Friday, 10th August 2012
Offshore windfarms in Scotland
This speech was delivered at a meeting organised by Communities Against Turbines Scotland (CATS) in Girvan on 9 August 2012.
Public opposition to onshore wind is burgeoning. The large attendance here today clearly shows that support for onshore turbines is dwindling. But developers are now shifting their focus to offshore wind farms, which are set to expand rapidly across the UK and Scotland as the Government strives to meet renewable energy commitments.
Until now, the growth of the UK's offshore wind energy capacity has been slower that anticipated because it is more costly than experts originally predicted. By June 2010, approximately half of the UK Government's 'Round 1' of offshore wind development was either still being built or had been scrapped. Although Round 2 isn't faring much better, 'Round 3' of UK offshore wind development has already been launched. It is set in the context of the EU's 2020 targets and ambitiously aims to triple to UK's current offshore capacity by 2020.
This will require the delivery of up to 32GW of new offshore wind power by 2020, meaning some 6400 turbines must be installed and grid connected in less than 8 years. The scale and cost of such plans is unprecedented. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers suggests that over £100billion is required to deliver the new capacity. Thus, the industry will rely heavily, if not completely on the Renewables Obligation and other subsidies.
Offshore wind in Scotland
Offshore wind power is a much less developed technology than onshore wind. A total of 1371 offshore turbines are now installed and grid connected in European waters, spread across 53 wind farms in 10 countries. This installed capacity produces enough electricity to cover just 0.4% of the EU's total annual consumption. The UK is by far the largest market with 568 installed offshore turbines and a further 665 under construction. But in terms of actual energy output for offshore, we are still building the equivalent of the UK's first conventional power station.
The Scottish Government are particularly keen on developing offshore wind energy. At the European Wind Energy Association's offshore wind conference in Amsterdam in November 2011, Fergus Ewing announced that the Government had identified 15 areas where vast offshore arrays would be constructed. He chose the relative safety of Amsterdam to unveil a map showing how gigantic offshore turbines will imprison the entire coastline of Scotland. The plans represent the total industrialisation of Scotland’s seascape, virtually enclosing and surrounding the entire country from Berwickshire up the East coast to Shetland and back down the West coast to the Solway, with massive offshore wind projects.
The 15 new potential offshore sites will destroy forever the beauty of the Berwickshire and East Lothian coastline, the Firth of Forth, the Moray Firth, the Northern Isles, the rugged coast of Sutherland, the Western Isles, the Firth of Clyde and the Solway Firth. A monstrous array of turbines stretches from Lochboisdale in South Uist to Tobermory in Mull, completely engulfing Tiree and Coll, stretching for more than 60 miles and appearing on the Marine Scotland plans as almost double the size of the Outer Hebrides. Another huge array, twice the size of the Island of Arran, almost closes the entrance to the Atlantic from the Firth of Clyde stretching from Kildonan to Campbeltown and halfway to the Antrim coast. Other offshore developments in the Moray Firth are at an early planning stage. The cumulative visual impact of these developments, together with projects for offshore wind arrays in Caithness, Sutherland, Moray and Aberdeenshire, will be devastating.
When determining any visual impacts of an offshore wind array, we must remember that in terms of area, offshore wind farms eclipse their onshore counterparts. Take the proposed Beatrice offshore windfarm in the Moray Firth as an example. It is being developed by Scottish and Southern Energy and will have between 142 and 277 turbines, covering an enormous area of 131.5 km². If approved, it will be the world's largest offshore windfarm, overtaking the 73km2 Walney Wind Farm off the Cumbrian Coast. In contrast, Whitelee Wind Farm, by far the largest onshore wind farm in Europe, will eventually cover 55km2.
