The industrialization of an Irish landscape to meet UK energy needs

A landscape fossilized,

Its stone wall patterings

Repeated before our eyes

In the stone walls of Mayo
Before I turn to go

Extract from ‘Belderg’ by Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)

© 2013 Colin Cafferty

Belderrig harbour – a small fishing community near Glinsk

 

I’m an unabashed map junkie, have been for years, which means I have the rare ability to be entranced for hours on end by contour line patterns, dendritic river systems, obscure topographical symbols, and various other cartographic delights. When visiting my home in County Mayo in the West of Ireland two years ago, I resolved to finally forsake my position as armchair explorer in favour of actively exploring uncharted territory. My interest was piqued when I made the discovery that a considerable chunk of North Mayo was hazy at best when viewed as a satellite image on Google Maps. It appeared as if an imaginary line had been drawn straight through Belderrig (also spelt ‘Belderg’) with all points directly west shrouded in an inexplicable fog. That was when I discovered a newfound interest in the local landscape.

Belderrig is a small coastal community in the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking region) where life revolves around a small harbour and the other bastions of rural Irish living – a pub, a shop, a church and a school. Back in the 1930s, the local schoolmaster, Patrick Caulfield, came across a large number of unusual stones in a regular formation and depth whilst cutting turf in a nearby bog. Years later, his son, the archaeologist Professor Seamus Caulfield, discovered evidence of an extensive Stone Age field system complete with dwellings and tombs several miles further to the east. This became known as ‘Céide Fields’ – the oldest known field system in the world with a history of more than five and a half thousand years. These ancient structures have been preserved in the bogland from a time that pre-dates the Pyramids of Egypt. Who knows what other cultural treasures lie hidden beneath the veneer of bog? But radical changes are gathering apace that could leave an indelible mark on this ancient landscape.

© Colin Cafferty 2012

Ancient farming landscape at Ceide Fields Visitors Centre in North Mayo

 

A journey of self-discovery

Last year, I embarked on a personal project to explore the visual impact of wind-farms on landscape in the UK through photography. I chose this topic not just because it happens to be a contentious one for many Britons but also because it was an issue I had to resolve in my own head once and for all. I travelled to East Anglia and Cumbria to document wind turbines, near to but outside of, sensitive landscapes such as the Norfolk Broads and the Lake District National Park. It’s a personal journey that has taken on an entirely new dimension since I decided to dig into my own metaphorical back yard in the West of Ireland. I resolved to take the plunge and confront my demons once and for all. I would find out whether a committed environmentalist and renewable energy enthusiast could simultaneously hide a closet NIMBY somewhere deep inside. Incidentally, I should point out that I’ve been living in London for the past nine years but you can see my point.

As so often is the case, energy and other natural resources are unfortunately mined in the most remote, unspoilt and sensitive of landscapes around the globe. With fewer people to object and largely out of sight of the media’s prying eyes, those few hardy (usually portrayed as stubborn) souls who make a stand are often left whispering in the wind. To my eyes, County Mayo is ‘frontier country’ on an Irish scale – similar to America’s Wild West in colonial times or Australia’s present day Outback. Most locals would probably laugh at me when I say this but I imagine they would also grudgingly accept that it has at least a modicum of truth.

Lying almost 300km to the west of Ireland’s capital is a landscape rich in gas, peat, wind, wave and biomass. The back-breaking work of harvesting peat by hand using the traditional slean or turf-spade (and by machine more recently) has been the mainstay of local communities to survive the long winter down through the centuries. In recent times, the discovery of the Corrib gas field just fifty miles offshore has attracted the energy giant Shell which is due to open its controversial gas processing facility and pipeline in 2014. But neither of these fossil fuel resources can hold a candle to the potential of renewable energy in the county. Mayo is recognized to have the best wind and wave resource of just about anywhere in Europe. The wind- and wave-battered Atlantic coast pounds the landscape for most of the year. And now planners on the County Council are pounding their fists on the boardroom table demanding a slice of the action, and all of the investment that goes along with it.

