Banking on Offshoring

“You have no right to a view, Sir.  I’m sorry.”  As a rookie town planner it’s one of the first things you learn, as you sit attentively at the feet of the Development Control Manager before your first stint dealing with the punters on reception. Quite right too you may say.  It helps us keep a haughty professional distance from such NIMBY considerations in the execution of our duties.

Since my last blog post some of you have told me you are quite fond of wind farms.  But certainly when a new one is proposed offshore the impact on the view to the far horizon is something local people are concerned about.  So fair play to Eneco, the company developing proposals for “Navitus Bay”, an offshore wind farm between Dorset and the Isle of Wight.  When they held the first public exhibitions of their proposals last week, one thing they wanted people to tell them was where the important coastal viewpoints were.  And I went along.

The campaign group Challenge Navitus has some scary animations on its website showing a triffid like invasion of 200m high wind turbines just off Swanage, but before going to the exhibition I wanted to find a good viewpoint to work it out for myself.  I chose Hengistbury Head near Bournemouth.  From there the Needles, at the south western tip of the Isle of Wight, are about 8 miles away, exactly the same distance as the nearest turbines would be.  And Tennyson Down, the highest point on that part of the island, is about 150m high, less than the potential maximum height of the turbines, at 207m.

However by the time I arrived the sea mist had come in, reducing the visibility to about 50 metres.   I wandered up on the heathery headland, hoping it would clear, but if it hadn’t been for the sound of the waves lapping on the shore I could have been in the middle of the North York Moors.  So when a couple appeared out of the fog I asked them for a local opinion.  “Oh yes, you can see the Isle of Wight quite clearly most days”, they assured me.  When I mentioned the likely position and size of the wind farm they were quite concerned.  “That would be a bit of an infringement”.   I’ll have to take their word for it.

Hengistbury Head is a popular green lung for Bournemouth.  Even on a weekday in March, with the mist down, there were plenty of people about.  The café by the beach chalets at Mudeford Sandspit was selling tea and coffee, and I asked the proprietor her opinion of the wind farm.   “I don’t like it.”  She said.  “It’s so beautiful here.  And people with a beach hut will be devastated, particularly if they can see it.”  In fact, as well as protecting them from the prevailing south-westerlies, the headland will also block their view of the wind farm.  But it makes the point.   For landlubbers it is the view that concerns them.

Sailors have a different set of worries of course, and I asked a former colleague of mine, economist and yachtmaster Paul Lovejoy, for his opinion.   He isn’t surprised that yachties are concerned, since the proposal covers a large patch of sea right on the cross channel route between Yarmouth and Cherbourg.  The plan is to allow small boats to sail through once it’s complete.  Paul thinks that the planned height of the rotor tips, at least 22m above mean high water at a spring tide, should be enough clearance, but tides run strongly back and forth in the area, so poor judgment or loss of power at a crucial moment could lead to a collision.  This might seem an unlikely risk, but as this clip which Paul sent me shows, some people are perfectly capable of sailing into anything.  At least no one was hurt.

On the plus side the development is already generating substantial potential for local work boats.  And some of the 80,000 jobs that the BWEA says wind power could bring to Britain will be here too.  Vestas closed their fabrication plant in Cowes in 2009, but they still have a research facility on the Island.

Back on dry land I arrived at Eneco’s exhibition of their proposals mid-afternoon, and it was positively buzzing.  There were plenty of staff on hand to answer questions, but before buttonholing one I went and sought out the section on important coastal viewpoints.  Previous visitors had already covered the map in red dots, demonstrating that everywhere on the 180o arc from Swanage to the Needles is an important viewpoint for someone.  “So how,” I asked one of the team, “can you minimise the visual impact on all the different important viewpoints round the bay?”   Of course the answer was that they are just gathering information at this time.  But it will require a kind of alchemy to solve the conundrum.

This is likely to be one of the most contentious of the nine new offshore wind farms licensed by the Crown Estate.  The coastline here is variously an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a National Park and a World Heritage Site.  And Government guidance acknowledges that the impact of wind farms close to such areas should be considered.  Eneco have arguably made their job harder by proposing to build in the part of the search area nearest the coast.  Apparently further out they risk becoming target practice for the army on the nearby Lulworth ranges, despite being well beyond the official danger area.  But the company has at least decided that the onshore grid connection to the sub station at West Moors will be buried underground, which should avoid the opposition currently being experienced in Wales.

Just outside the exhibition there was a small collection of stalls run by opponents – in two camps.  Challenge Navitus recognise the value of wind farms, but argue that the turbines should be moved further offshore.  Apparently Holland and Germany have a 15 mile exclusion zone, compared to our eight.  But there was also someone from the “wind power costs a fortune and doesn’t work” school.

Now it’s true that wind power is still expensive, and of course the breeze doesn’t always blow.  Some of our highest electricity demands are on still, clear winter days, when the temperature plummets and the wind turbines don’t work so well.  So National Grid’s Gone Green Scenario predicts that we will still need the same baseload generating capacity from fossil fuels and nuclear in 2030 that we have today.  This despite assuming massive investment in offshore wind farms, including a proposal for one the size of North Yorkshire on the Dogger Bank.  The difference is that the conventional power won’t be switched on so much, so that renewables, mostly wind, could by then provide 48% of our electricity.  With wave and tidal power not yet a commercial proposition, the simple truth is wind turbines are here to stay.

So should we be protecting the view?  You could say that there is some value in all of us being able to see where our electricity comes from, and that the well-heeled residents of areas like Sandbanks, at the mouth of Poole Harbour, have a stark choice.  Either look out at a forest of wind turbines, or wait 100 years for the sea to have completely inundated their homes.

But where does it leave me?  Convinced that we need to decarbonise electricity generation – and fast.  But also wanting still to be able to cross over to the Isle of Wight, climb Tennyson Down, stand on the springy turf and gaze out over the azure sea to a horizon uninterrupted by industrial structures, and feel like I am the only man on earth.  Where does it leave me?  Struggling – to tell you the truth.

  • Sam Harper

    Another interesting discussion Tim. It is Eneco, not Enoco, though.

  • Tim Stansfeld

    Many thanks Sam – now corrected. Reminds me of the time on my HS2 the slow way blog that I muddled up Balsall Common and Balsall Heath. Apparently they are rather different…

  • Thank you for a more thourhtful analysis than is common on this subject. Is the view of turbines a few miles out really that problematic? The sea and sky will still have their ever-changing shades of grey but now you can see turbines out there as well as boats, bouys and oil rigs.

    I’ve seen quite a few turbines round the world now both onshore and offshre and really don’t find them to be a problem. I enjoy a fine hike and view more than many, but find it very hard to understand why people get so angry about them. Once you accept that electricity generation needs to be decarbonised there’s not much choice unless you can persuade everyone to accept a fully nuclear french-style set-up.