The European Environment Agency warns that for an area up to 10km from the coast, the visual impact of wind turbines is significant. The Dutch Government have now banned the construction of turbines within 22km (12 nautical miles) of the coast, due to the shocking visual impacts. In the UK, the strategic environmental assessment for 'Round 3' of offshore development proposes to give preference to locations beyond the 12 mile zone, but we know that with wind farms, 'recommendations' have a history of being blatantly disregarded. In Scotland, we know how the recommended 2km separation distance between onshore turbines and residential homes is regularly ignored. The same will happen with offshore planning recommendations, leaving many coastal communities blighted by the visual impacts of offshore turbines.
The financial costs
Experience tells us that the pro-wind lobby will quickly dismiss arguments based on visual impacts as subjective 'nimbyism'. But the financial impacts of offshore wind power cannot be denied.
Like onshore wind, offshore wind power is ill-conceived and financially unsustainable as a coherent energy policy. Offshore turbines are more difficult to install, require more maintenance, are more expensive and are even more heavily subsidised. Offshore wind power accounts for less than 2% of the global installed wind capacity and as an infant technology, 'first of a kind' costs still apply. So it is inexplicable that the SNP would pursue such huge offshore development plans, the magnitude of which is unprecedented.
Put simply, offshore wind is inordinately expensive. There is no economic case for it. It is the most expensive large scale, commercially available low carbon generator in the UK. When North Hoyle windfarm in Northern Wales became the first offshore array to start generating electricity in December 2003, there was a widespread assumption that costs would fall as deployment expanded. But this has not happened and offshore wind is still, by far, the most expensive commercially available renewable technology.
The early cost data for offshore wind farms did support the theory that costs would decrease over time. The world's first offshore array, Vindeby Wind farm in Denmark, cost approximately 1.82million/MW in 1991. In 2003, North Hoyle was constructed at a cost of £1.35million/MW but since then, the costs of offshore wind have escalated dramatically. The CIVITAS think tank recently reported that in the last five years costs have doubled from approximately £1.5million/MW to over £3.0million/MW in 2009.
The future is also looking bleak. CIVITAS estimated that the UK Government's green policies could be adding 45% to electricity costs by 2030 for medium sized business owners. These extra costs will damage competitiveness and undermine viability, especially for high energy users. They risk driving industry to migrate overseas along with their CO2 emissions, thus having zero net impact on global emissions totals. We have already seen this happening in Spain.
The turbines themselves represent around half of overall capital expenditure for an offshore array. Offshore turbines are approximately 20% more expensive than their onshore counterparts as they must operate in a continuously hostile environment.
Offshore foundations are another exorbitant cost. They are more substantial and more complex to lay compared to onshore turbines. Costs are increased because, with the exception of the Beatrice development in the Moray Firth, no offshore foundations are manufactured in the UK. Most are sourced from Holland and are subject to varying steel prices and Sterling-Euro currency fluctuations.
To date, most operational offshore turbines have been built in shallower water, usually in depths less than 25m, with either piled or gravity base foundations. But technological advances will soon allow the construction of taller and more expensive deepwater turbines which will utilise quadropod jacket bases in waters of around 45m depth.
Further advances, such as tripods, jacket and floating structures could eventually enable turbines to be situated in waters up to 100m deep. But nobody has determined if better wind speeds will compensate for the additional costs associated with going further offshore.
Whilst there are questions that financial experts must answer, it is clear that offshore wind-power is expensive. It is absolutely absurd that the SNP is embarking on a huge programme of investment in offshore wind generated electricity, especially when we already face grave economic challenges.
It is not just the financial aspect of offshore turbines which causes concern. Offshore wind turbines will also seriously affect marine life, including many species which have provided a long established livelihood for our fishermen. Leading marine biologists have warned that studies claiming that offshore turbines have positive environmental impacts are flawed. They are based on supposition rather than research, or they are extrapolations from small-scale studies of very specific situations which don't support the generalisations on which they are based.
