War of the Wind Farms
Other than St Neots council’s inability to secure a local cinema and a way to spend the generous £1 million Rowley gift, no topic has received quite as much ink or is as controversial as npower renewables’ plan to build a wind farm near Graveley which would be visible from many surrounding areas, including Toseland and Great Paxton. The proposed site, known as Cotton Wind Farm, will feature [I say will because when this article was orignally written, campaigners were doing their best to block planning persmision but failed] 8 wind turbines with a potential tip height of 127m and a total generating capacity between 16MW and 24MW (depending on type of turbine installed) estimated to generate enough power to satisfy the annual electricity needs of 6,900 to 10,000 homes. Campaigners, true to form, have been doing a good job of highlighting the perceived evils of wind farms by publishing pictures of disintegrating turbines and steroid-fed photomontages, as well as countless stories about ‘shadow flicker’ (more about this later) inducing seizures in children, plummeting house prices, noise pollution, to the point that it has damaged human and animal health and, worse still, the fact that the npower conglomerate stands to fill its greedy coffers with huge government subsidies. With all this, I was ready to grab and placard and start marching up and down the high street, especially since one of the communities affected by Cotton Farm would be my own. That was until I realised that most of what I knew came from the anti brigade and thus, you’ll appreciate, it was one sided. I felt I should find out more about something that I disliked yet knew nothing about.
My investigation began one Wednesday afternoon when I climbed into my car and drove to North Pickenham in Norfolk where I decided that, no matter what, I was going to get up close and personal with one of the monolithic beasts. I knew this site would be a good example of the Cotton Farm proposal as it too features 8 turbines but with a slightly shorter tip height of 125m. I’d barely entered the town of Swaffham when two of the turbines broke the skyline at the end of the high street, as if standing sentry over shoppers as they hurriedly went about their business. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this vision; I wanted to dislike it but actually preferred it to the myriad of power cables unceremoniously stitched from street to street. I turned south east towards the old airfield, approximately 2 miles from Swafham. The gate to the wind farm was open and, without a thought that I might be trespassing, I drove into a wide gravelled car park. I stepped out of the car to be buffeted by a strong breeze, which helped me appreciate just how effective the flatness of an airfield can be to wind farming, when my thoughts were interrupted by an intermittent swooping sound. I looked up and froze; I was so intent on looking at the other seven turbines that I didn’t realise, I’d actually parked right underneath one! For a few seconds I was rooted to the spot in awe; such was the majesty of the structure, and when I regained control of my senses, I actually felt a pang of fear, which was a momentary, irrational yet natural reaction to the alien object towering over me like a tripod from War of the Worlds. I actually considered moving my car for fear that the giant might collapse on us both but I didn’t. Instead, I listened carefully to the low whirring sound, which I later learned is the gearing mechanism, it was rhythmically accompanied by the whooshing of the blades as they stereophonically turned, and I have to confess that they weren’t that loud, nothing like the cacophony that I expected to hear, considering I was standing right underneath it. My ignorance had led me to expect, among many sounds, the squeal of rusty metal. Beyond the wind farm, approximately 700m away, I could see the first building of the village of North Pickenham; a quaint British village with a clutch of houses, bungalows and a ubiquitous pub. I drove over and stopped in front of the bungalows. Between them, beyond a field, was one of the turbines. It was a fairly warm and close day, the air was still which meant I could hear the sound of traffic far in the distance, the remarkably loud mating call of a wood pigeon and even a baby in a house somewhere but nothing from the direction of the wind farm. Of course, this experiment wasn’t necessarily conclusive and nowhere near the scientific standard imposed on all wind farm projects but it gave me a good firsthand idea.
I stopped off for lunch at The Swann Inn in Hilborough, another village not far from the wind farm, and tucked into a delicious ham baguette. Like any good reporter, I took the opportunity to chat with the pub’s landlady. I asked her how she felt about living so close to the wind farm. “It’s great. We love it,” she said with a shrug and smile as if I’d just asked a silly question. I asked if she’d heard any complaints from any of the pub’s patrons. She shook her head. “What about property values?” I asked, “It’s believed that wind farms can seriously devalue nearby property.” She told me she didn’t think it was true and that she certainly hadn’t heard anything about that. I thanked the nice lady but concluded I wasn’t going take her word for it. I telephoned three of the main estate agents in the area, all specialising in the sales and letting of property in North Pickenham and put the same question to all of them; did they believe that property in the area had been devalued as a direct result of the wind farm. All said no. Two of them mentioned that the market had experienced some uncertainty when the wind farm was being built, “people just didn’t know what to expect,” said Ian Revell of Ian Revell Estate Agents, “but this all changed once the wind farm became operational and things settled down.”