Paying lip service to landscape concerns

County Mayo was the first of the twenty six counties in the country to draft its own comprehensive Renewable Energy Strategy (RES). It has a forward-looking County Manager and an ambition to finally put Mayo on the map – to lift that veil of mist I mentioned before and put the wind to work, so to speak. The 88-page RES document includes a collection of interesting maps at the back (well, I would say that, wouldn’t I?), one of which zones the land into Tier 1 (preferred wind farm sites) and Tier 2 (locations open for consideration). A separate 222-page Strategic Environmental Assessment report attempts to explain the rationale behind zoning the land in this way from an environmental perspective. From a landscape perspective, the county is broken down into sixteen different landscape types and then grouped into six Landscape Protection Policy Areas. But landscape is just one of many competing measures, such as biodiversity, water and cultural heritage, which are used to assess five alternative scenarios for future renewable energy development.

In summary, the report concludes that, “County Mayo’s eastern landscapes (Policy Area 4) are the most robust in the County and are least sensitive to change. All other landscapes are highly sensitive to change.” Unfortunately in terms of wind resource, the east of the county has far less potential than the north and west and so you would imagine a clash is on the cards. Not so though. The SEA report concludes that Scenario 4 is the most environmentally sustainable of the five scenarios for renewable energy development although they admit that “there is the potential for conflict with environmental protection objectives in respect of……cultural heritage and landscape.” The report goes on to say that Scenario 4 is “the best as it would take into consideration all types of landscapes identified in the Landscape Appraisal for County Mayo”. This indicates to the reader that the County Council mustn’t view a distinction between their own landscape policy areas after all if their over-riding concern is to consider all landscape types and imply they somehow have equal status. And so it would appear that although the Council has come up with a comprehensive strategy and rigorous set of indicators and policy areas, it is not prepared to apply its own methodology to objectively assess landscape concerns. What we get is an illusion of compromise and tacit support for the industrial-scale development of a largely untouched rural landscape to suit the ends of the policy-makers.

Why does it matter that we protect our landscape?

The Irish sense of identity is intricately bound with our landscape, our language, our literature and our long history of struggle. Take any one of these away and we are all the less Irish for it. Having said that, I did a pretty good job of not just ignoring, but actively shunning the rural tranquility of my home county as I was growing up. But those days passed over as I matured and gained some renewed perspective from afar. We need to recognize that landscapes change and evolve; typically over centuries and millennia when it comes to natural processes, or days and years with the tools of human endeavour. Another pressing concern is the effect that man-made climate change is having on landscape – eroding coastlines due to sea-level rise, flooding agricultural land, and in the case of Mayo, triggering bogslides (similar to landslides but it is the bog that slips downhill).

© 2013 Colin Cafferty

A vast blanket bog landscape near Belderrig in County Mayo

 

The great Irish poet and Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, visited Belderrig and wrote the opening lines to this poem as a thank-you letter to Patrick Caulfield in 1975. This prehistoric landscape continues to inspire poets, writers and artists although it is largely unknown to the outside world. The reputation that Ireland enjoys abroad precedes itself and is at least partly based upon the romantic notion that many foreigners (especially Americans of Irish heritage) have of our landscape, culture and traditions. What if I were to say to you that it is exceedingly rare in today’s Ireland to come across a landscape that doesn’t carry a significant man-made footprint? White-washed houses are a particularly dominant feature dotting the rural countryside and drawing the eye in from afar. But out west, there still lies a handful of wide open landscapes that have remained unchanged for millennia – mostly because the land was too poor, too hilly, and too wet to graft a living from. We should protect these last remaining pockets of our natural heritage, not for romantic or sentimental reasons but because once they are lost to development, there’s very little chance of turning back the clock. Our resilience to the harsh elements, our stubbornness in the face of adversity, our pressing need to have the craic and tell tall stories in the local pub – all of these qualities and much more come from a sense of identity that is shaped by the very same elements that have moulded the landscape over millennia.

An all-or-nothing approach to development

If we accept that development of any type necessitates changes to the landscape and that there is also a pressing need to pursue our renewable energy ambitions, then it just become a question of what development in which landscape, and to what extent. Mayo is recognized as having one of the best wind and wave resources in all of Europe. Yet, it lies far from the population centres that can draw down this power. In fact, according to the developers of the Mayo Atlantic Renewable Energy Export (MAREX) project, Mayo has such an abundance of raw power that sufficient demand does not exist on the entire island of Ireland. Together with an undeveloped electricity grid, this has become the basis of a proposal to develop the single largest energy infrastructure project ever undertaken in Ireland.

