Renewable Energy’s All Good, Right?

Climate change is one of the defining problems of our age, affecting as many as 300m people and causing 300,00 deaths per year. Although some governments have been slow to act, the Scottish Government was an early mover, legislating some of the most demanding emissions reductions targets in the world. ‘Energy leadership’ has long been a priority for the Scottish National Party, and Scotland is recognized as having one of the highest levels of renewable energy resources in Europe. Despite R&D in a range of technologies, as the most mature technology over 70% Scotland’s 7.3GW installed renewable capacity comes from onshore wind, supporting 5,400 jobs.

Despite climate change being a global challenge, the impacts of technologies that reduce it are felt locally. The siting of a turbine is a matter of local negotiation and generally speaking the siting of turbines is done in consultation with local communities, often a contentious process. Although onshore wind is still in growth, public opinion is divided. Developers and local councils have learned lessons on the siting of onshore wind and it was not unknown for early turbines to cause highly distressing shadow flickering or ‘whooshing’ noises. Whilst planning authorities have gradually developed good practice with respect to siting of turbines, growth is such that they increasingly have to consider sites that are close to where people live. In these instances, the developer is responsible for quantifying the effects of flicker and potentially suggesting operating regimes that can limit the impact. Similarly, turbine design has been improved to reduce noise impacts.

In recognition of local disruption for national and global benefits, and to secure local approvals, developers are encouraged (and sometimes required) to share benefits with local communities. This benefit-sharing can take many forms (typically community buildings and projects), and Scotland now has a publicly available register in order to promote good practice. However, community benefits are criticised, often because they are not evenly distributed across the community – some people benefit more than others. Some are concerned that communities which might most benefit from benefit-sharing become targets for developers, that – all other things being equal – developers prefer communities of a socio-demographic profile where they don’t expect the community to organize in protest. In short, they try to avoid communities that are “pale, male and stale”. Reduced bills have not been a benefit that anyone has enjoyed. 35% of Scotland’s households are classed as being in fuel poverty (and 10% in extreme fuel poverty) – having to spend at least 10% (20%) of all household income on fuel. Average UK fuel bills have doubled in the last 10 years as Scotland’s installed renewable capacity has tripled.

There are national implications too. Renewable energy is by nature more distributed that high capacity fossil fuel plants, and there are implications on the grid. In Scotland, a good deal of protest occurred over the Beauly-Denny line, a grid extension that introduced one of the UK’s highest and longest powerlines directly through high quality landscape. There were calls for more of the line to be buried, but this was rejected on grounds of cost and technical challenge. Some people felt the 50m high powerline jeopardised Scotland’s tourist economy (which contributes £4bn per year to the Scottish economy), calling it an ‘industrialisation of the landscape’.

And finally, there are global implications of this ‘green technology’. A 2MW wind turbine contains around 350kg rare earth elements (REEs) in the form of dysprosium and neodymium in the permanent magnet generator. These materials are mined largely in China, and because they often lie deposited close to uranium, produce radioactive waste materials at the mining and processing site. These sites can cause disastrous local pollution in the form of tailings lakes full of dust concentrate, hydrofluoric acid, sulphur dioxide, sulphuric acid and radioactive thorium. Despite R&D, replacement materials are not available and the mining of REEs is expanding in line with green technologies, not reducing.

In this blog, I have highlighted some local, national and global issues that pose ethical challenges: how do we compare the preferences of local communities and global climate challenges? Is there a limit to how much a landscape should be ‘industrialised’? Where would that limit be? Should communities be ‘compensated’ and how? Should people live in fuel poverty when they can see ‘free’ power being generated? In using rare earths in green technologies are we exchanging one source of pollution for another? Is the West sending its pollution overseas? Which of these challenges should be tackled by engineers? Which are not an engineer’s business? If they are not an engineer’s business, whose are they? What do your responses to this blog reveal about your own values?

Dr Beverley Gibbs


One thought on “Renewable Energy’s All Good, Right?

  1. Very interesting article, which links in closely with the first Renewable Energy lecture conducted last Thursday. Despite its difficulties regarding building and maintenance, maybe it is worth considering offshore wind turbines more seriously? Although the cost can be more significant, it grants a very valid solution to a lot of the social issues mentioned throughout this post. It is also a fact that there is ample space along the UK/Scottish coast for offshore turbines.

    Thank you to Dr Gibbs for an interesting read and Professor Rodriguez-Falcon for a great website and module.


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