Thursday, 27 May 2010

Exploring an onshore wind farm

There was a lot of discussion last week about the merits of offshore renewables, following the launch of "The Offshore Valuation", the latest report from the Public Interest Research Centre.

I agree with their findings but not with some of the interpretations of this report in the press. For example, George Monbiot argued that this work shows that onshore wind is not worthwhile in comparison with offshore wind, wave and tidal power.

Last week, I took the train from King's Cross to Aberdeen to visit the Centrica's 20-turbine wind farm in the Glens of Foudland, near Huntly. The airports were closed that morning by volcanic ash so there wasn't a spare seat to be had on the train. The plus side was that the emissions per passenger-kilometre were absolutely minimal on this journey. Actually, I was pretty confident that, during April and May, Eyjafjallajokull was responsible for more carbon emissions reductions than the wind farm I was visiting - but that's not a popular sentiment amongst our erstwhile-airborne friends and colleagues. I have to confess that the return journey, with about 30% occupancy on the train, was a lot more comfortable.

The windfarm was commissioned in April 2005 and is ideally situated at an altitude of 330m on rocky hills set in a wide, windy valley. Because of this situation, it has achieved a consistently high load factor (ie., proportion of its theoretical peak output) throughout its 5 years of operation. It is now reaching the end of its manufacturer's warranty period so there were several engineers on site, checking each of the turbines for faults and preparing to change the gearbox oil (which, I was assured, is taken away for reconditioning and reuse). With the right build quality and the appropriate level of care, these turbines will continue to generate renewable energy from free fuel for a quarter of a century.

Wind turbines are very valuable assets and their components operate under extremely high stress - just imagine the weight of a turbine blade (which can now be up to 60 metres long) turning full circle every few seconds, bolted onto a steel shaft driving a generator through a huge gearbox on top of a hollow steel tube, in a highland gale.

Now picture the same construction glued onto another 100-metre pile driven into the seabed, battered by waves and corroded by salt spray. The maintenance challenges are much more extreme than for these onshore wind turbines but the access is unimaginably difficult and expensive. So, while I agree that the longterm prospects for renewable energy from Britain's offshore territories are superb, I am certain that we need to continue erecting onshore wind turbines in suitably windy locations across the country. Britain faces energy supplies issues from the middle of the current decade and we need to be working flat out to install do-able renewable energy technologies now, at the same time as we are developing next generation renewables for the future.

The other piece of the puzzle which was written up by Jamie Bull, one of the researchers for the PIRC report, but not developed within the report, is the return on energy invested in building and maintaining renewable energy assets. Along with tidal range schemes like the lagoons proposed as a alternative to the Severn barrage, wind turbines yield the greatest return on energy invested in their manufacture, installation and maintenance. They are about three times as efficient as solar electricity panels, for example. And that goes for both onshore and offshore wind installations. So let's keep putting more wind turbines in windy places, where the load factors will be as high as possible and where the ground won't be damaged (for example, installing wind turbines on peatland dries out the precious peat, causing large-scale methane and CO2 emissions) and let's get used to their visual impact. After all, we have covered the countryside with pylons and cables for distributing electricity - let's put up with these bigger pylons that actually make it, for free!

My thanks to British Gas, for covering the costs of my rail fare and accommodation for this visit, and to Matthew Walsh, the extremely knowledgeable and able manager in charge of the operation and maintenance of Centrica's wind farms. He's one of those unknown soldiers in the fight against climate change and I take my hat off to him.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

First "Sustainable Windsor" Newsletter

It's two weeks since we had our first meeting to launch Sustainable Windsor and we have just published the following newsletter to report all the great ideas that came out.

This new community organisation has a bright future ahead: email if you'd like to be added to our distribution list.

Local people form "Sustainable Windsor", a community organisation to promote sustainable living.

Sustainable Windsor, a community group inspired by the 10:10 initiative to reduce our carbon emissions by 10% in 2010 (, had its first meeting in April. We enjoyed a good turnout at The Alma pub in Springfield Road, with plenty of lively debate and many practical ideas across a range of subjects. Please feel free to pass on this newsletter to anyone you think might be interested. Details on how to get involved with Sustainable Windsor are at the end of this newsletter.

We started on waste and composting. We heard about the Composting Coach, who teaches companies how to compost their organic waste matter, and that Transco (who run the National Grid) are planning to build a huge biogas plant for London.

