An Honest Objection

by turbinetastic

Firstly, I’d like to draw your attention to the following blog on the Guardian’s site: Why there’s only one honest objection to wind farms.

I have been forming much the same opinion over the last few years. Sure, there are a few that sound like good objections until you give them any sort of thought:

  • health impacts have never been proven at any sort of scale and what studies have been done are generally low statistics, self-reported or otherwise flawed. I’m not discounting the fact that psychosomatic effects are very powerful, but it’s simply not logical to hold a particular industry or technology to account for psychosomatic effects, however powerful.
  • government subsidies go to all forms of power generation in one guise or another. Besides, you only get subsidised for power generated which gives a powerful incentive to take great care in your developments and particularly in your initial spend. You don’t get subsidies to build wind farms; that risk is the developers’ and the banks’ own. The big driver of rising fuel bills has been gas prices, not renewables.
  • paying sums of money to the already rich land owners — well there you have an issue with capitalism, not with wind farms. I’m not disagreeing that it’s better to give money to the poor than the rich, who would? But that’s the system we’ve got and wind developers have no greater moral responsibility to tackle unfairness than anyone else.
  • intermittant, unpredictable, small scale. Turns out wind farms, and the wind, are predictable enough; they are also highly responsive and can be quickly shut down or curtailed (run at reduced power) if necessary. They can’t provide more energy if the wind isn’t there, but they’re a powerful tool for the grid when it comes to balancing supply and demand.
  • carbon cost of building and land space. There’s a carbon cost to all building projects but an airport, for instance, takes up a lot of land and then creates pollutants. Wind farms later reduce carbon output. And while they do take up a lot of land if you look at the boundary, in fact most of the land remains available for crops and livestock as normal.
  • noise and shadow flicker. Shadow flicker is known to be a hazard to health in some cases, but only at high frequencies, far higher than large wind turbines get to even at high wind speeds. Because the sun follows a predictable path, it’s easy to demonstrate when it will happen and where and to be honest it’s pretty rare. It’s also easily reduced by closing curtains during the appropriate time of year, or facing a different direction. Since I live and work in the city I find it hard to take the noise complaints seriously as a mass issue (rather than on the level of individual nuisance): at high wind speeds the wind itself is louder if you’re outside or near a forest. Most of the time the noise of a working wind farm even actually inside its borders, isn’t much more than a medium-busy road, and we’ve learned to all but tune out road noise.

There are others, obviously, but none that I can think of which aren’t similarly easily rebutted.

I don’t think the author of the blog intends to suggest that people who object to wind farms and quote other reasons than looks are actively lying, just that they’re failing to acknowledge that they give disproportionate weight to minor issues because ultimately they don’t like 1) wind farms themselves or 2) their position in our landscapes.

Confirmation bias is a known phenomenon where we hear what we want to hear and discard evidence which contradicts our own preferences. I am aware of this, and I do make a conscious effort not to apply it to wind farms. The evidence I’ve seen for any of the objections up to now has generally been poor and even with a genuine effort to keep an open mind it hasn’t raised any real concerns.

I do worry about the number of people who are willing to argue “Wind farms are pointless: we should be investing in tidal farms!” or championing some other form of technology. We are investing money in researching tidal farms, and wave generation, and offshore wind farms, and even nuclear fusion, and these things are, indeed, very important to our future supply. But none of these technologies can generate the electricity we need now. They’re still in the pipeline. Wind farms can, and are. If, in ten, or twenty, or fifty years, wave or tidal becomes a significant contributer to our electricity networks, it will be built on lessons learned through onshore wind farms on how to cope with variable supply, and with supply that relies on weather conditions. Stopping the development of onshore wind farms would make it harder, not easier, for wave and tidal to reach deployment scale.

Turbinetastic’ is a wind industry professional who has kindly agreed to syndicate their posts to this blog. This post was originally published on turbinetastic’s  own blog on 24/06/2012.


