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The Winds of Change
By Gavin Catto, Greencat
As economic commentators at home and abroad continue to wallow in the global gloom and doom, one area that is proving relatively unaffected by the turbulent financial markets and is most definitely seeing a steady growth, despite recurring questions about its environmental and economic worthiness, is that of small to medium wind farm projects. Perhaps more significantly, it is the farming sector that is embracing this area and is starting to reap the benefits of wind energy diversification.
Nowhere is this opportunity being grasped more enthusiastically than in Aberdeenshire. The Aberdeenshire Renewable Energy Strategy identifies that, “renewable energy is increasingly being seen as a necessary component of strategies to address climate change, fuel poverty and in promoting sustainable development.” Whilst the Strategy notes that not all renewable energy projects are acceptable in all locations, it indicates that the competing demands of protecting the environment and generating electricity need to be balanced.
Wind turbines have a positive energy balance, producing many times more energy than that required for their manufacture, installation and maintenance. Specific research into the energy balance of 600 kW wind turbines indicates that they recover all the energy used in their manufacture, installation, maintenance, decommissioning and disposal within six months of operation. This figure is dependent on the wind speed (and hence energy generation) at a site, but is clearly a much shorter period than a wind turbine's operational life of over 20 years. This fact is central to wind energy's contribution to sustainable energy supplies.
North East Aberdeenshire has to date 5 operational wind projects owned and operated by farm businesses, with a further 17 consented and 7 in the planning system. Realising the real environmental and long term economic possibilities of wind, farm businesses have taken on the serious task of assessing their individual suitability for wind and have approached specialist environmental consultants Green Cat Renewables Ltd to advise and assist the business throughout all the stages of getting an operational wind farm up and running, starting from the initial site investigation and pre-planning phase right through to commissioning the turbines.
Traditionally, farm businesses have tended to look at diversification projects more in keeping with their experience and have regarded wind energy as just an opportunity to make a lucrative rent. Increasingly however, farm businesses are starting to realise that wind energy is a real diversification opportunity with greater returns available if projects are developed in their own right. Readily available and accessible land in good positions has enabled small, medium and large farming concerns to embrace this opportunity now and reap its rewards financially, contributing sustainably to the provision of our ever-growing demands for energy.
Financing a Wind Farm project
As with any large capital projects, financing a wind cluster is one of the key challenges. Whilst the prospect of raising £3 to 4million may seem daunting to most farm businesses, a well-structured project can be financed with the bulk of the money borrowed against the project itself with no recourse to land or other security. Ethical banks such as the Coop Bank will lend up to 90% of the project value secured against the turbines and the package of contracts that makes up the wind farm business. This allows the farm business to leverage an investment of a few hundred thousand pounds up to the required multi-million pound level. It is this flexibility that has enabled many farm businesses to commit to this type of project.
The table gives a typical cost breakdown of a 3 x 800KW turbine project with average wind speed and current electricity prices, illustrating simply the economic viability of such a project.
Turbines (based on £0.90/Euro) £2 700 000
Grid Connection £300 000
Electrical Infrastructure £200 000
Civil Infrastructure £150 000
Professional Support (post planning) £50 000
Professional Support (pre consent) £50 000
Financing costs £100 000
Total £3 550 000
£115 000 per annum Income
(based on ~8m/s average mean £690
000 per annum
wind speed and electricity sale at 10p/kWh
which includes all subsidies)
So what are the criteria for a wind farm?
Ideally the proposed site or sites need to have a good wind speed (>7ms-1), suitable access, good access to the electricity grid, be a reasonable distance from nearby dwellings (typically >500m) and be free from any environmental constraints for instance, sites of natural heritage or scientific significance are often sited as potential planning “show stoppers.”
o Planning – Planning consent typically involves 6 to 12 months of Environmental Assessment work covering all relevant ecology concerns,
landscape and visual impact, cultural heritage, noise, hydrology and various other environmental issues followed by a further 2 to 4 months of review, although experience has suggested this part of the process can take up to 6 to 12 months at least by the relevant planning authority and statutory consultees.
o Wind Resource Assessment
– Assessing the wind resource involves putting up a 40 to 60m anemometer mast on the site and measuring the
wind for 12 months. Data is collated and energy yield deduced from this.
o Grid Connection – grid connection applications are made to the local DNO, Scottish and Southern in the north of Scotland and Scottish Power in the South of Scotland. This typically takes 4 months.
o Procurement – Turbine Supply, Electrical Balance of Plant, Civil Balance of Plant, Finance, Insurance, Operation and Maintenance, and Power Purchase Agreement all need to be negotiated and signed up. This can often be a drawn out and iterative process particularly where a new business is being set up to own and operate the project (as is usually the case). This typically takes 3 to 6 months.
o Construction – the construction typically takes 1 to 2 months for the civil works. These are usually done in advance of the electrical and turbine
supply works, which can take less than a month.
Case Study - House O'Hill - Cluster of three Enercon E48 (800kW) turbines
House O'Hill is a 180acre mixed arable unit on the north slopes of Mormond Hill in Aberdeenshire. The key issues with the site were identified as; radar (military and civilian), grid connection, ecology, hydrology, noise and landscape and visual impact.
A 12-month programme of ecological
studies was required to fully assess the potential ecological issues. In parallel with this, the landscape and
visual impact, noise and hydrology impacts were considered and presented in an Environmental report accompanying a
planning application for the turbines in May 2008.
The military radar issue was overcome by aligning the turbines such that they were screened by topography and the civil radar was eventually overcome after a lengthy dialogue with the National Air Traffic Service, where various mitigation measures were proposed by a radar expert and ultimately accepted by the service. Planning consent was eventually passed at committee in December 2008. A grid connection agreement was signed in February 2009 and two turbines have been ordered for July 2010 with a third due the following year when radar upgrades are complete. The turbines will be Enercon E48 800kW turbines. Enercon will also provide the electrical balance of plant and will be contracted to maintain the turbines on a 12-year maintenance and extended warranty.
The roads and other earthworks will be supplied by a local contractor. Finance is being provided by the Cooperative Bank, with insurance supplied by Bruce Stevenson. A power purchase agreement has yet to be finalised. All professional support relating to the planning, wind resource assessment, detailed design and construction management is being provided by Green Cat Renewables.