Organic Power intends to develop a massive 2GW (2,000MW) of wind power in North Mayo by 2018 if it can secure planning permission. That means sinking 450 wind turbines into the boggy landscape, constructing a 1.5GW hydro energy storage hub and laying down a 500-kilometre HVDC cable across the country and under the Irish Sea to feed into the much larger UK market. This project can only succeed at scale – there are all kinds of price pressures that dictate it’s all or nothing approach. Landscape is only a consideration in terms of whether the project can meet the lenient policy set by the County Council that is  open to interpretation and whether it can appease An Bord Pleanala (the Irish planning board) who are already under significant pressure to wave through what has been termed a ‘strategic infrastructure project’ for the country.

Not all landscapes are equal

Whilst the MAREX project continues to gather pace, a far more modest 23MW wind farm proposed by Killala Community Wind Farm Ltd less than 20 miles to the east of Belderrig has been unable to get off the ground for years due to visual impact concerns. This is in spite of the fact that the development would be owned by the local community and that it is located in the least sensitive landscape to development (Policy Area 4 – Landscape Appraisal of County Mayo).

MAREX is not the only wind farm mega-project in Ireland proposed to export wind energy to the UK. Element Power has an even more ambitious £8 billion ‘Greenwire’ proposal to develop 700 wind turbines and generate 3GW of electricity in The Bog of Allen – far removed from the west coast. Bord na Mona, the semi-state body responsible for the mechanized harvesting of peat, has left behind a wide-scale legacy of cutaway bog in the Midlands. Milled, harrowed, ridged and harvested by specialized machinery, the peat is then transported on specially constructed narrow-gauge railways for burning at one of only three remaining peat power stations – Edenderry, Lough Ree and West Offaly. This landscape may share a common resource with that of North Mayo but therein end any similarities. The Bog of Allen is largely an industrial landscape that has been, and continues to be, stripped of peat on a large scale. It has long been sacrificed in the name of development.

The wind may not blow as frequently or as strongly in the Midlands compared to the West but this is a landscape that is far better suited to large-scale development in terms of environmental impact and visual amenity. However, that is not to say that there isn’t room for any wind farm development in North Mayo. Bord na Mona and ESB (the semi-state power utility) received planning permission for a 112-turbine wind farm (originally 180 turbines) back in 2003 on cutaway bog at Oweninny, next to the former Bellacorrick peat-burning power station. In fact, Ireland’s first wind farm was constructed on the same bogland in 1992 and its twenty one turbines are turning in the wind to this day. The Oweninny development is more appropriate for the county than the MAREX project on several fronts. This area is cutaway bog, a scarred landscape as such, similar to but much smaller in scope than the Midlands. Wind turbines already exist in the vicinity and although the proposed development is sizeable, it’s still only a quarter of the MAREX project in terms of turbine numbers. And last but not least, this power is for Irish consumers, Ireland’s energy security and contributes to Ireland’s climate change targets.

Industrialization of a landscape

If the Organic Power project were to proceed alongside this development, the rural landscape of North Mayo would need to somehow absorb almost 600 wind turbines. This would represent the most significant industrialization of a rural landscape in Ireland due to the cumulative impact of such a massive undertaking. It would also be  the single largest onshore wind farm project anywhere in the world. North Mayo is home to one of the last significant tracts of blanket bog found anywhere in Europe. If we are to scale up our renewable energy ambitions by planting an equivalent number of wind turbines in the country, then we should do so on flat land already ‘strip-mined’ such as that found on the Bog of Allen. But there is a larger, more fundamental question here. Should the UK outsource it’s renewable energy needs to another country just because a Conservative government has no desire to rile its voter base in rural England? And where do carbon emissions and climate change targets fit in with all of this? It should be remembered that any power exported to the UK will not go towards Ireland’s 2020 targets to source 40% of electricity from renewable sources under the EU 2009 Renewable Energy Directive.

