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CPRE Sussex Environmental Journalism Awards Winner 2012

Tuesday, 01 May 2012 15:06

Wind Farm, Kent Wind Farm, Kent Photo: © Photo Wayne Barry

The following article by Damien Murphy was the overall winner of the 2012 CPRE Sussex Environmental Journalism Awards

Rampion Wind Farm

Climate change is now an undeniable fact of life, from the drought plaguing the South East and large parts of the country to the record-breaking April rains and the floods that followed.

At the same time, the finite fossil fuels that contribute to climate change are coming under greater demand to serve the energy needs of an increasing population.

In the face of these realities, there is a growing imperative – in terms of both supply and demand – to find clean, sustainable energy supplies into the future.

As Britain is widely considered to be Europe’s windiest country, channelling that unlimited resource is becoming the aim of both environmentalists and energy companies.

Signs of that mutual objective may soon line the Brighton horizon, as E.on Climate and Renewables plans to build up to 195 wind turbines eight miles off the Sussex coast.

The company says the so-called Rampion Offshore wind farm could produce enough electricity to power 450,000 homes – two-thirds of East and West Sussex, including all of Brighton and Hove.

It estimates this could avoid the emission of over 920,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, which would otherwise be released through fossil-fuelled power generation.

E.on’s Chris Tomlinson, Development Manager for the Rampion project, which would employ 65 to 85 full time permanent staff locally, says it is “hugely significant” for Sussex.

He says: “We consume far more electricity than we generate and this part of the country is hugely densely populated. We have the climate change imperative and government targets to meet, but we have to keep the lights on.”

The methods of generating that energy from wind, however, have been controversial, largely because of the perceived impact of a rampant proliferation of turbines on surrounding countryside.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England estimates that there are currently at least 4,000 turbines either built or planned, both onshore and offshore.

Writing in its magazine earlier this month, Tom Leveridge said that while the CPRE supported onshore wind farms in principle, protecting the environment should not at the same time compromise the environment.

He said that while many areas can accommodate some impact, “some areas are, and should, remain sacrosanct, including… National Parks. These should continue to enjoy the highest levels of protection.”

This is a concern shared by environmental organisation, Friends of the Earth, which feels the need to develop renewable sources of energy must be balanced against the need to protect nationally important landscapes.

Chris Todd, of Friends of the Earth Brighton and Hove, said: “We’ve got to tackle climate change, and we’ve also got to up the amount we generate from renewable sources. But at the same time, we don’t believe that that overrides every other consideration.”

Given these concerns about onshore developments, there are obvious benefits to offshore wind farms, such as the proposed Rampion development.

Though somewhat more expensive, offshore projects have a lower visual and physical impact on the countryside and can be much larger, therefore generating much more electricity.

Mr Tomlinson agrees that given the South East’s dense population and the need to keep turbines a responsible distance from residential areas, offshore wind farming is more suited to Sussex.

Yet even offshore wind farms must have some onshore elements.

In the case of the planned Rampion wind farm, these include a new substation near Bolney, linked by nearly 30 km of cabling, 14 km of which will run through the South Downs National Park.

For Friends of the Earth, this cable route seems longer than necessary and is one of the potential problems with Rampion that it feels has not fully addressed by E.on’s community consultation on the project.

Mr Todd says: “Although it should only be temporary, there will be permanent features left behind. and obviously, the longer the route through the National Park, the more disturbance and disruption you’ll have to public rights of way.”

Friends of the Earth have given a guarded welcome to the offshore wind farm plan and said that E.on has been very good at raising awareness about the need for the development.

However, Chris Todd feels that a lack of technical or environmental information on the rationale for the cable route suggest that the consultation was “more of a tick-box exercise rather than a genuine engagement”.

“All we can do is make assumptions... that they’ve looked at the different habitat wildlife designations and basically planned a route that avoids all of them. On one level, that’s really good. But on a separate level, it’s not really good enough, in terms of what is the overall environmental impact. We feel that some of those designations maybe can take some disturbance to avoid disturbing a far longer stretch through the National Park.”

E.on says it worked closely with the South Downs National Park Authority and Natural England to develop restoration plans and ensure had the support of those bodies.

Mr Tomlinson said: “A huge amount of research and consultation went into ensuring this is the right project with the least impact. We looked at how to mitigate impact on Sites of Nature Conservation Interest, on footpaths, on species. It’s not just about the turbines but the entire project.”

Had E.on taken a more direct route, he says, there would have been a need to install pylons which would have had a more permanent impact.

Mr Tomlinson says there was a limit to how much information the company could provide at the community consultation stage but that the opportunities for comment and input have not passed.

E.on was required to hold such a consultation under Section 47 of the Planning Act 2008, and must also hold statutory and public consultations under sections 42 and 48 of the Act.

The dates for statutory and public consultations are expected to be finalised on 26 May and will be announced shortly after that.

A 38-chapter Draft Environmental Statement will be launched in the next few weeks covering all aspects of the project, and will be available on E.on’s website.

E.on emphasise that comment will be possible even after the proposal has been submitted to the Planning Inspectorate in August.

Friends of the Earth say they are worried E.on may alienate its natural allies by not engaging with them fully, while E.on feels that it has and is doing enough to take all stakeholders input on board.

Mr Tomlinson says E.on have no reason to alienate people.

He says: “We don’t want to upset the community here. Why would we? We feel like a permanent neighbour of this community and we want to be a good neighbour.”

Whatever the differing viewpoints, it seems that all are agreed that, for whatever justification, responsible building and maintaining of the Rampion wind farm is a necessity.

Says Chris Todd: “We need this wind farm – maybe not quite in the form that it’s in at the moment – but we do need this wind farm to start tackling climate change. We have got no large-scale renewable energy generation in Sussex. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, and we’ve got to play our part.”


Photo courtesy of Wayne Barry


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