Have circumstances changed since Church’s experience in Devon?
In one of our early posts “Shrinking the Footprint” – But not in rural Devon we reported on the problems experienced with the proposed installation of two small agricultural-sized wind turbines in each of the parishes of East Anstey, and Chittlehampton & Black Torrington. Following last week’s headline in the Church Times Diocese backs wind farm despite local opposition it is pertinent to examine how attitudes towards climate change (and wind turbines in particular) have changed over the intervening four years.
To many of us, our experience of the wind turbines in Cornwall is limited to snatched glimpses whilst driving on the A30 en route to Carbis Bay. However, the full extent of renewable energy within the county is shown on the County Council web pages, and in particular the maps for the “Wind Turbines (applications) East and Devon” on which is to be found the development proposed by Good Energy, i.e. “The Big Field Wind Farm”. However, perceptions of its impact differ: the Church Times cartoonist illustrates the story with a couple looking up at a miniscule wind turbine on the Church tower and saying “Odd, I’d never noticed that weathervane before”. Nothing could be further from the truth, as is evident from the text: the dimensions of each of the eleven turbines are: a tower (hub) height of 80m with the tips of the blades in their highest position being 125m from the ground.
The Communities Against Rural Exploitation, (CARE), web site provides a different perspective with its depiction of a turbine immediately adjacent to Week St Mary Parish Church, the tower of which is 30m in height. This scale drawing provides an accurate picture of the relative heights of tower and turbine, but does not take into account their respective locations, which are ~1.3 miles (2.1km) apart. Although the proposed “Big Field Wind Farm” may not be located in one of the region’s Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) or Area of Great Landscape Value (AGLV), it is located quite close to them and the eleven turbines would be the largest in the county.
The initial plans of Good Energy were turned down by Cornwall Council in October 2014 on the basis that the turbines would have an “adverse visual impact on the landscape”, and be a “visually dominant and distracting addition to the setting of the Grade I listed church of St Anne at Whitstone, which would amount to substantial harm to its significance”, [image produced by CARE here]. The revised plans on which the appeal is based include more efficient turbines, providing more power without increasing the maximum height. This in turn enables the wind farm to be built and operated without government subsidy support. Good Energy has indicated that it would provide a community fund of £5,000 per MW – equal to £192,500 a year – rising with inflation for the 25-year life of the project, and said the project would be opened up to investment from local people, potentially making it the largest community-owned wind farm in England.
On 15 May, the Cornish Guardian reported that the Diocese of Truro Environment Group was to give evidence in favour of certain aspects of the application, despite members of affected parishes having mixed opinions about the proposed wind farm. The Chair of the group, the Venerable Bill Stuart-White, Archdeacon of Cornwall, commented that the diocesan environment policy recognized the serious damage caused to the life systems of earth by factors that include the continued use of fossil fuels, and supported renewable energy and commits us to radically reduce our use of fossil fuels.
He is quoted as saying: “[i]ssues of visual impact are largely subjective … Far from being swayed by the argument that the turbines represent a ‘visually dominant and distracting addition to the setting’ of St Anne’s [Church], we believe from the available photo-montages that the turbines should appear from the church as slender and relatively unobtrusive structures”, adding “[t]he substantial harm that is of far greater significance is that inflicted on the planet by the impact of global warming, caused in no small measure by our reliance on fossil fuels”. The Bishop of Truro, the Right Reverend Tim Thornton, has written to the Rt Hon Greg Clarke, MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, bringing the arguments of the Diocese of Truro Environment Group to his attention.
In contrast to the Big Field Wind Farm project, the turbines that were proposed in 2012 for the parishes of East Anstey, and Chittlehampton & Black Torrington were only 25m to the tips of the blades, not 125m – the maximum currently permitted in the UK (which does not allow the larger, more efficient ones). In this case it was the diocese that made (and withdrew) the planning application, the failure of which was a result of a combination of factors: insensitive project management; circulation of misleading information; involvement of the anti-wind power lobby; and the development of an ‘us and them’ culture in local groups.
Since then there have been a number of important changes:
- Environmental issues now have an increased profile within the Church, in a large part due to the events surrounding the COP21/CMP11 talks in Paris from 30 November to 11 December 2015. However, it is less certain whether the enthusiasm of the House of Bishops, General Synod and the Church Commissioners has cascaded down to parishioners;
- The ending of subsidies for on-shore wind farms on the government’s belief that “[w]e now have enough onshore wind in the pipeline, to be subsidised by bill payers through the renewable obligation or contracts for difference, for onshore wind to play a significant part in meeting our renewable energy commitments”, [HC Hansard 18 Jun 2015 Vol 597(19) Col 10WS];
- Under Part 5 Energy Act 2016, the removal of on-shore wind farms of over >50 MW from the nationally significant infrastructure project development consent regime, as established by the Planning Act 2008: on-shore wind no longer needs development consent from the Secretary of State and instead requires planning permission granted by the relevant local planning authority.
Whilst the last point is not applicable to the Good Energy proposal as its (revised) output would be 38.5MW, it does emphasize the present government’s view, expressed in its manifesto, that:
“Onshore wind now makes a meaningful contribution to our energy mix and has been part of the necessary increase in renewable capacity. Onshore wind farms often fail to win public support, however, and are unable by themselves to provide the firm capacity that a stable energy system requires. As a result, we will end any new public subsidy for them and change the law so that local people have the final say on wind farm applications”.
The ability to build and operate a wind farm without a government subsidy appears to support the government’s view, but we suspect is unlikely to be welcomed by others in the sector who are currently seeking funding. Furthermore, the Church is on less contentious ground than it was in Devon since the installation is apparently not on land farmed by its tenants. i.e. it is supporting Good Energy’s appeal rather than making an application in its own right; also its position is underpinned by the diocesan environmental policy which takes account of both global impact of climate change and the local issue of fuel poverty within the diocese. Nevertheless, it will probably be some time, if ever, before the turbines are installed and are supplying electricity to ~22,000 homes – more than half the new homes earmarked for Cornwall over the next 15 years.
The bottom line is despite the government’s antipathy towards on-shore wind generation, it represents about 60 per cent of the UK’s wind power output and produces cheaper energy than coal, oil or gas power stations, and is far cheaper than off-shore turbines, here. However, as the LSE reports on-shore wind turbines need to be located in areas with adequate wind speeds and in exposed locations free from obstacles like trees or buildings that can interfere with turbine performance. Particularly good wind speeds are found in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales and 60% of the UK’s wind resource is in Scotland.