Geeks and wind power

 by turbinetastic

I’m starting to get really worried about the wind industry. I think it’s an important industry, for several reasons:

  • It brings jobs to Scotland, even in a time of recession,
  • It allows for our dependence on imports for electricity supply to be reduced,
  • It reduces the carbon intensity of our energy,
  • It serves as a point of learning on the road to making real use of our renewable resources: solar, wave and tidal, and whatever new technology comes after.

What worries me is that the debate on wind energy, from the pro-wind side, is totally dominated by three voices: the economists/business leaders, the politicians and the green activists.

The way I see the world, politicians are there to tell us if something should be done; economists tell us if people will pay for it; and activists are there to lobby for a pre-existing set of ideas. When it comes to “can something be achieved”, that’s where you need the geeks: specifically the scientists and the engineers. And the scientists and engineers are very, very quiet on the issue of wind power.

Part of the reason for this is that wind energy for large-scale electricity is still very much in its infancy. Ten years ago, the procedure for installing a wind farm was completely unrecognisable compared to what happens today: masts were smaller, turbines were smaller and closer together, and the softer requirements like bird surveys and protection for peat lands weren’t as well established. Ten years in a career is a long time; but it’s hardly any time at all when you look at how quickly the onshore wind industry has grown. (Offshore wind has barely begun its journey yet, so I’m not talking about that.)

Within that huge rate of growth, large companies have grown from small groups of tinkering engineers, and somehow the managers, the politicians and the economists have become the dominant voices. And they say: protect our IP, don’t say anything which will bring the industry into disrepute, keep to the party line. It’s scientists who say, share data, do best practice and let people see it’s being done. But somehow the scientists and the engineers aren’t making the decisions in this industry. And where they’ve risen to the top, they seem to do so by falling in line with the industry position. Don’t question, don’t talk about any issues, don’t ever suggest there’s anything wrong. And so they become the business leaders, the economists, the politicians.

One result of this is that an industry which employs hundreds, perhaps thousands of highly-qualified engineers, and a fair few scientists too, doesn’t seem to have the geeks on their side.

I’m talking about this blog. The author of the blog is Colin R McInnes, a professor of engineering at the University of Strathclyde. As a citizen, he’s been writing to newspapers fairly often lately. His letters tend to be good engineering, as you’d expect, but they tend to come down on the anti-wind side.

He’s not correct. But, and this is important: IT IS NOT HIS FAULT THAT HE’S WRONG.

He’s an engineer. More than that, this guy researches into solar sails for a living. If you asked him about whether solar sails were worth investing public money in, presumably he’d say yes. This is frontier research: it can’t fund itself without huge subsidies. Yet this same man is essentially arguing that if offshore wind farms, a very new attempt at large-scale deployment of technology to an extremely challenging environment, can’t fund themselves commercially then they should be scrapped. So what’s the difference?

He doesn’t know that we’re here. The scientists and engineers who are tasked with building wind farms and actually making them work. He’s not in the industry, doesn’t go to conferences or meetings. He’s only engaging with the public discourse. Which is, as I stated earlier, dominated by politics, activists and the party line. He is operating in a complete vacuum of technically-literate information on wind farms.

We need to start talking in a language that the technical people can understand. That means demonstrating good practice and actually letting the numbers out there. How much are wind farms generating? Why are they being installed where they are? What are the measured capacity factors? How do we determine the layouts? What actions do we take to mitigate public concerns? How do we re-power or decommission a wind farm at the end of its life? Are we held to account if we breach our planning?

I don’t know if I can make this happen. This blog is a start, I suppose. Perhaps you can. The time for secrecy is ending; if anything I’m very concerned that we’re already too late. What might have been good for an individual company is threatening to doom an entire industry. And that industry matters.

Turbinetastic’ is a wind industry professional who has kindly agreed to syndicate their posts to this blog. This post was originally published on turbinetastic’s  own blog on 31/05/2012.