Admittedly, the wind does not blow quite as strongly or as predictably in the Midlands compared to in Mayo. But that does not mean it is any less appropriate to develop. Let’s take it as a given that we cannot scale up renewable energy sufficiently unless it makes sound economic sense. Conventional accounting does not take into account the true value of land – only it’s development potential. If we were to price ecosystem services such as storing carbon, flood control, providing habitat and then add in the value of landscape in terms of tourism, recreation, health, education, history, culture, and spiritual needs, we would come up with a far different end figure. Suddenly it would become very expensive indeed to build a 450-turbine wind farm on the boglands of North Mayo.

Maps cannot chart the soul of a landscape

Back to those unusual stones that Patrick Caulfield found all those years ago at Belderrig barely one and a half miles from Glinsk mountaintop – location for the proposed MAREX hydro energy storage facility. Evidence for prehistoric tillage in the region was uncovered in the form of the first plough-marks – the earliest proven use of a plough anywhere in Europe. Or as Heaney far more eloquently put it –

To lift the lid of the peat

And find this pupil dreaming

Of neolithic wheat!
© 2013 Colin Cafferty

Rugged coastline near Glinsk on an unusually calm July day

 

A second wave of occupation occurred in the Bronze Age in order to mine the rich vein of copper ore in the cliff face one mile to the north-west. This would be right next to the proposed reservoir and pumped hydro storage at Glinsk. The land around here hasn’t changed much in all those intervening years. What other buried treasures potentially lie beneath the ancient peat?

I believe in the need to scale up renewable energy more than ever – in part as a force to protect sensitive landscapes by helping to reduce carbon emissions and the resulting physical impacts of man-made climate change. I am as committed as ever to the siting of wind farms in the most appropriate landscapes. But we must not relent to the pressure to push wind farms into ever more remote and sensitive landscapes so that they too are branded by the Hand of Man. By implication, wind farms and human settlement will somehow need to co-exist in greater harmony. Local communities can be engaged and a respectful distance for noise and shadow flicker can be achieved.

I don’t get the chance to visit North Mayo as much as I’d like these days. It’s not quite in my back yard anymore but I still feel a strong tug westward as I sit typing in London. I’m still a committed renewable energy enthusiast and environmentalist. Whether I’m a NIMBY or not, I’ll let you be the judge of that.

The landscape of North Mayo remains as mysterious as it ever was to me. Buried treasures under the ancient peat. A bleak, boggy, beautiful wilderness. Perhaps it was never meant to be mapped out in detail or spied on from afar by some satellite orbiting the earth? It can only be known by taking a lungful of sharp salty Atlantic air, feeling the spring of heather and the squelch of bog underfoot, and above all, gazing upon the clouds scuttling across the vastness of an untouched landscape lost in time.

Colin Cafferty is a documentary photographer and blogger on sustainability, energy and environmental issues who is currently based in London. He grew up in North Mayo and regularly visits the area. This story is part of a series that explore energy and landscape in the resource rich county of Mayo. Next article to feature – an in-depth interview with Organic Power.

The Challenges Facing Community Wind in the UK

Community ownership of renewable energy is still an alien concept to most people in the UK. Media reports are invariably negative whenever the two words ‘community’ and ‘wind’ appear in the same sentence. And yet, there are a small number of individuals who are determined to show that it doesn’t need to be this way. Jack Heslop*, site manager of Baywind Energy Cooperative, is one such individual. Baywind was established by a group of concerned locals in Cumbria, Northwest England back in 1996. I spoke with Mr. Heslop in his car as we sought shelter on the windswept Harlock Hill, one of two sites owned by Baywind. “There are 1,300 people invested in this scheme. Empty field, wind turbines, 15-17 year ago, people thought we were crazy. Wind turbines, what’s all that about? But these people put their money into it because they believed…because they knew climate change was coming. Even then”. The concept has since expanded under the umbrella of Energy4All, a not-for-profit social enterprise created by Baywind in 2002, which now represents seven renewable energy coops throughout the UK from its nearby base in Barrow-on-Furness. Even if you aren’t passionate about saving the planet, it still makes sense to invest in community energy. Baywind’s model has proven that it can make a steady return over the years – around 10% for the last financial year alone. “That’s because we’ve got a good wind farm manager, you see, that keeps the wind turbines going”, he says laughing to himself.