So, somewhat bemused, I made my way home. Okay, so I hadn’t quite found the smoking gun yet but there were still some serious questions that needed answers. So, armed with copious cups of coffee, I sat at my laptop and ploughed my way through various articles on the subject and the gargantuan environmental assessment authored by independent consultants and commissioned by npower renewables as part of its planning application. The document took two years to complete and features a detailed analysis of the aspects of Cotton Farm including, among many, landscape, ecology, ornithology, noise, traffic, archaeology, cultural heritage, and so on. All of the studies were conducted in accordance with guidelines laid out by Natural England (the statutory consultee on ecological issues). One interesting aspect of the research revealed that Huntingdon District Council had already undertaken a landscape and sensitivity assessment in February 2006, the results of which deemed Cotton Farm area as “..low sensitivity” and able to accommodate “…a small scale turbine group” and that this “…would not have any adverse effect on the landscape character.” [it was these comments that ultimately lost the action group their case since it was concluded that even the local authority had endorsed the building of a small scale wind farm) The part that really caught my attention was the section detailing the results of the computer models built to predict ‘shadow flicker’; the flickering shadow cast by the blade of the turbine as it passes in front of the sun. 17 houses closest to the wind farm could be affected by shadow flicker but I learned that wind speed, sun and trajectory need to be in alignment for it to represent a significant nuisance. Nonetheless, I believed that any risk was bad enough. That was until I discovered the fact that modern turbines are computerised and thus can be fitted with a series of sensors, capable of monitoring meteorological conditions, comparing these with a computer model of the area and determining whether or not shadow flicker could occur. If so, a turbine can automatically switch itself off and back on again once the potential for shadow flicker has passed.
What about the exorbitant government subsidies that I’d heard so much about? Well, it turns out that there aren’t any direct subsidies. The UK government’s current target is to supply 15% of the UK’s electricity from renewable resources by 2015 with a possible increase to 30% by 2020. To meet this target, it passed the ‘Renewable Obligation Order’ of 2005 that compels individual energy companies to provide a percentage (expected to be 10% by 2010) of their electricity from renewable resources. If a company fails to generate the required percentage, then it must buy the energy from someone who has via a ROC (Renewable Obligation Certificate). This is proof of generation which, when bought, is passed to the buyer. ROCs are traded on the open market to the highest bidder. They are in great demand (sometimes selling for more than power!) and thus very valuable because if a company fails to generate the required percentage of renewable energy, or buy the appropriate amount of ROC’s, fines can be imposed.
There’s naturally much more to this story but there’s a limit to how much I can write. I didn’t like the idea of a wind farm so close to where I live. Why? I don’t really know. Fear, I suppose. Like the dark, I was afraid of the unknown. All I knew is what the campaigners had taught me. But I am a staunch believer that knowledge is power. Over the past three days I armed myself with knowledge, not with rhetoric, a balloon or a t shirt with a slogan stamped across it. I set out to make up my own mind about something I knew nothing about. There is no doubt that our climate is changing, we don’t need an army of scientists to tell us that, we can see the change for ourselves; the weather, the unusual behaviour of insects and so on. Cotton Farm is part of the initiative to combat global warming; each megawatt produced from a renewable resource will negate the need for one produced by the burning of fossil fuels, which as we all know, are bad for the environment. An alternative needs to be found and whilst I, like many, don’t necessarily want the alternative in my back yard, I much prefer it to a nuclear or fossil fuel burning power station. Furthermore, I believe that any authors who submit a written statement to planners that purports to be a representation of the general public should ensure that the general public is given adequate notice to attend meetings so that they may present their opinion and or evidence to support it.
In the meantime, what little research I have conducted on the issue has brought me to one conclusion and that is that I do not believe that the reasons for opposing this project are about the health of people and wildlife or plummeting house prices but it’s about change, fear of the unknown and anti campaigners have used this to energise their own agenda. When push comes to shove, Cotton Farm is not about noise pollution or shadow flicker; it’s about whether or not you like the look of these giant machines and whether or not you can embrace change. The only person who can answer that, is you.■
©Tony Marturano 2008
Originally published in issue 3 of a Different Angle Magazine