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Chapter 5 of "Short Circuit" - page 2

A small water power site will probably cost about 1,000 per kilowatt to develop although that cost and the number of units of electricity a kilowatt of generating capacity converts to each year vary widely from site to site because of differences in the amounts of site-work required and the length of time when there is enough water for power production. Traditional water-mills had ponds if there were times of year when there was inadequate water for the mill to operate: a millpond enabled the energy of 24 hours' water flow to be used in seven or eight.

Seamus Langan, a pub owner who installed two Polyturbines near the site of an old mill at Ballinrobe in Ireland in 1995 will not say how much his installation cost, although he does say that the site work went more easily than he had expected - he had feared that the contractors would run into hard limestone rock. Even if he was prepared to quote the cost, however, it would be of little relevance to other people because the major investment which made his project possible was the digging of a mill stream as a relief project 150 years ago around the time of the Great Famine. Nevertheless, his story is interesting.

Langan was a small farmer until he bought the Valkenburg bar in Ballinrobe in the early 1970s. He still had some fields, one of which ran between the Robe river and the mill-canal, but was not alive to the possibilities of water power until the late 1970s when a Liverpudlian engineer working for a company which made an ill-fated attempt to develop an Irish-made range of wind-turbines pointed out the potential of the site.

Langan could do nothing to develop the site immediately because he did not own the water rights which were still attached to the mill which stood derelict and rotting in the next field, one wall torn down years before by workmen taking machinery out. Eventually, though, the mill came on the market and Langan bought it up. He then had to seek permission from four governmental bodies to go ahead with plans prepared for him by Colm Walsh of University College, Galway, where the first experimental Polyturbine had been installed.

The first body he approached was the regional fisheries board, which helped him to adapt his plans so that fish in the Robe would not be affected by the project. "At some times of year, the level of oxygen in the river is low and so fish will be attracted to the disturbance created as the water re-enters the river after passing through the turbines. If they went in too far, they would be killed, so we have had to fit screens to stop them," Langan's son, Barry, told me when he showed me round. "We only have to have them on in when the water is low and take them away at other times because they interfere with the flow of water from the turbine, creating a backpressure and reducing its efficiency." The other stipulation the Fisheries Board made was that fish screens be fitted to the turbine intake as well and that some water from the canal be allowed to flow through to the old mill so that any fish in it could get away.

The next set of negotiations was with the Office of Public Works, the body responsible for river drainage throughout the Irish Republic, so that it could to satisfy itself that the proposed works would not cause flooding. No problems there, but the final step before Langan could apply to Mayo County Council for planning approval was rather protracted - he had to persuade the Electricity Supply Board to take his power at a time when its huge coal-burning power station at Moneypoint had just come on stream and the state-owned company had considerable excess capacity. "The ESB fellows were very nice but they just weren't interested," Langan says. Eventually, however, agreement came through, and, with documentary evidence of the approval of the three bodies, he was granted planning permission without further trouble in 1987. "It might be more difficult to get planning permission now," Langan says. "The anglers around here have become much more militant and are worried about the condition of the rivers."

No siteworks were carried out until 1992, and only then to stop the five-year planning permission lapsing. Langan explains the delay by saying he was negotiating for an EC 'Thermie' grant towards the cost of the project but was unsuccessful. "I think the money went on that windfarm in North Mayo instead," he says. He then delayed actually fitting the turbines which have a total capacity of 100kw for almost three years because he hoped to be able to get a grant under a scheme outlined by the Minister for Energy in October 1993 under which the ESB would buy 75MW of electricity from renewable sources. In the event, neither he nor anyone else got a grant but he was awarded a 15-year supply contract and the turbines were commissioned early in 1996.

Town installs turbine to cut old people's power bill (click for panel from original book)

In Britain, anyone going through a similar process has to obtain the consent of the National Rivers Authority (NRA) unless they are simply putting a turbine into the river itself beside an existing weir. "If you plan to take water from a river, pass it through your turbine and then put it back, you need an abstraction licence" says Commander George Chapman, secretary of the National Association of Water Power Users10 . "If you want to put in a new weir, you need an impounding licence." Planning permission is also required. "The NRA is a statutory consultee so they are automatically told about your planning application by the planning authority. That means that it's a good idea to speak to the NRA first."

