Today’s announcement by the UK government that will give local communities the ability to reject wind farms seems to have set of a typical noise fest on Twitter. Inconsistent thoughts are expressed one after another: “this will greatly damage windfarm development” followed up by “not many oppose wind farms anyway.” Given what I read people are more than aware that public opposition is a problem, but simply refuse to admit it. PR language rules the day.
So, here are my thoughts.
First, this is somewhat inevitable. Consider this map from David MacKay’s excellent book Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air. It shows how much of the UK is within 2 km of a hamlet, village or town.
This would not be a huge problem if wind farms did not have very low power density, getting all of the UK’s energy needs from onshore wind would need something like half of the UK to be covered in wind turbines. As MacKay wrote of the above map if you want to find a region where you could build an onshore wind farm without opposition you will need to find somewhere that is not coloured black or white.
Why small is not necessarily beautiful?
Is it inevitable that onshore wind is going to die, and have today’s regulations brought that death forward? Not necessarily. A comparison of the possible future development of wind farms with the historic development of nuclear power hints at an alternative future for wind farms. Instead of small “community scaled” wind farms think big and unambiguously industrial scaled. Think Whitelee Wind Farm just outside Glasgow. Originally at 322 MW, this wind farm is now being expanded to 539 MW. And it covers as much land as a small city.
People do not want to live near a large industrial complex, whether it’s a wind farm or a nuclear power plant. Let’s face it. The question is what to do about it. And I believe the way around it is to concentrate wind farms as much as possible, reduce the number of people who live near them. And this is largely how things are done with nuclear power stations.
France gets 80% of its electricity from nuclear power, yet only has 20 locations with nuclear power plants. That is 58 nuclear reactors at 20 sites. Consider that the UK now has almost 400 onshore wind farms. And these 400 onshore wind farms provide less than 5% of the UK’s electricity. People often tell me that the low power density of wind is not much of a problem, but the public opposition to them in the UK confirms that it very much is.
Another argument in favour of big wind farms is the government’s proposal that communities are to be given “benefits”, “compensation” or “bribes” (you choose the word) for living near a wind farm. This £5000 per MW figure could easily become a swaying point if we are talking about industrial scale wind farms. Otherwise why even bother with it? The Daily Mail and others will run stories about the bill reductions locals will get from the wind farm will actually be lower than the increases to their bills due to wind farms being built near them. And the Mail could very easily be correct.
So, Big is Beautiful!