a conservation charity that protects places of historic interest or natural beauty across England. I was particularly keen to photograph the wind-pump not only because it is such an imposing and unusual structure but also because it represents the ingenuity of our ancestors to harness the power of the wind – something which we are now trying to replicate on a much larger scale and with greater efficiency. The five-storey wind-pump was built in 1912 to pump water out from the surrounding land so that it could be used for agriculture. Its white wooden sails painted a giant yet delicate “X” against the cloudy sky. I managed to climb up the steep ladders inside and past a pair of swooping swallows that had taken up residence on the top floor. As I gazed into the distance from the roof, my eye was drawn to the image of a wind turbine at Somerton – the modern turbine and the ancient wind-pump facing off across the flat landscape of the Broads. Perhaps time to move on and accept the new as well as the old?

On my way back from the wind-pump, I stopped off at the nearby National Trust store to ask the manager about walks in the area and maybe get his views on whether wind energy still has a place in the Norfolk countryside. It was still early morning and I was the only customer yet he paced anxiously up and down the store. I introduced myself by saying that I was “interested” in wind energy but didn’t elaborate any further. I decided not to tell him anything about my background nor declare my own views, as I didn’t want to prejudice what he might say to me. I needn’t have been so cautious as it was obvious that he was unfavourably disposed towards all forms of renewable energy. His main argument was that wind turbines (or solar for that matter) simply didn’t work although he had no facts or figures to support this. He had talked to engineers maintaining the offshore wind turbines at Scroby Sands and they told him the same. I pointed out that less than 10% of renewable energy in the UK is owned by individuals or communities, compared with over 65% in Germany, where four times as much clean power is produced. However, he scoffed at the suggestion that perhaps local people would be more amenable to wind farms if the community had part ownership and therefore a potential source of income. There was a definite lack of trust from the man working for the National Trust. I should make clear at this point that his views do not necessarily reflect those of the National Trust itself whose website shows a commitment to renewable energy, such as their ground source heat pump at the nearby Brancaster Estate in Norfolk.

One might conclude at this point that the Great British public is firmly not in favour of wind farms and that NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) is alive and well. However, a poll for the Guardian newspaper in March 2012 found that 60% of people said they would support new wind-farms in their area. At the same time, it also showed an increase in those strongly opposed to wind-farms tripling to 21%. So what can be done to ensure that the UK meets a EU directive to achieve 15% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020? Onshore wind has an important role to play and the latest ruling in Hemsby shows that unique and valued landscape should not suffer at the expense of our commitment to mitigate climate change. It should be possible to do both but this may require a rethink on where we site wind farms in the future.

The visual impact of wind turbines is an important one but there’s no easy way to disguise a 100-metre plus structure. Difficult decisions need to be made on which landscapes deserve to be protected the most and those, which are of lower value. Should wind turbines be situated near populated areas where Man’s footprint on the local landscape is firmly established or will we instead end up scarring the remaining pockets of unspoilt natural landscape that are far removed from population centres?

Mrs. Justice Lang declared Hemsby to be “simply a case of policies pulling in different directions: harm to landscape and the benefits of renewable energy”. However, scratch the surface and it becomes evident that this is not a straight-forward story about Man versus Landscape. The locals I talked to did not articulate their concerns for the landscape clearly but rather discredited the technology behind wind turbines. I believe that it is important that the public accept or reject wind farms for the right reasons rather than perpetuating arguments that have little or no factual basis. The public should not feel forced to adopt a multi-pronged attack that uses every available weapon in the arsenal in the hope that one of them will eventually score victory. The latest ruling will hopefully give people the courage to fight to protect our landscape for the right reasons.

For it’s part, the renewable energy industry and politicians need to win the hearts and minds of local communities in ways that make sense to people’s everyday lives. Will they get any financial benefit from allowing wind turbines into their backyard? Will they still be able to enjoy views of the landscape that haven’t changed for generations? Can modern wind turbines be accepted in a way that traditional wind-mills have come to be loved and admired over time?

Our most precious landscapes deserve to be protected but equally we need to avoid climate change impacts that could destroy these landscapes through flooding or other extreme weather events. For instance, much of the Norfolk coast is slipping into the North Sea and rising sea levels due to climate change will only hasten this. The Norfolk Broads also stand to be inundated with saltwater destroying its unique freshwater ecosystem. Wind farms and landscape both need each other. Hopefully the images from my recent photo trip in Norfolk illustrate that it is possible for both to co-exist in harmony. We should not be forced to make a choice between the two.