Resource analysis

 by turbinetastic

Wind farms are pretty different to prior large-scale generating technology. A big way that they’re different is that we, as users, can’t choose ourselves how much fuel they need to provide us with the energy we want to use; we simply have to accept as much of the available wind energy as we can.

For some this is an insurmountable problem with the very technology. If the energy isn’t there on tap you might as well pack up and go home. To me that seems crazy. If someone offered you a £20 voucher towards your weekly shop, you wouldn’t toss it in the bin on the grounds that it wouldn’t buy your whole week’s food, you’d use it and make up the rest other ways.

Because of this intermittency problem, jobs like mine became available for the wind industry. Across the globe, whereever there are wind farms of any size, someone has to sit down with a computer and some wind measurements and try to assess what sort of production levels we can expect from them. In the early days, this was done based on some comparatively short measurement masts, using methods that were simplistic. Now, it’s a much better defined methodology, with larger masts, new technologies, and its own modelling tools to provide more accurate predictions of how the wind will vary in time and space.

The same sort of analysis techniques are used by the Energy Traders, who sell the generated energy under the system of the UK electricity market. Similarly, analysis of operational wind farms really benefits from that sort of detailed knowledge of the wind because it’s still key to understanding how far the wind farm is performing as expected.

So there are lots of benefits to the wind industry from this sort of work then. (Might be worth mentioning that these sorts of jobs are high skill, high demand and generally filled by people who live and work in the country in question.)

Even the most strident wind power advocate, though, doesn’t foresee a time when 100% of an electrical grid’s supply comes from wind power; not unless there’s a major leap forward in electricity storage. It is likely that other technologies like wave and tidal will start to mature to large-scale deployment.

When they do, those renewable resources will also need their resource assessed. And very similar techniques will be involved: make some measurements, assess their quality and representativeness, model where you have no measurements, and then feed through information about your machine and its output.

The national grid that was originally conceived to carry electricity from large-scale power plants to every home, factory and office was an astounding feat of engineering. However it was designed to match the supply to demand. The requirements of matching a variable supply with a variable demand are relatively new. Because wind power is the first renewable technology to get a substantial penetration into the generation market, the grid is learning to be more flexible. As we begin to use other renewable technologies — and we will — those lessons will transfer and we’ll have a system that can cope with the demands we ask of it.

Wind energy doesn’t have to be 100% of the answer to be a very important part of today’s and tomorrow’s technology mix.


Turbinetastic’ is a wind industry professional who has kindly agreed to syndicate their posts to this blog. This post was originally published on turbinetastic’s  own blog on 05/05/2012.


Are we serious about climate change?

by turbinetastic

Imagine we lived in a world where climate change was an established fact, politically as well as scientifically. Governments believed it was a serious mid-term threat to our climate and our world, and that action must be taken, without violating civil liberties, to minimise the risk of global catastrophe.

What would we do? What could we do that we aren’t doing now?

Actually we could do a lot that we’re barely even looking at. A lot of it would have social benefits at the same time. The following are just my suggestions of what a government which truly believed in a green future would do.

  • Seriously invest in public transport. I’ve been to Europe, and every country I’ve visited has better public transport than Glasgow does. They might have an extensive tram system, buses that give change, an extensive underground system, websites which actually mention where buses actually stop with reference to some map. German buses run to the minute on timetables; in Poland you can buy handfuls of bus tickets at newsagents. Compare this to Glasgow where the leading bus company provides maps with no street names, timetables that say “every twenty minutes” for much of the day, no information on fares, no change given, and buses that start and end in locations so far from Glasgow that nine times out of ten their stated destinations give no clue as to the route. (Campaign to change this: Better Buses.)

     Bus companies are private, but if a government really wanted to see improvement there’s loads of things they could do, up to and including renationalising. They could have some sort of legal minimum standards to protect rural areas and vulnerable passengers. They could require frequent independent assessments of any bus service. They could provide funds to councils to maintain several bus stations of a reasonable size to negate the problem that you can only change from one route to the other in the city centre. And that’s just my ideas. On the trains there are problems of overcrowding, overpricing and underinvestment. When was the last time you saw a new housing estate which merited a new station? Or a new station for that matter? Glasgow’s underground is pretty reliable most of the time, from past experience, but it runs in a circle which is only of use if both origin and destination are on that circle.