We know already that the hostile ocean environment means offshore turbines must have massive foundations with huge piles driven deep into the seabed. But the resultant noise created causes sound pressure levels which seriously damage the hearing systems of marine mammals. Research has shown that cod and herring can detect this noise up to 4km away and dab and salmon can be affected as much as 1km away. For acoustically sensitive animals such as harbour porpoises and harbour seals, which require their hearing for orientation, communication and survival, the zone of audibility for pile-driving will most certainly extend beyond 80 km, perhaps hundreds of kilometres from the source. These statistics are even more worrying given that Scotland holds approximately 79% of the total UK population of harbour seals, a population which is already in decline on a countrywide scale.
Marine animals will not be the only victims. I haven't touched upon our plant life and its unparalleled importance. Few people have heard of the term 'blue carbon'. I am not sure that it was even considered by the SNP before they announced their offshore plans. But would that really surprise you?
An estimated 55% of carbon in the atmosphere that becomes bound or 'sequestered' in natural systems is cycled into the seas and oceans. Basically, this is natural carbon capture and storage. This 'blue carbon' is different to 'green carbon' which is removed by photosynthesis and is stored by plants and peatland.
These marine ecosystems, which include mangroves, salt marshes, maerl beds and seagrass meadows cover less than 0.5% of the seabed and yet are responsible for storing up to 70% of the carbon permanently stored in the marine ecosystem. But between 2 and 7% of our blue carbon sinks are lost annually and may be completely lost in a couple of decades. In some instances the rate of loss is up to four times that of rainforests. Is it any wonder that our climate is changing?
Whilst some blue carbon stores, like mangrove swamps, only grow around the tropics, Scottish waters are home to the vast majority of the UK's seagrass meadows and maerl beds. They are habitats for a range of species and are some of the world's largest stores of carbon. Destroying these habitats would release huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere and would only add to climate change.
I don't need to tell you that building massive turbines in these areas is a terrible idea. If we are to tackle climate change and make a transition to a resource efficient Green Economy, we need to recognise the role and contribution of blue carbon ecosystems. Halting degradation and restoring both the lost marine carbon sinks and slowing deforestation on land could result in mitigating emissions by up to 25%. So doesn't it seem odd that the SNP would continually claim how they are seeking drastically to reduce CO2 emissions and halt climate change, but at the same time, they are pushing forward with plans to cover our precious coastal ecosystems in wind turbines?
Impacts on local communities
Offshore turbines also pose serious risks to local communities. Unfortunately, consultation with ordinary communities and businesses potentially affected by offshore proposals has been minimal. Scottish fishermen fear that their world-renowned shellfish grounds will be wrecked forever by the excavation and construction of turbines, not to mention the on-going vibration and disturbance which will drive fish out of our waters. Sailors say that no one will wish to risk slaloming around these towering steel giants. Tourists will treat Scotland as an industrial wasteland, best avoided. Coastal communities who have relied for generations on fishing and tourism will be destroyed.
A good example of such impacts can be found in East Yorkshire where the CEO of the Holderness Coast Fishing Industry Group, who also happens to be a marine biologist, has provided detailed evidence of how offshore windfarms can cause serious and permanent damage to marine ecosystems.
Holderness is home to one of Europe's largest and best crab and lobster fisheries, which sustains a vibrant local fishing community. The Holderness fleet is made up of around 70 small-scale boats which use static fishing gear. Most are owned and operated by their skippers as independent businesses. The Westermost Rough area of the Holderness Coast is one of the most productive parts of the Holderness fishery but worryingly, consent has recently been given to the Danish renewable energy giant, DONG Energy, to construct a 35 km2 windfarm at the site.
The 80 planned turbines will devastate the local fishing industry. Huge amounts of sediment will be released into the water column and will eventually settle and smother all life on the sea bed. Fishing will be eliminated in the short term and in areas where sedimentation is deep enough to bury the cracks and crevices that crab and lobster colonies require, stocks will vanish and fishing will be excluded forever. Similar ‘dead spots' have already been discovered after the construction of a nearby gas pipeline through the Holderness Coast.