We talked about the "Green Point" logo, owned by Valpak, that obliges consumer goods manufacturers to fund the recycling of their packaging in Germany but not in other parts of Europe. We also recognised the missed opportunity to recycle valuable cans and bottles that are drunk "on the go" and thrown away in our high streets. We agreed on the need to campaign for on-the-go recycling points in our town.

We also liked the idea, emailed by one of our members, of collecting the red rubber bands that are dropped all over town by our dear postmen and women. We could then make them into balls and bounce them into the Post Office in Windsor for reuse, with a friendly journalist on hand to witness this simple action on litter and waste!

We learned that British business uses brown and clear glass whereas green glass is principally reused in Spain, for European wine bottles. The current trend of mixed glass recycling ends up as aggregate (replacing gravel) for surfacing roads, meaning that the UK glass industry has lost its free supply of recycled material. Waste sorting companies can readily segregate recycled glass into separate colour streams, renewing this valuable supply of clear and brown glass as raw materials for British manufacturers.

The last point on waste was mixed plastics recycling. Several of us have been fobbed off by the council, who say that collecting plastics (other than bottles) for recycling is prohibitively expensive and that there is no market for these plastics. Peter considers both these points to be false and is working with the Royal Borough's waste management team to find a solution for mixed plastics recycling in Windsor, as soon as possible.

We moved on to local food and allotments. It was noted that, although the council have long waiting lists for allotments in the Royal Borough, many of our allotments are currently lying fallow. Anne offered to contact Geoff Lane, the allotment manager in Eton Wick, to dig deeper (excuse the pun) into the reasons for this. Laura suggested that we partner up with the Windsor Allotment Society (WAGGA) to drum up more support for their summer fair and sales of produce from the allotments.

Neil proposed that we need to, "live like a village, not a town". This captures perfectly the essence of community actions for sustainable living. He suggested that we can arrange to collect all the windfall and unwanted apples across the town this summer, to make community cider. We loved this idea and will seek the help of our friends at the new Windsor & Eton Brewery.

Suzie thought we should co-opoerate with the CPRE, Civic Voice and the Civic Trust, to support our open spaces and wild areas.

Next came home energy use, looking at the latest LED lights that can replace low-voltage halogen lamps. We talked about the carbon club, called "Windsor Sustainable Living", on the imeasure website at Anyone signing up to imeasure is asked to enter their weekly energy usage, in the form of meter readings, and you can then see the emissions of CO2 per person from your house, in comparison with all the other users of the site, or with the other members of the carbon club if you decide to join. It's a great way to see how you're doing compared with like-minded people and the element of competition pushes you to turn down, switch off, and save a little more than you might otherwise do. Peter would be more than happy to offer informal, free advice to anyone wishing to reduce their home's energy use. Indeed, he was heard on Radio 4's "You and Yours" programme last week, extolling the virtues of saving energy - and money - at home. You can hear him here:

We then considered how to promote cycling in Windsor. Peter pointed out the little-known bye-law that permits children aged 12 and under to cycle on pavements in the town. We agreed that this should be publicised, together with the need for courtesy towards pedestrians, to encourage families to help their young children to begin cycling more safely. Hand-in-hand with more use of pavements, we recognised that the anti-social practice of parking on pavements is becoming prevalent in some parts of town and needs to be addressed pro-actively by both the council and the police. We also felt that the Windsor cycle network needs to be more integrated - particularly in the light of the major redevelopment of the Imperial Road roundabout that is due to begin shortly.

We addressed media and communication with a proposal that the Fire Station Arts Centre could screen an amazing eco-film festival this autumn, with titles such as "The Age of Stupid", "Eleventh Hour", "The End of the Line" and many more. Hannah, Laura and Neil all know Dan and the team at the Fire Station so we have a real opportunity to put together a major event in the civic calendar for Windsor, and attract a wide range of new members to join Sustainable Windsor.

Finally, we thought about education and the benefit of speaking to children at school, to engage them and their families in Sustainable Windsor. This will be more practical once we have some teachers amongst our membership, which should happen naturally as we continue to recruit local people through our initiatives and activities.

Having talked through so many topics at our first meeting, we look forward to a second meeting in a couple of months time - probably late June or early July. In the meantime, please email me your comments and suggestions on the points raised in this newsletter and any other matters you feel we could usefully cover in our next meeting.

To find out more about Sustainable Windsor or to be added to the email list, please contact