Thursday, 3 November 2011

Clear up that mess!

That we need to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels makes sense to most vaguely informed individuals. For what it's worth, I certainly think we need to. However, our economy and infrastructure is so massively dependent on this type of fuel, it would take several decades to do a really good job of transitioning to a long lasting clean alternative, such as would be provided by say, a hydrogen based economy. Unfortunately, we seem to be heading down the route of a sort of mediocre alternative, one which appears green but in reality isn't really. There will be a price to pay for our current approach - but its true magnitude I believe, will only become apparent in 30 to 40 years time. This timespan is based upon an assumption that we will eventually do the job properly over that sort of period of time - and will then have to clean up the mess we have created in the meantime (well, I won't, someone else will though).

It is widely assumed by many that the wind farms currently being planned and constructed will 'only be there for 25 years', that is after all the normal length of their planning consent. Hmm. Lets get a bit more realistic here. If a wind farm is still commercially viable at the end of the initial 25 year consent period and the operators expect that viability to continue, the operator will naturally apply for an extension to the consent. We can't judge how such an application will be received, but it is entirely possible that such an extension will be granted. So, let's not kid ourselves by saying these are temporary installations - that is a planning convenience; the reality is that their lifespan is probably at least 25 years - quite possibly more.

So then what happens? Looking at the Kilgallioch wind farm Environmental Impact Assessment (Kilgallioch EIA - I will be publishing this in its entirety during the coming weekend), the following brief paragraphs describe the decommissioning process:

121. At the end of the 25-year operational period the Development will be decommissioned, unless a successful application is made for consent to extend its operational life. It is estimated that the decommissioning phase of the Development will take approximately 24 months.

122. Decommissioning will involve the removal of all above-ground infrastructure. Turbine components will be dismantled by crane and removed from the site by Heavy Goods Vehicle. The upstand plinth and the top surface of the turbine foundation base will be broken out and removed to approximately 1 m below ground level. All land affected will be re-instated, in accordance with good practice at the time. It is not anticipated that the access tracks or underground cabling would be removed. No stone will be removed from the site during decommissioning.

123. This approach is considered to have less potential for environmentally damage than seeking to remove all foundations, underground cables and roads entirely.

124. Demolition of the control and substation buildings will involve the removal of the equipment followed by demolition of the buildings and removal of the foundations. All material arising from demolition will be disposed of responsibly and in accordance with the relevant waste management regulations at the time.

...and that's it. This then is the plan for clearing up an 18,000 acre development. Now, I admit you can't go into too much detail, but the problem I see is that wind farms are being treated as just another construction project; they are not designed in such a way that they can be removed easily or their direct environmental impact is absolutely minimised. We appear to have learned nothing from the pain of decommissioning nuclear power stations. The design of a wind farm is based upon ease of construction and maximum output. In my post entitled Kilgallioch # 1, I estimated that it would take 176,000 tonnes of concrete and steel to construct the foundation plinths for the turbine towers for Kilgallioch wind farm. From the Kilgallioch Environmental Statement, it is possible to estimate that these plinths will extend to a depth of at least 2 metres. Paragraph 122 (quoted above) states that foundation plinths will only be removed to a depth of 1 metre. So, we will still leave in the order of 87,000 tonnes of concrete and steel in the ground after decommissioning. This steel reinforced concrete will continue to disrupt the Ph levels in the soil ad-infinitum. Let us not forget that in the same post, I detailed 47.5 miles of new road and track - which according to the plan outlined above, will just be left in situ. What of the miles of cabling? Abandoned. All of it. The decommissioning plan calls for a superficial cleanup and no more.

Wind farm sites will be decommissioned when and only when the operators can either be bothered, or are forced to do so. I really do not expect a queue of workers to be waiting outside the gates so that the minute the clock ticks over at the expiry of the initial 25 year planning consent. they can commence decommissioning. That is wholly unrealistic.

What's to be done? There is I think, an alternative and it's not as barking mad as you might think. Expensive at the moment, but in the long term this approach may well completely avoid almost all of the problems highlighted above (whose true cost is just ignored). If we accept that wind has a role to play in our energy mix, then I believe Floating turbines are pivotal, and this to my mind is where the thrust should be. Perhaps we needed to go through this current phase of mad onshore implementation to get the economies of manufacturing and reliability right. Yes, offshore wind is expensive now and probably will continue to be, but that in itself may be what we need to get us as a society to think about how we use electricity - to the extent that we no longer squander it and take it for granted. At least this way, we won't saddle future generations with the colossal mess to clear up that our current approach will generate; we really musn't loose sight of the REALLY big picture here. I truly believe our current onshore approach is a folly of mammoth proportions and that we need to halt it if we are serious about a cleaner, greener future that is of lasting value and not just a sticking plaster.