Installations under 20kW are not worth linking to the mains because of the high cost of the protection equipment, Chapman says. "The best thing is to find a way of using that power directly and saving yourself the 8p a unit, or whatever it would have cost you to buy." In any case, the price paid by the local regional electricity company (REC) would probably be derisory - about 2.5p/ a unit, he adds. At present, projects have to be big enough to warrant the trouble and expense of submitting them for Non Fossil Fuel Obligation (NFFO) contracts to get a better price. In 1995, contracts under NFFO, the scheme used by the British Government to support the development of nuclear and renewable energy, paid 4.85p per unit for water power, inflation-proofed for the next 15 years.

According to Chapman, this might be about to change because the RECs are increasingly prepared to recognise that power supplied on a limb of a network is more valuable to them than if it was supplied at its heart by Powergen or National Power through the national grid because they can save the capital cost of strengthening their distribution lines to that area and have lower line losses. Also, RECs are under increasing pressure from OFFER, the regulatory body for the electricity industry, to pay independent producers no less than they pay their own in-house electricity generation companies. And, after April 1998, the RECs will lose their monopoly over power distribution and producers will be able to sell their output to anyone they like. "A water- or wind-power producer will be able to find a customer somewhere in a REC's area and just pay the REC to use its wires to get it there. OFFER will control the amount that the RECs can charge for that service. The power the producer supplies will just be metered into the network and then out again at the customer's premises" Chapman says. "This arrangement already exists for people with loads of over 100kW." So, a British wind- or water-power co-op should soon be able to supply its members with electricity through the existing distribution network and, apart from the REC's distribution fee, bill them in its own energy-based currency.

Things might be about to change in Ireland, too. When this book went to press in late 1995, no-one planning a renewable energy project could be sure whether they would be able to sell the electricity it produced to, or through, the national distribution system. This silly situation came about because the rules for the 1994 competition to supply renewable energy mentioned earlier laid down that 'no other alternative energy projects for the supply of electricity to the ESB will be accepted during the [1994-96] period.' The Irish hydro power and wind energy associations both criticised this rule when it was announced on the basis that it would lead to a once-off spurt of projects rather than a continuous flow and thus make it much more difficult to get Irish investors involved and an Irish wind turbine manufacturing industry to established. In submissions to the minister in early 1995, both associations asked that a fair price be set for power from renewable sources so that developers could negotiate to sell their output and connect to the grid at any time. They also expressed concern about the charges being made for connection to the grid and wanted special assistance for smaller projects. "Not very much has changed since we made our submission" Sheila Leyden, the secretary of the Irish Wind Energy Association11 , told me at the end of 1995. "We want some sort of rolling programme so that projects can be developed on a continuous basis, with special terms for the smaller ones."

Small-scale hydro is the supreme renewable energy source - correctly carried out, an installation should do no harm to the environment and run for fifty years before it needs a major overhaul. The only problem with it is that, like Hatherleigh, most communities have insufficient sites to meet more than a tiny fraction of their electricity requirements.


The crucial decision to be taken when considering wind energy is the site. A good one must have a high average windspeed because since the power available to the turbine to convert to electricity depends on the cube of the wind velocity. This means that just the difference between an average windspeed of 5 metres per second and 6m/s will affect output by almost 27%. However, a convenient connection to the electricity network is also needed and when Ireland's first windfarm was being planned in 1991, a coastal site with higher windspeeds was dropped in favour of an inland one close to the peat-fired power station at Bellacorrick in Co. Mayo because this minimised the cost of linking up to the national grid. A single 300MW turbine such as might be purchased by a group of neighbours needs access to an 10KVa line - the type used to supply a large farm or a small factory - if they plan to use the grid to distribute the power amongst themselves and to sell off any surplus that occurs.

Good sites should also have reasonable road access, so that heavy equipment can be brought in to put the tower and turbine up. A smooth topography is also desirable since a cliff or a two-storey building can cause unpredictable turbulence. Some of the turbines at Bellarcorrick are close to a young pine plantation which reduces output whenever the wind is from that direction. As the power losses will obviously get worse as the trees grow, I can see them being purchased and felled.

