Blown fuse - No swan song for green energy

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Each month, Electrical Review's resident grumpy old man, writer and industry commentator John Houston, explores a hot topic of the day and lets us know his views in no uncertain terms

Renewable energy is a perennial topic, but since opinion on green energy issues changes, both figuratively and literally, with the wind, it is always worthy of comment.

Output from wind farms is notoriously inefficient, there remain many technical impediments still to be properly resolved and while onshore farms are relatively quick to build, the more effective offshore plant is expensive and much more time consuming to install. These are a few reasons why certain projects are on currently on hold - notably the £1.5bn London Array wind farm (originally proposed to have 270 turbines spread over 245 sq km).

However, near my own home the biggest wind farm in the South East is close to completion, so I thought I would focus on that project as a microcosm for UK wind power issues.

At a price of just over £60m the 26 turbines at npower's Little Cheyne Court wind farm in Kent's Romney Marsh, could be operational by October this year providing a claimed 59.8 MW capacity.  This output is stated by npower on its website to be the equivalent of providing power to three quarters of Shepway District Council's households.

The prima facea evidence for the efficacy of the Little Cheyne Court wind farm is strong.  At an investment of just £800 per capita, green power can provide for an albeit sparsely populated area of about 30,000 households. Extrapolate that for the rest of Britain and it appears that domestic green power could be created for the entire country at a cost of about £48billion.

However, if it takes 26 large modern turbines to cater for 75,000 people, that also means the country as a whole would require some 21,000 turbines. A figure that leads us to the most emotive of objections to wind farm technology for while most agree green energy is a good idea, it is equally true that most don't want it in their backyards.

During the consultation process on Little Cheyne Court, a small but vociferous lobby opposed its construction. The usual ecology luminaries lent credence to the negative arguments, including, predictably, Professor David Bellamy together with a variety of other naturalists and guardians of the countryside. Outraged ornithologist and BBC TV wildlife broadcaster Chris Packham went as far as to state: "I cannot see the justification for the probable execution of large numbers of Bewick Swans".

I too am a countryside lover, or I wouldn't suffer the lack of a decent Thai restaurant where I live. But, one of the attractions for me in moving from London's cosmopolitan climes to become a Romney Marshian (sic) was that two thirds of every species of animal, fish, bird, insect, fauna and flora could be found on the Marsh. But guess what? Five minutes drive south of Little Cheyne Court in the very heartland of South Kent's prime conservation area benignly sits Dungeness B nuclear power station!

Now, were the objectors to be objective, we might be better convinced. Far from orchestrating genocidal mass executions of hapless Bewick Swans, npower consumed a mere 1.5 square miles of land.  While for many the 100m high turbines are an eyesore, much local opinion views them as a new landmark - the aesthetic is, as always, highly subjective.
However, if the arguments were about the concrete foundations for the turbines at about 30m deep requiring over 46,000 lorry loads of spoil to be removed, there would have been a further environmental point to consider. That over 15,000m3 of concrete was used in construction and that the concrete manufacturing industry is one of the greatest emitters of industrial CO2 on the planet raises questions. The 6.5 miles of totally new roads that have been built on virgin soil needed over 50,000 tonnes of roadstone being transported by lorry to the site. While the excavation of this material undoubtedly caused environmental damage elsewhere is also an argument in which facts can be discussed.

Fascinatingly, where in the recent past planning consent for wind farms was scarce and lengthy, there are now hundreds of wind farms being planned, adding to the 198 onshore and offshore farms - a total of 2,389 turbines - in operation by the end of 2008. Apart from Little Cheyne Court, there are another 40 farms currently under construction.

The point is that while emotive points raise heckles among the public, technical and quantifiable facts carry the weight of any argument. That's the only way the wind will be taken from the sails of green energy progress.