Windpower: covering the cost of Home Counties nimbyism

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by CH McGregor

It is hoped that this article will not just provide another vehicle for a debate on the merits or otherwise of wind power.  That has been explored exhaustively and exhaustingly elsewhere on numerous occasions.  Instead this article might do something to illuminate the quite extraordinary degree of NIMBYism which exists in England, especially SE England, regarding onshore wind generation and the even more extraordinary indulgence of it by a compliant Westminster and media.

Of course, no one, or at least very few, want a wind-farm in their neighbourhood, whether here, England or anywhere else in Europe.  However as responsible adults we  acquiesce to scientific and political opinion in such matters even if it inconveniences us.  There can be little doubt that whatever the reality of wind power actually turns out to be, there is presently an international consensus that it is a good thing to be doing.  Westminster have shown no sign of being international dissidents regarding the need for wind power and are apparently as in favour of it as any other European government.

Given that that is where we are, it is a matter of international reputation that everybody then does their bit and takes a similar aesthetic/intrusion hit.  And indeed, this has been the case in Western Europe – with one exception.

England, one of the constituent countries of the UK and one of the best available wind resources in Europe, has an embarrassingly low level of onshore wind power deployment.  As will be shown, by no stretch can England be described as ‘doing its bit’.  

This is a situation which must cause considerable chagrin, not just amongst England’s immediate neighbours within the British Isles (who are doing their bit) but also furth of these islands.  Especially to countries with much less available wind potential who are doing very much more, like Germany and Spain for example, the underdevelopment of England’s wind resource must seem criminal.

How such a situation arose remains a mystery, but it is a reality.  It should be questioned and examined in the public arena.

Scotland, a neighbour and net exporter of electricity to England and which shares a common exchequer, has a particular interest in the matter, not least when the media has recently implied Scotland is underachieving on renewables.

However claims like the above need some substantiation, therefore factual evidence largely from the European Energy Agency (EEA) will now be given to demonstrate the reality of the matter.

To the right is an EEA map of costs of producing wind power.  It is in terms of euro cents per kWh.  This is probably  the best way to look at wind energy potential.

The costs are mainly a function of available wind velocity but also take terrain effects into account.

In this map you can see that the yellow/green area which colours Ireland, the UK, Denmark and Southern Sweden, along with a thin fringe along the northern coast of continental Europe represents the best resource in Europe.  England clearly is a very large part of the prime resource area.

It is less favourable in mountainous regions (note the reddish area in the Scottish Highlands) for various reasons and also, due to a tendency for lighter average winds, further south.  So the bulk of Germany and France, for instance, have much less potential than England.

Indeed there can be no doubt from this map that England has one of the better onshore wind power potentials and that this resource should consequently be amongst the most developed.  As we shall see, this is very far from the truth of the situation.  

However, first let us return to look at some of the statistics pertaining to onshore wind power distribution within the UK.

Onshore distribution within the UK

You only need to look at a list of the largest 18 wind farms which are in existence, under construction or are currently in the planning process, to get a clue as to the distribution.  14 are in Scotland, 2 in Wales, one in N.I.  And one (the second smallest) is in the North of England.  The Scottish 14 wind farms total nearly 3GW capacity, the solitary English farm, 0.065GW.

Another way to look at the distribution in more depth is to calculate the amount of installed onshore wind energy capacity which exists for every 1 million  people within a generating area.  To do this the EEA database was used.  It is a simple calculation if somewhat time consuming, since onshore and off shore facilities are together in the database and have to be separated. Only operational onshore wind farms were used.

Regarding distribution within the British Isles, Scotland has an installed, onshore, operational capacity of 417 mW per 1 million people (created by 239 wind turbines per million), England has 15 mW (from 12 turbines per million).  No, that is not a misprint, four hundred and seventeen mega Watts versus fifteen mega Watts.  By comparison the Republic of Ireland is similar to Scotland with 462 mW per million population.

It is also apparent that there is a less, but noticeable, north to south difference within England itself.  To look at this figures were calculated for the southern and eastern (approx. 60%) of England – roughly the same area as Scotland – as per in this map.  The area has 32 million people.  In this area the figure is 7 mW per 1 million people (only 4 turbines per million).

