How do you solve a problem like the Nimbys?
The familiar pattern of wind farm objections, Nimby protests, planning difficulties, and investment set backs have returned to the UK this week. By James Murray, from BusinessGreen.com, part of the Guardian Environment Network
Anyone familiar with the two steps forward, one and three quarter steps back world of the UK’s renewable energy industry is unlikely to have been surprised by the past week, but that does not stop it being teeth gnashingly frustrating.
Just a fortnight on from the release of the government’s much vaunted Low Carbon Industrial Plan and the familiar pattern of wind farm objections, Nimby protests, planning difficulties, and investment set backs has returned.
The most high profile slap in the face for the sector comes in the form of Vestas’ plans to close its wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight, despite the brave efforts of staff to oppose the decision by staging a sit in at the plant, jeopardising any chance of redundancy payments in the process.
There have been plenty of suggestions that Vestas’ decision to close the plant is short sighted and that the government should step in to nationalise the facility. But while the issuing of dismissal letters inside a food parcel sent to the protestors was crass in the extreme, it is much harder to fault the commercial logic behind the decision to close the plant.
The factory was building blades that were then being exported to the US. At the same time, the company has a plant in the US capable of delivering the same blades at lower cost. It makes sense from both a commercial, and indeed an environmental perspective for turbines for the US market to be built in the US.
Vestas did look at converting the Isle of Wight factory to produce blades for the UK market, but decided that the risk that demand for the new turbines would not be forthcoming was too high. Was this an unreasonable decision?
Well, The British Wind Energy Association is right to point out that up to 2,700 new wind turbines are expected to be erected by 2012 with over 700 under construction and nearly 2,000 having secured planning permission. Meanwhile, the additional £1bn of financing announced by the government this week should ensure that those projects that have planning permission are indeed built.
And yet Vestas would be forgiven for arguing that it has seen such predictions in the past, only for the pipeline of new projects to be blocked time and again by local objections to planning applications, followed by long winding appeals that in many cases ended in disappointment.
It could point to Greenpeace’s recent report showing that between December 2005 and November 2008 Tory councils blocked 158.2MW of wind energy projects, approving just 44.7MW, while Labour councils fared only a bit better rejecting 62.6MW, while approving just 68.3MW.
If it wanted more timely examples, it could highlight the news today that the RSPB is to formally oppose plans for the UK’s largest onshore wind farm on the Shetland Islands, after previously indicating it would support the proposal. Or the decision by RES to cut the number of turbines at its planned Minnygap wind farm in Scotland from 15 to 10 in an attempt to win planning approval. Or Ecotricity’s recent appeal against a decision that saw plans for a 12MW wind farm in North Dorset rejected despite planning authorities recommending to councillors that the proposals should be approved. The list goes on and on.
It is horrible for the workers involved, but you can understand why Vestas has decided that it has had enough operating in an environment where the market it serves is at the whim of a small minority of locally-fixated Nimby protestors and popularity courting councillors. If staff, trade unions and green groups want to protest against Vestas’ decision, it is the government, and in particular wind farm blocking councils, that should be the target.
The fact is Nimbyism is at the root of most of the clean tech industry’s problems, and what’s more it is only going to get worse. The conservationist campaign against the proposed Severn Barrage is already gathering momentum, the anti-wind lobby is if anything getting more vocal and has substantial support on the back benches of a Conservative party that looks destined to form the next government, objections to biomass and waste-to-energy plants are increasingly common, and if the recent opposition to planned carbon capture and storage plants in Germany and the Netherlands is anything to go by, even this technology could be hamstrung by people worried about living above carbon sinks.
Thus far the response from the renewables industry has tended to be one of impotent rage. Talk to anyone involved in trying to gain planning approval for a wind farm opposed by local parish worthies and they are often engaged in an scarcely concealed internal battle to resist an attack of apoplexy.
They can’t understand why, when surveys have shown the vast majority of people like wind turbines, when the reality of climate change means they are trying to invest in a project that is essential to the continuation of our way of life, when the government is pretty unstinting in its support for low carbon technologies, when the latest turbines are ghostly quiet and governed by stringent planning rules that keep them a good distance from buildings, small numbers of people complaining about changes to their view can effectively torpedo an entire industrial revolution.
But while it is always fun to have a bit of rant, it is never going to solve the problem – in fact, it tends to exacerbate it by making local opponents to wind farms feel bullied.
So what is the answer?
The first step has to be to understand where the opposition to these developments comes from. Opponents of wind farms like to dress up their objections in vaguely technical (and easily countered) arguments about the efficacy of wind and the damage turbines can do to bird life, but in most cases the root of the opposition invariably comes down to visual impact.
The government recently undertook a major survey that found that the vast majority of people like the look of turbines, and almost everyone agrees they have more architectural value than a coal-fired power plant. But the vocal minority’s opposition to wind farms is based not so much on aesthetic judgements but a deep-rooted conservative, with a small c, mentality (although given their councillors’ record maybe that should be with a large C too). My guess is that opponents to wind farms simply don’t like change, pure and simple.
So how do you win them round? The rigours of democracy quite rightly ensures that the totalitarian approach of telling them to lump it and evicting anyone who protests too loudly is out of the question. As a result, the renewables sector needs to get much better at the gentle art of persuasion.
Wind farms that do secure approval tend to engage in genuine and lengthy consultation and engagement exercises with residents, while the practice of donating funds to local community projects has become increasingly prevalent. But such engagement exercises are only going to have limited success when faced with a deep rooted fear of change.
Perhaps the answer is to be found in one of the few mechanisms proven throughout history to help people get over their fears: money.
My Godfather lives near Sellafield. Not near enough to see it, but near enough to know that if anything ever goes badly wrong his health insurance claim would make for interesting reading. As a teacher with impeccable left-leaning, anti-nuclear credentials and a life long love of the surrounding countryside he always said that he did not like having a power plant in the back yard, but he was fully aware that without it he would most likely be out of a job and an area with an already pretty precarious economy would be tipped over the edge.
Unfortunately, this economic rationalism will not work quite so well with wind farms, when you consider that once they are built the employment prospects are pretty minimal. Consequently, the onus has to be on developers to make the economic case more explicit, and if that means paying local residents some form of reparations or annual stipend then so be it.
The financial rewards might still not be sufficient to convince those with an irrational hatred of wind farms, but I’m guessing their opposition would soon be drowned out by those who quite fancied the idea of the local wind farm paying for their holiday each year.