Sites should also be places where the erection of a turbine will not upset the planning authorities or the neighbours: bad siting and bad equipment have already given windfarms a bad name in Britain. The £30m. farm with 103 Japanese-made turbines at Llandinam in Powys is particularly unfortunate, causing a noise which has been likened to 'moans from a mass crucifixion.' In fact, there should be no appreciable noise from a wind turbine provided that its blades and gearbox are properly designed. All modern Danish turbines produce less than 45dB(A) at 350 metres, which is little more than the level of background noise at night in the country as the chart shows (BWEA Factsheet No 15) and special versions are available whenever anyone wants to erect a turbine particularly close to a house. In moderate winds one can stand right under any of the 21 turbines at Bellacorrick and talk in a normal voice while in higher winds, the noise of the wind itself drowns the turbines out.

The only serious environmental drawback with wind turbines is their visual impact. The Danish countryside is dotted with single turbines, or groups of two or three, often erected by members of a wind guild living close by. These I regard as acceptable additions to the rural scene: the only distracting feature is the movement of their blades which, in an otherwise stationary landscape, tend to draw the eye. The windfarm at Bellacorrick is acceptable too, adding interest to a bleak landscape in the way yachts add interest to a coastal bay. A low-tension powerline which has nothing to do with the farm but runs parallel to the road leading to Bellacorrick as it crosses a long stretch of bog is very much more unsightly.

But Llandinam, which supplies enough power for 21,000 houses, and the Altamont Pass in California are quite another matter. Here there is no question of the wind turbines becoming part of the landscape - they are the landscape, simply because there are so many of them. And, because hundreds of blades are constantly rising into the sky, the angle of each forever changing its relationship to that of its neighbour, the overall effect is visually bewildering as the eye hunts vainly for repeating patterns. In his opening address to the British Wind Energy Association conference in 1993, Michael Jefferson, director of the British Energy Association, referred to Llandinam as 'involving unacceptable visual intrusion' although he rated the acceptability of ten other windfarms as 'high'. "There are many potential sites for windfarms .... which are not of great landscape value" he added.

In 1992, Bridget Gubbins, a leading opponent of proposals to site nuclear power stations on the Northumberland coast, went to Denmark and Holland on a Churchill Scholarship to see what ordinary people living near windturbines thought about them12 . Naturally, opinions were mixed. Some people thought the turbines beautiful, others hated them. One family living only 300 metres from a windfarm at Vederso in West Jutland thought the 27 turbines were too close to their house although a group of three machines would have been acceptable. They also complained of a whistling noise from the turbines on quiet evenings when there was a low wind. "We like to watch birds and have seen no harm done to them" the husband said. "We watch the migrating geese and they avoid the turbines easily. I think people who say otherwise are misinformed."

The nineteen-year-old daughter of another family also living 300 metres from the nearest turbine of a 24-turbine windfarm in Lolland thought the windmills nice to look at. "Noise is not a problem" she said. "When the wind is from the north they can be quite loud but then we are usually in the house with the windows closed. When there's a low wind, we can hear them in the garden but it's not loud."

Gubbins found she liked the turbines, whether in large windfarms, singly or in small clusters, more than she had expected. "The newest models were attractive to look at and have already become a normal part of the countryside in both countries. The Danish sugar bags available in all the supermarkets show a typical country scene where sugar beet is grown, of a Danish single storey farmhouse, trees and adjoining wind turbine. Wind turbines are certainly more attractive than pylons, or wooden electricity poles and wires which are found everywhere and which our eyes to some extent no longer perceive. The noise from the turbines I found negligible."

So, if a group of friends thinks that sites near where they live might have wind-power possibilities, how should they proceed? "I spend a lot of my time talking people out of projects" says Brian Hurley13 , a wind energy consultant who lectures at Bolton Street College of Technology in Dublin. "Sites generally aren't as windy as you think. If the group want to save money by doing some preliminary work themselves, they should look up their sites on wind maps of their area. In Ireland, Larry Staudt and I prepared a report for the Department of Energy in March 1988 called 'Identification of Wind Energy-Rich Sites Best Suited for Windfarm Development' which the Department will usually give away to serious enquirers and which covers lowland locations near the coast but not those over 1,000ft elsewhere in the country. [In Britain, ETSU, the government's Energy Technology Support Unit based at Harwell, has done a wind survery of the whole country down to 1 km squares, and supplies the results on maps or computer discs for specific areas.]