Site manager at Harlock Hill community wind farm

Site manager at Harlock Hill community wind farm

 

Baywind are currently in the process of repowering their site at Harlock Hill replacing the five wind turbines with a similar number of larger, more efficient models. This will quadruple the maximum output to 11.5 MW, enough to power 6,400 households. But they are facing hurdles every step of the way. “This site falls between two authorities. One half is South Lakelands and the other half is Barrow. We were turned down by South Lakeland because of the visual [impact]”. When I met with Mr. Heslop in May 2013, Barrow Council had yet to vote but they have since approved the application. This paves the way for Baywind’s partner, Infinergy, to appeal the planning decision of South Lakeland Council. “If this wind farm goes ahead there’ll be £35,000 going in to the local community to do what they like with it. We’ll have nothing to do with the way it’s given out”. He later adds, “Personally I’d rather see the money go into a fuel poverty fund to help people pay their bills”.

Fuel poverty is indeed a very real issue in these harsh economic times but too often the blame is laid at the door of the wind industry. “I do believe that all energy gets subsidized, doesn’t it?” he questions hesitantly. “Over the years, no one worried about where their electricity came from. They don’t see it. But all of a sudden…I need to have a windfarm next to me or a generating station of any sort next to me. It makes them think”. This attitude towards energy is strikingly similar to many people’s outlook towards food, and in particular, meat. Consumers want to be able to pick up a freshly cut steak in a local supermarket and not worry about where it came from, if the animals were reared in a humane way. They put all of their misplaced trust in the retailer and the supply chain, until the next scandal comes along, that is.

One of the most unexpected impressions that struck me during my visit to Cumbria is just what a hilly landscape it is. Sometimes I found that I simply couldn’t find the wind turbine (or the access road) that I had caught a glimpse of earlier, especially when I really wanted to find it. You’ve heard of the elusive storm chasers in the US? Well, welcome to the unlikely world of the wind chaser. So what about concerns over the visual impact on landscape in Cumbria? “You’ve got to protect the landscape, but come on, what’s natural around here?” he says inquiringly. “It’s all evolved over the years. It’s not natural. It’s been mined [referring to the nearby slate quarry], there used to be a forest on it. Everything changes. This is a working landscape. Telephone towers over there, two of them either side of us”, pointing through the car window.

Recent proposals by the UK government to give local councils greater powers to reject wind developments in their jurisdictions whilst also requiring greater contributions to community benefit funds will not empower a fair representation of local communities. No doubt, local communities need to see more direct benefits from wind, and any other infrastructure developments (road, rail, power stations) for that matter. But some perceive the community fund to be a bribe and it rarely appeases the vocal minority who are fearful (whether justified or not) of local house prices being negatively impacted. Up to 20% of Denmark’s energy needs are currently met by wind, of which 80% is met by 2,100 community-owned wind farms. These are communities that have a real stake and a long-term return through the shared ownership of wind farms in their locality.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. “One of the nicest things I do on this wind farm… we’ve had every school in the area come here”, he announces proudly. “We’ve had planners, we’ve had bankers, we’ve had coach-loads from Japan, Italy and Australia. They’ve all come here because it’s a community owned wind farm and I’ve never had one person that didn’t like it”. So what about the future for community-owned energy? “I think it’s always going to be challenging. It’s just that risk money…if you don’t get your planning, you lose your money”, he replied shaking his head. If it’s already taken two or three years since first applying to replace five community-owned turbines that have already stood in a field for 15 years, what hope is there for any new developments?

This article is part of a series exploring wind power in the landscape. Tilting at windmills is an ongoing photo project that has so far travelled to East Anglia and Cumbria in England. Colin Cafferty is a documentary photographer based in London who focuses on energy, sustainability and environmental issues.

Useful links –

http://www.baywind.co.uk/

http://www.energy4all.co.uk

http://www.climatechangecafe.com

*All views expressed by Mr. Heslop in this article are his own and do not represent the official stance of Baywind Energy Cooperative or Energy4All in any way.

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.