Even if marine life survives the initial construction of the turbines, the local fishing fleet may not. DONG's representatives claim that fishermen will still be "allowed" into the site after construction if their activities do not affect the wind farm. But these fishermen, who have enjoyed the freedom of UK territorial waters for centuries, will now need the permission of a Danish energy company executive to enter their own fishing grounds. Despite the "permission" kindly granted by DONG representatives, the construction of these turbines equates to the de facto closure of one of Europe's best lobster fisheries.
Those who claim that offshore wind arrays can provide a good habitat for marine organisms are deliberately trying to mislead us. Marine biologists have warned that this claim is based on a scientific study of fish aggregation around wind turbines, which also speculated that, in areas where wind turbines need rocks placed around their bases to protect against scour from suspended sandy sediment, this scour protection - NOT the turbines themselves- MIGHT prove a suitable habitat for crabs and lobsters in areas where no such habitat previously existed. Note that this was simply speculation in the conclusion of a paper describing related research. The ACTUAL effects on crab and lobster populations have not been studied.
The idea that drilling huge boreholes in an undisturbed and enormously productive habitat, inserting wind turbines into them and then dumping massive loads of rock around the base of each will somehow increase the populations of living organisms is utterly risible. It is little different from claiming that putting 80 wind turbines in the middle of a pristine forest will increase populations of owls and badgers!
Keeping Holderness in mind, it is galling to think what will happen to Scotland's commercial fishermen and our world-class fishing grounds if the SNP get their way and encase our coastline in turbines. Spare a though too for our recreational sea angling industry, which is worth over £140 million per year to the Scottish economy and supports in excess of 3,000 jobs. The Outer Solway region in Dumfries and Galloway is one of the most valuable recreational sea fishing grounds in Scotland. Although sea angling contributes over £23.79 million to the region every year, the Danish windfarm giant, DONG Energy, has still been allowed to examine the area's potential for a second windfarm beside the existing 60 turbine Robin Rigg development.
It is clear that we have a serious situation on our hands. The Scottish Government needs to stop and take stock of its unsustainable renewables strategy, not accelerate delivery of a process that is seeing our world-renowned seascapes transformed into vast, rusting electricity factories that destroy tourism, fisheries and marine habitats, while driving Scottish households relentlessly into fuel poverty.
The Firth of Clyde
If the SNP get their way, offshore turbines will be inescapable. Everywhere will be affected. Things will change right here in Girvan too. The renewables division of Scottish and Southern Energy already has been given the green light by North Ayrshire Council to take the first steps towards building a vast offshore windfarm in the Firth of Clyde. SEE has been given permission to build a test centre at a site at Hunterston in order to test up to three offshore wind turbines over a five-year period. Main construction work is due to begin late this year with the project expected to be complete in early 2013.
An offshore wind farm in the Firth of Clyde would devastate local marine life. The area is an important habitat for common seals and grey seals. Even dolphins have been spotted in the area and both Pilot and Minke whales regularly visit the waters. The firth of Clyde is also renowned for the presence of basking sharks.
The Royal Navy also has a significant presence on the Clyde, with Her Majesty's naval Base Clyde being home to the Vanguard and Astute-class submarines fitted with Trident missiles. It is the home of the UK's strategic nuclear deterrent and is essential to our national security. Defence chiefs have warned that an offshore development could hamper access to the HMNB Clyde and increase the risk of subs running aground or colliding with other vessels. Offshore developments are not only costly, environmentally ruinous eyesores, they also threaten to jeopardise our national security.
Offshore wind won't help achieve emissions targets
At this point, you may be wondering why the idea of offshore wind is even being entertained. Much of it has to do with greed and profiteering, but some people genuinely think that offshore wind power will help us meet the 2020 emissions targets.