A Bluffer's Guide to Wind Turbines (Click for panel from original book)
Most of Europe's wind-energy potential is in Britain and Ireland. The lighter shades on the map indicate wind speeds over 6m/s and the darker shades wind speeds over 7 m/s.

"Otherwise, if anyone else has carried out wind studies nearby, the group should try to get access to their results. The Meteorological Office will also have some data. The EC has prepared a wind atlas of Europe but this is very broad-brush14. I give free telephone consultations and if people visit me with detailed maps, I can usually give them broad guidance on whether it seems worthwhile taking the project further. If they want a consultant to undertake a site visit, they obviously have to cover his expenses."

Hurley suggests having three or four possible sites to show a visiting consultant. "I normally rate them according to four factors" he says. "The most important is windspeed, of course. Next is access and the general suitability of the land. The third factor is the site's proximity to the electricity grid. And the fourth is the likelihood of getting planning permission."

When the best potential site has been chosen, the next step is to erect a instrument tower exactly where the turbine will stand to record the wind's speed and direction for the next year at the height its blade hub will be. "The test of a serious project is whether wind measurements have been carried out" Hurley says. "It's just like exploring for oil and gas: you choose the best site from maps and data other people have assembled but you don't know if there's anything worthwhile there until you've drilled a test hole, or, with wind energy, erected a test tower. You can get quite a surprise."

Serious money has to be spent on these tests. Even if the group can erect the tower itself, it will still cost £1-£2,000 and the instruments a further £1,500. "I never suggest that people get second-hand instruments" Hurley says. "That's for psychological reasons - it would be like saying their project wasn't worth researching properly - and because new equipment comes with a twelve-month guarantee. If you had to have a service engineer make a field trip to repair second-hand instruments, it might cost you as much as you'd saved. You'd also have lost readings while the equipment was down. In any case, a group should check the equipment regularly to make sure it is working and can expect to pay 30 a month to their consultant for the evaluation of the data it obtains."

Even a full year's wind data is no guarantee that the site will be successful. "Every farmer or fisherman knows how much a particular year's weather can vary from the long-term average" Hurley says. "But at least with a turbine you know that your readings are within 15-20% of the mean. You can't say that about a year's water level readings in a river as a guide when planning water power." So the next step, which would normally be carried out by the consultant, is to compare the wind data with that obtained for the same period at the nearest meteorological station to get some idea of how the particular year's readings compare with those of an average year. The site readings, plus the met. figures, could then be sent to the manufacturers of the turbine the group is considering so that they can quote for a suitable machine.

"A year's set of wind measurements is likely to cost anywhere between £3,000 and £8,000, depending on how much you can recover if you sell the tower and equipment afterwards" Hurley says. "As the smallest wind turbine I would recommend that anyone to install these days would be a 200kW model costing about £200,000, you've got to look on the cost of the measurements in the same way that you would regard survey fees if you were buying a house for a similar sum."

Once a suitable site has been located and tested, the group can decide what make and type of wind turbine to buy. "Wind technology is now mature" Tom Pedersen, a representative of Vestas, the biggest manufacturer of wind turbines in the world, told a packed meeting of sober-suited businesspeople, civil servants and bankers in Dublin early in 1994. "The typical Danish concept of a three-bladed, fixed-speed turbine is based on sound principles and over the years we have refined the design to such an extent that the average availability when installed is over 99%. The only development going on at Vestas now is to increase the size - we have a 1.5MW machine on the drawing board as this would be more cost effective - but we have become very conservative. In fact, I think we are now even more conservative than the utility companies themselves."

Graph 5.2 As the size of wind turbines has increased, the cost per kilowatt of capacity has fallen. Given a good site, they are now entirely competitive with electricity from other sources. The data here is based on experience with wind energy in California.

As a result, Pedersen argued, groups shopping for a wind turbine did not need to worry about the technology embodied in it. What was far more important was the credibility of the manufacturer. "The relationship between a windfarm developer and a wind turbine supplier is not just a straightforward sale but more like a 20-year marriage" he said. "The main thing that developers need to satisfy themselves about is whether the supplier is financially strong enough to fulfil any warranty obligations and to be around to supply spare parts for many years into the future."