And it gets worse if you look at the ten ‘Home Counties’ surrounding London (an area about twice that of Scotland’s Central Belt with about the same population density).  Eight of the ten have no wind farms at all.  One ‘farm’ consists of a single turbine in the far west of the region (west of Reading) the other is equally out of the way away down on Romney marshes on the Kent coast (Kent and Essex, the downstream Estuarine counties don’t always get counted as Home Counties ‘propah’ anyway).  By comparison Scotland’s Central Belt has many hundreds of turbines.

In terms of installed energy capacity per area, Scotland has 27 mW per 1000 km2 whereas by comparison, the SE area figure has only 3 mW per 1000 km2.  This still shows Scotland producing much more by area, almost 10 times more than the SE of England.

Of course, the by area method doesn’t tell the whole story because there is a significant area of Highlands which is high cost (and therefore effectively not currently usable) and it is actually normal for wind power distribution elsewhere in Europe to tend to mirror population distribution i.e. population factors more than area.  This last point will become evident shortly since we now return to looking at international comparison which includes countries of diverse size and/or density.  

International comparison

There is an EEA wind farm mapping facility on line.  This can be useful pictorially, so as an example, presented here we have England versus  Germany (using the same scale for both of course).  Germany is approximately double the size of England in area and population.

Take a second to have another look at the energy cost map again as well.  Clearly, Germans would rip your arms off if you offered them the same kind of onshore wind potential that England enjoys.

But now look at the different level of exploitation that actually exists.  Astonishing isn’t it?  Note as well there is no concession at all made to the capital – Berlin, or other large cities in Germany, the ‘holes’ in the map are nearly all protected parks and/or mountainous areas.  

To illustrate more international comparisons, maps take up a bit too much room here, so a column chart of onshore capacity using the capacity per million people calculation was created below:


[Note that Sweden has almost half its Electricity Generating Requirement (EGR) provided by Hydro Electricity (HE) with most of the other half from nuclear, i.e. over 90% between both, so does not produce a lot of Greenhouse Gases in the first place.  Norway makes >100% of its EGR from HE and exports the surplus, so only has token other methods, no point in showing.   France, not shown, is nearly 80% nuclear, the highest EGR percentage for nuclear in the World. Despite being already in EGR  surplus (which it exports to England) and with a full grid, France still has more than six times the onshore capacity per head than England and more than 12 times that of the SE ‘half’ of England.]

Are you shocked by just how poor the English level is compared to other countries?  Most are when they see it.

Especially for a country which needs to import electricity.  The SE region of England imports from France, Wales, the North of England and of course Scotland.  It has no green resource already providing its needs like some countries have.

What must countries like Germany and Spain think with a far poorer onshore wind resource, especially Spain where it is about double the cost per kWh it would be in England?

So why does it not ‘do its bit’ and exploit the easily available onshore wind energy potential it possesses itself?  

Why embark instead on a policy of offshore much welcomed as it no doubt is by the companies, including Scottish ones, that will do the work, but which will cost British consumers and/or tax payers billions more than if they built the resource onshore?

One cannot help but suspect nothing other than NIMBYism, pure and simple.  

I recently asked someone from the SE why he thought this NIMBYism was evident and he (in all seriousness) explained that wind turbines would “impact on house prices down there”.  

The incredulous response was “So?” to which he patiently explained: “Folk down there treat their house as a nest-egg for when they retire.  So they can sell up and move somewhere where the property is cheaper and have a nice little surplus for an annuity or such.”

Honestly, if that guy was exemplary, you could be excused for wondering sometimes if the folk down there are on the same planet as everyone else.  

How on Earth can they get to a position that they feel exempt from doing their bit for the planet?  What is so special about them?  

And what kind of national government allows such a crazy state of affairs to come about that a nation’s economic and infrastructure strategies are geared towards keeping house prices higher in one corner of the country?  Can that really be so?

On the other hand …  maybe there is a non NIMBY/greed reason which eludes me.  

Well, that’s it.  Facts presented, questions duly asked.  Answers on a postcard please.