Even if the financial, environmental and social impacts are overlooked, experts question whether offshore wind development will help achieve our Government's ambitious emissions reduction targets. The Institute of Mechanical Engineers, who do support wind power in theory, see the key barriers to achieving 2020 targets through offshore wind as:
1. inappropriate infrastructure,
2. inadequate technology
3. a deficiency in skills,
4. lack of manufacturing capability
5. lack of funding.
Our electricity grid is outdated. It was built to connect large centralised electricity generating plant to industrial and domestic customers, not to facilitate remote power generators using local renewable sources. It needs a multi-billion pound investment which consumers would pay for. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers estimates that over 60% of the grid is outdated and must be upgraded in the next 5 to 10 years. What a shame it would be if we did pay for all these changes, only for future governments to realise what a scam large-scale wind power is.
Significant development work is also needed to improve the efficiency of offshore wind technology. The SNP government claims that this will create Scottish jobs, but we simply don't have sufficient numbers of qualified personnel for the development, assembly, operation or maintenance of this emerging offshore technology. Can the SNP really expect to train the necessary manpower, install the turbines and update the grid in just 8 years? No. We will end up heavily subsidising the entire industry and creating huge amounts of jobs for the countries that can complete the tasks for us. Alex Salmond keeps talking about how an independent Scotland would be a net-exporter of energy, but it looks more likely we will be a net-exporter of money, jobs and industry.
Scotland is by no means devoid of manufacturing industries, but we lack a sufficient manufacturing base for the large volume of equipment which will be required to meet the 2020 targets. The SNP has forgotten that for a target to be realistic, it has to be founded on factual data and a comprehensive engineering based technical assessment. To quote experts from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, "if a target is not achievable there is no point setting it" and right now there is no practical strategy in place to ensure that Scotland will achieve the SNP's 2020 targets.
No comprehensive engineering assessment has been published in the public domain which would support the targets. Although they fully support the desire to maximise the enormous potential for renewable energy, from an engineering perspective, the Institution can't see how a sufficient installation rate will be achieved through current policies. They urge the SNP to refocus on a pragmatic, 'real world' approach to what can actually be realised. They want the Scottish Government to state clearly its engineering based methodology for achieving their ambitious targets without delay.
I don’t want to end on a negative note with people accusing me of constantly attacking renewable wind energy without offering any viable alternative. The main point I want to make is that we are again being rushed into the widespread deployment of a questionable technology, without prior research and assessment of the potentially disastrous impacts. It happened with onshore wind energy and we cannot let it happen again with offshore wind power.
Even in the unlikely event that climate change targets are achieved with wind power, it will be a Pyrrhic victory. Environmentalists will argue that the cost of inaction is greater than the cost of action. Whilst this may initially sound convincing, we must remember that protecting our natural carbon stores – peatlands, forests and blue carbon sinks - is priceless.
Now I am not against innovation. We must study all potential solutions before choosing what is right for Scotland. Focusing the majority of our efforts on one technology is unwise at best, idiotic at worst. Instead of ploughing ahead with ill-conceived plans conceptualised to meet ill-conceived targets, we must improve energy conservation and energy efficiency. This is a view which experts, backed by science, are supporting. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers who support the idea of wind power in general, have denounced the SNP's energy policy. They unequivocally state that energy conservation and energy efficiency are the two most sustainable methods of reducing our bills and our CO2 emissions. We can save up to 75% of the energy we currently use simply by being more efficient.
At the same time, we cannot turn our backs on nuclear and other traditional forms of generation just yet, as this will only increase our dependence on imported gas supplies from geo-politically sensitive areas such as Russia, Iran and the Middle East. To determine what is right for our people and our climate, we must look at all options. All renewable technologies must be thoroughly researched to evaluate their effectiveness in Scotland. Other forms of generation cannot be discounted. We must look at Shale Gas, nuclear thorium and the hydrogen economy. Whether or not any of these options will be suitable for Scotland remains to be seen, but they should be researched.
The accelerated transformation of our seascapes into vast, rusting electricity factories, without considering the catastrophic impacts, is nothing but a philosophy of fools.