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What we think about wind turbines

Photo: Steven Haywood reproduced with permission from 'This is Cornwall' Photo: Steven Haywood reproduced with permission from 'This is Cornwall'

Wind turbines can be beneficial in capturing CO2-free energy, but in a county like Oxfordshire, where winds are light and sporadic, we don’t think they’re appropriate.

Wind turbines are tall moving structures which inevitably have an impact over very large areas. The renewables industry itself accepts that even a medium sized turbine would be 'prominent' in the landscape over 675 square kilometres, equivalent to 26% of the total land area of the county. That does not include the miles of new power lines that may need to be installed to connect remote turbines to the National Grid.

In our Oxfordshire landscape, open and precious, with its Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), conservation areas, Blenheim world heritage site, important listed buildings, parks and gardens, and towns and villages, we think that there is no location where the blight a turbine would cause would be acceptable. We will resist all wind turbine development in the county, unless in a particular case it can be convincingly demonstrated that the benefit outweighs the harm.

Poor efficiency

Electricity cannot be stored on a commercial scale, consequently back up power from conventional stations is essential on day when the winds are too light – or too strong – for turbines to operate. The wind is usually still when the weather is either hot or cold. During the bitter 2011/12 winter when electricity demand was high, turbines produced almost nothing. The need for backup limits their already poor overall ability to reduce CO2 emissions. What’s more wind power may as easily be produced in the middle of the night when it isn’t needed, causing conventional power stations to be switched off and increasing their costs.

The national average efficiency of wind turbines is poor at just 25% even though most so far have been built in relatively windy places. In Oxfordshire, an inland county with low wind speeds, it will be even less. Westmill Wind Farm in South Oxfordshire ran at under 17% efficiency in 2009/10, as did the 280 foot turbine beside the M4 at Reading. The small turbine at Risinghurst School ran at 5%. At 17% efficiency a typical 3 megawatt turbine would be producing only 540 kilowatts of electricity on average, equivalent to the energy used in 98 average households, the statistic wind turbine developers tend to quote. However, this would be less than half a percent of the 260,000 households in Oxfordshire. More significantly, only a third of the electricity we all use goes through domestic meters, the rest going to our transport, shops, offices and factories.

That means that a typical 100 metre high turbine would provide less than 0.3% of our electricity needs, while blighting 26% of our land area. To provide just 20% of our electricity (when the right kind of wind was blowing) would require sixty such turbines. It just doesn’t make sense to blight the landscape so much, especially for so little return.

Turbines may have to be somewhere but this doesn’t mean they must be everywhere. They operate far more efficiently in windier counties, or at sea, and if we are to have any more wind turbines (and Ministers are divided on whether any more should be allowed on land in any case) this is where they should be sited.

Wind energy is not really free

It is often said that wind energy is free, but it is only free in the same sense that coal in the ground is free. It still requires machinery and investment to convert a free resource into energy. In actuality energy from wind is twice as expensive as energy from coal or gas, power companies being forced by the Government to pay twice as much for it. That wind turbine "subsidy" is added to our electricity bills and is a major cause of the increases we are all seeing, which will only become greater as more of the already permitted turbines come on stream. It may be that gas prices will also increase, but in any case gas will still be needed to fuel power stations on permanent standby to take over every time the wind drops or reduces.

Green jobs?

It is often claimed that the proliferation of wind turbines is creating thousands of jobs, but most of these are abroad where the turbines are manufactured or at sea where the construction is hardest. Little long term employment results from on-shore turbines. However, industry depends on energy and paying for the far more expensive electricity generated by windfarms is likely to cause a net loss of jobs to overseas countries where the enthusiasm for renewables has been much less.

Apart from the widespread harm turbines cause to the landscape, is their especially damaging effect if they are close to your home. Ed Davey the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, an advocate of wind turbines, has recently been reported as saying that anyone living within six miles of one deserves compensation from the developers.