  • Sanctions on new home energy efficiency.New homes would have to meet minimum standards for insulation, double glazing and energy efficiency. Any appliances provided would have to meet a minimum criteria. It’s far easier insulating properly as you build rather than re-doing it later, especially if it’s been decorated for you and you don’t want to do it again. Refurbishments for letting or that require planning could have similar standards applied.

     Sanctions applied on new builds now mean that 10 years down the line all homes up to ten years old meet reasonable modern standards. If we hesitate that’s even longer with valuable heat leaking out unnecessarily. Bonus is of course that the people who live in the house are warmer in winter, cooler in summer and spend less on fuel: everybody wins (except the big six, apparently).

  • Reduction of cheap short-haul air travel.Want to go to London from Glasgow? Considered taking the train? Well you’ll find it can be twice the cost of a flight. You need to be really serious about your eco footprint to pay double for the sake of the environment. Ferry trips to Ireland or the continent are similarly enormously expensive compared to flights.

     A serious government would put systems in place to allow the same sort of cheap rates to apply to rail and ferry travel as apply to air travel. Or would put sanctions on cheap flights. I know that forcing things to be more expensive means the rich get as much as they like and the poor get squat. Sadly I haven’t come up with a better alternative to capitalism that will sell. The rich always get what they like in a capitalist system.

  • Help to people making their home more efficient.There is some of this about. It’s restricted to cavity wall and loft insulation, though, there’s no “of equivalent value” for alternatives where necessary. I’ve not heard of any government schemes to install double glazing in rented accomondation, nor relaxing of planning consent requirements for energy-efficiency options. Listed buildings still need to put the look of any planned improvements ahead of their functional use.

     Free energy-efficient light bulbs just doesn’t cut the mustard in my book though.

  • Recycling facilities. There are some recycling facilities. It’s fairly common to have doorstop recycling and landfill collections. This is a step forward: five years ago I could only drop off my recycling by driving to an obscure supermarket about fifteen miles away which seemed daft. However most bins in public spaces are simple rubbish bins with no option for recycling. But other reuse schemes seem to have mostly stopped. Remember the 20p collection for glass bottles? They still exist but it’s far harder to find them, or a shop that will exchange them, and far easier to find plastic bottles. Not to mention that 20p buys far less these days. Or morning milk deliveries that collected your glass bottles to refill them?

     I think we could do better on this, and I don’t think it’d take much effort. (I also fully expect that at some point in the future people will mine our landfill sites for rare earth metals. Not sure if it’ll happen in my lifetime… unless the recession gets really bad.)

  • International negotiating. There are global resources that we all benefit from preserving. But I’ve yet to see a rich nation voluntarily paying rent to a poorer nation for a share of their resources. We condemn Brazil for chopping down the rainforest, but will we suggest or pay for other ways to feed their population than farming on previously rainforest land?

I’ve not mentioned renewable energy in here much. Although we could do more, our installed capacity of renewable energy has been growing at a huge rate, so that of the three main carbon producers in public life — electricity, heat, and transport — we’re doing far better on electricity than on heat or transport. Part of me wonders if that’s because you can wear renewable energy like a badge: Look at me, I’m eco-conscious, look how many wind farms I have! Harder to do with an inexpensive, fast and efficient railway system.

The evidence is that we in the UK are not living in a world which accepts climate change. We might say we want to reduce energy bills for vulnerable customers, but we want to do it by reducing profits of utility companies rather than by ensuring homes are as warm as possible. None of these suggestions are particularly risky, and most offer benefits to the poorest even if you don’t consider climate change a problem.

In a very real sense, we are not serious about climate change.