This was subtle sales-talk, of course, emphasising the points on which Vestas scores over smaller, younger, less well-capitalised rivals, whose equipment might not have the same lengthy track-record and therefore be less acceptable to banks and insurers. It was the windpower industry's equivalent of the slogan 'No-one ever got sacked for ordering IBM'. Nevertheless, he was broadly correct: the generation of electricity from the wind no longer involves the use of risky, experimental technologies. Moreover, it produces power at lower financial and environmental costs than any other form of renewable energy apart from small-scale hydro and, as the chart shows, already produces electricity at a comparable cost to that from a new coal-fired power station if the latter has to bear the European Commission's proposed combined carbon and energy tax. Within a few years wind will be the cheapest source of electricity apart from that from gas-fired power stations if promised falls in capital and maintenance costs occur.

But although Danish designs are effective and reliable, not everything is settled for all time in wind turbine design. Even in Denmark itself, as Pedersen explained, manufacturers are split over whether the blades should be fixed in position on the hub of the machine - this is referred to as stall-regulated and is cheaper and less complicated - or whether they should be able to alter their angle of incidence to the wind. This is called pitch regulation and although it costs more and is potentially less reliable, it enables more energy to be extracted from the wind by a given turbine on a particular site. It also allows the blades to be aligned with the wind in storms, reducing stresses on the whole turbine and tower structure.

Other Europeans and the Japanese have generally followed the Danish design philosophy but American companies such as Carter, Enertech, US Windpower and ESI have drawn on aerospace technologies and materials to produce machines of between one-third and a half of the weight of most Danish turbines. Not unexpectedly, there were teething problems with most of these lightweight designs, particularly with the drive-train. These problems have apparently still to be completely overcome.(Click for 2002 update on US wind technology by Caroline Whyte)

The third step is financing which will present much more of a problem in Britain and Ireland than in Denmark where wind guilds are so commonplace that prospective members can readily borrow almost all the money they need for their share of the investment from their local bank. All they have to do is to sign a standard agreement that their share of the income from electricity sales will be paid directly to the bank to discharge the loan. No additional security is usually required although the bank will probably want details of the make of turbine and proof that it is insured. Membership of a wind guild is restricted to residents of the parish in which the turbine will be erected and the parishes immediately adjoining it. All members do not necessarily invest the same amount, but each family's share of the investment and hence of the income from power sales is limited to 1.5 times their average annual household electricity consumption with an overall maximum of 9,000kWh. This limit is imposed because up to that level, a member's earnings from electricity sales are completely free of income tax. Voting in the guilds, however, is based on the traditional co-operative one-member-one-vote-regardless-of-the-size-of-investment principle.

How three families started a movement and created an industry (Click for panel from original book)

Viola Jorgensen, a member of a wind guild in Vederso which owns three 75kW Vestas turbines, told Bridget Gubbins: "The association started in 1986. The cost of a share is 3,400DKr (about £300) and most people took out a loan [for the balance of the investment required, around £5,000] from the local bank, to be paid back over ten years. We do it for fun and we make a little money. It's our money from our wind. Members include a headmaster, a janitor, a plumber, everyone you can think of. When our payments come in from the utility for our electricity, the local savings bank calculates how much money goes to each member and credits their accounts. This is the same bank we borrow from. Once the bank loan is paid off, members have almost free electricity."

In Britain, no financial institution has shown any readiness to help fund a wind co-op set up on similar lines, largely because they have not been asked. Mercury Provident, the ethical bank discussed in the last chapter, was commissioned by the Energy Technology Support Unit (ETSU) of the Department of Trade and Industry to look into the feasibility of a wind energy investment fund but went off in the wrong direction. "A financing gap exists between the maximum level a bank [branch] is prepared to lend (around £200,000) and the minimum level at which project finance departments of major banks are prepared to lend (about £2m.)" it reported in 199415, a finding relevant to a far wider range of activities than wind energy. The result was that finance in the £200,000 - £2m. range was particularly difficult to obtain. "With some banks charging minimum fees of £100,000 to arrange a loan, fees can be prohibitive for small projects" it added.


Page 3 of Chapter 5

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