Living near a turbine

It stands to reason that someone with a choice of buying a house with a turbine close to it or a house without, will prefer the house without. This is reflected in house values, with houses close to turbines seeing falls in value, sometimes very significant. In one case, a couple saw the value of their home nearly half a mile from a windfarm near Fullabrook in Devon, fall from £400,000 to £300,000 when they asked estate agents to value it. The Government has now accepted this effect and Councils adjust Council tax values to reflect it, although this is little compensation.

Apart from the overbearing presence of a 300 foot high turbine looming over your house, there are the problems of shadow flicker and noise. Shadow flicker occurs when the sun and the turbine and a small window, or gap, are in line, when the turbine blades produce a very unsettling strobe effect.

More worrying is noise. Government requires that potential noise is assessed according to a formula called ETSU, which was developed long ago when turbines were in their infancy, and a third of the size they can reach now. This formula seeks to measure how much MORE noise than the current background level is acceptable, so it is automatically assuming that your noise environment will be worse than it was before. It also measures noise averaged over periods of time so that it misses, for example, the individual thwack-thwack sounds of the blades turning. Rather as though the noise from a pneumatic drill was measured over periods of twenty minutes including times when it was not operating as well as times that it was. The deficiencies with the ETSU noise measurement regime have been known for years, and were reported on as recently as last year by Hayes McKenzie who had been authors of the original ETSU regime. A recent survey in the Unites States confirms that turbines disturb sleep patterns within at least a mile.

For all these reasons Scotland had a guideline separation between houses and turbines of 2 km. In England as a whole there are no guidelines at all, although there is in some - but not all - District Councils. In our county, South Oxfordshire has nothing, but Cherwell has a guideline of 800 metres, or no less than three times total turbine height, but as we have seen the harmful effects spread far beyond that. The Government admits that if the sensible Scottish guidelines had been applied to England there would be few places for wind turbines in England, and none in the South.

Why does wind energy prove so popular in opinion polls?

It is obvious that if there were a pain-free way of collecting energy efficiently from the wind that it would be an ideal solution to many problems. That is perhaps why the concept of wind power achieves popularity ratings of 70% in polls. But the practicality is very different, with a high degree of pain and a very low efficiency indeed, and constant backup from coal or gas power stations, called the spinning reserve, still required to be in operation all the time in case the wind drops.

Not many turbines have yet been built, and particularly not where most people live. When this starts to change, so does the public mood.

Planning matters

At the moment Ministers are at sixes and sevens as to whether there should be any more on-shore wind turbines at all after the 3,350 already built, the 2,600 already permitted but not constructed, and the likely 50% of the 3,000 in the planning system which may be permitted. Say 7,500 in all.

Present Government advice on considering applications for turbines is quite clear. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) says, of applications in general, that permission should be granted unless any adverse effects of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits.

Of renewable energy applications of all kinds it says that authorities should "maximise renewable and low carbon energy development while ensuring that adverse effects are addressed satisfactorily, including cumulative landscape and visual impacts."

Tighter standards apply to National Parks, heritage, AONBs and Green Belts where the NPPF accepts that “elements of many renewable energy projects will comprise inappropriate development.” Of all renewable energy projects wind turbines due to their height and mechanical nature are by far the most intrusive and inappropriate.

However these very clear guidelines, which should already rule out wind turbines in inland areas where, as the Energy Minister put it, ‘trees grow straight upwards’, are subject to local interpretation by Planning Officers and personal interpretation by Planning Inspectors. In many cases they have appeared to ignore the balance they are required to strike by overlooking the adverse effects almost entirely in favour of even the tiniest smidgeon in renewable energy.

It is up to us to make sure that they give the irreplaceable landscape of rural England, its heritage, and the wellbeing of its residents, a fair hearing, as Government guidelines require.

CPRE Oxfordshire will oppose applications to build wind turbines in the county until we have clear evidence that their benefits outweigh their impact.

Keep up-to-date about our campaigns opposing wind turbines in Oxfordshire on our news pages.

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