Perhaps we do need a true, personal catastrophe before we can take even these small steps. If so, what does that say about us?

‘Turbinetastic’ is a wind industry professional who has kindly agreed to syndicate their posts to this blog. This post was originally published on turbinetastic’s  own blog on 13/04/2012.


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The End Of Oil

by turbinetastic

I’m tired.

It’s been busy at work lately, and busy at home, and that’s part of the reason why.

 But really I’m tired of seeing the same conversation played out over and over again.

It seems so clear to me that the status quo is unsustainable. Fossil fuels take millions of years to be created, and we’re using them up at a terrifying rate. Burning them and turning those long-dead sea creatures and forests into carbon dioxide, changing the composition of the atmosphere. One day, they will run out.

Not they might. They will.

You might be right when you argue that we have decades yet, perhaps a century, of using fossil fuels at the current rate. But what about the Global Middle Eastern Crisis of 2025? You know, where all the oil in the Middle East was stockpiled in various fundamentalist states that banned export to non-Muslim countries? When petrol reached £4 and £5 and then £10 a litre?

Or maybe it was in 2018, when a critical set of valves heavily used in offshore oil platforms turned out to be faulty. There were three explosions in various locations of the same scale as the BP Gulf Of Mexico disaster before the fault was finally traced; maintenance to fix the fault shut down another twelve.

Or perhaps the third world war broke out in 2035. Both sides enforced shipping blockades at key points to cripple the other side’s oil supply. Pipelines in the desert were targetted by missile fire; oil rigs bombed.

Or perhaps the tide turned in 2021 when there was a series of enormous climatological upheavals which brought drought to some parts of the world and floods to others, killing millions. The same year, the Gulf Stream which gives Britain its moderate climate suddenly shifted south to arrive in Portugal instead of Ireland, responding to tonnes of excess Arctic meltwater, and forced us to endure the hot summers and frozen winters they get in New York. Perhaps after that climate change stopped being something to debate and started being something we should work to prevent.

It may be that none of those things happen. It may be that the oil simply, and quietly, starts to run low. Before long only three nations have any claim to oil at all. Perhaps they’re benevolant and fair nations who don’t restrict the fair trade of their oil. Perhaps it gets rationed so that each nation gets a quota.

Eventually, one way or the other, the whole economy that we’ve built on relatively cheap, readily available fossil fuels will falter. It’s not an if. It’s a when, and a how, but not an if.

In your world, what happens next?

Do we leave our children or our children’s children to squabble over the remains of our technology? Do we trust to luck and good faith that technology will find a way forward, even if starved of the funding and the environment it needs to thrive? Do we risk that the scientists who say the data says the climate is changing are all corrupt or mistaken?

Or do we use what we can to build redundancy into our systems so that there’s an alternative when things get hard? Do we strive for flexibility, and to use resources that can’t be denied us by war or economy? Do we wait, with bated breath, for fate to remove what we’ve been able to exploit for so long, or do we plan for its demise to minimise its impact on our culture?

Every time you say “not in my back yard”, you’re arguing that we should sacrifice the future for the present. Every time you tell me that wind farms are useless or ugly, you’re not only mistaken, you are contributing to a climate where we have no alternative to fossil fuels and other fuel-based power.

Wind farms are not the answer. But they provide us with power from the wind when the wind blows. They are flexible and responsive. They enable and encourage us to develop a grid infrastructure that can respond to variations in supply as well as demand. They teach us to balance the demands of the ecology with our thirst for energy. And out there, on the hillsides, they are an unmistakable sign that someone, somewhere gives a damn about tomorrow.

And I’m tired of having the same argument. Don’t tell me I have to defend wind farms. You defend your strange belief that, contrary to all evidence, tomorrow will be just like today only better. It won’t. We have to create tomorrow.

‘Turbinetastic’ is a wind industry professional who has kindly agreed to syndicate their posts to this blog. This post was originally published on turbinetastic’s  own blog on 21/03/2012.


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