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Weathering the storm – communicating the benefits of wind power

Posted on by Rebecca

Weathering the storm – communicating the benefits of wind power

The development of wind farms evokes strong emotions, be it among local communities, anti-development activists such as the National Alliance of Wind Farm Action Groups, and even royalty. Having a strong communications strategy is an important part in the battle to securing planning permission, as developers can be required to fight some high level, and exceptionally influential, opposition.

Location is the most crucial component in the success of wind energy generation, but often the most lucrative sites are also the most difficult – located in countryside or areas of natural beauty with no supporting infrastructure, which makes them prime for opposition by NIMBYs or those campaigning to protect open spaces.

Preparation is therefore key. While planning and consent can be quick in some locations, it can take years in others. An understanding of local planning laws and liaison with the local community are both critical. This liaison must not be viewed as a form of token lip service or a box to be ticked for the planners, but a true listening exercise which may bring about positive considerations and local support for the project. By working in partnership with the surrounding community, the consenting risks become lower.

However, often the job is to overcome opposition to wind farms in general not just the issues surrounding a specific project. Famous and influential names have spoken out against wind farm developments, notably Prince Charles and more recently, Prince Harry.

Indeed, Prince Charles has been vocal in his opposition to onshore wind turbines because of their visual impact, and none have been erected on land owned by the Duchy of Cornwall. He has lobbied government officials to subsidise other renewable energy sources. Just last month on his tour of the US, Prince Harry echoed his father’s views on the visual impact of wind farms. However, it is possible Prince Charles’ views may be changing, as in a new film highlighting his environmental work, the Prince spoke of supporting “the commitment to working with nature’s freely-given forms and clean energy” and hailed Germany’s enthusiastic approach to wind-powered energy.

Meanwhile a group of 106 MPs has called on the Government to cut generous subsidies, which they say are driving the expansion of wind farms. In a letter to the Prime Minister in February last year, they warned it was “unwise” to make consumers subsidise “inefficient and intermittent energy production”. This is a move supported by the Duke of Edinburgh, who is reported to have said “they were absolutely useless, completely reliant on subsidies and an absolute disgrace”.

One of the recognised issues in planning a wind farm development is how to combine a suitable site with connection to the grid – which is where the combination of turbines and pylons is required. Despite objections, the UK set a target for 13GW in onshore and 18GW of offshore wind capacity by 2020 [UK Renewable Energy Roadmap] and this is providing a significant opportunity for confident developers and investors. However, the key challenge facing the realisation of these targets remains one of the location and the best sites to harness wind generation are often a long way from existing grid infrastructure.

Ultimately, this puts wind energy generation in a difficult place. There is the impetus from Government to support greater development through the use of subsidies and capacity targets. But it’s not an easy path for developers to follow, with many hurdles to be overcome in terms of planning consent, infrastructure, access and grid connectivity. That’s before you take into consideration the vocal objection from the likes of Prince Charles, as well as those more closely affected by a development.

The views of those in the media spotlight are going to have resonance and carry influence, ultimately hindering a developer’s ability to take the easy path. Instead, rather than a slow Sunday stroll, securing permission for a new wind farm is more likely to be like climbing Snowdon in December and will require a strong communications campaign to ensure you reach the top.

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