With recent authoritative research from Professor Gordon Hughes of Edinburgh University showing that, at 10-15 years, the lifespan of onshore wind farms is much less than has been estimated [25 years], Scottish Natural Heritage’s [SNH] new guide to decommissioning windfarms could hardly be more timely.
Any windfarm application should be required to submit for approval details of its decommissioning programme and pay for a bond to seal the funds for this process at the outset.
It is inevitable that, as well as pre-planned avoidance strategies, there will be a series of opportunist bankruptcies when decommissioning becomes necessary – just as there has been a high birth rate of opportunistic developers in the pool of subsidies available for construction and operation.
Users pay for subsidies and community benefit sweeteners in their rapidly rising energy costs. It will be a compound abuse if the taxpayer is left to pay for the decommissioning as well.
Any windfarm operator should be legally required to comply with specified criteria determining the point of entry to the decommissioning process.
The SNH position
SNH’s new research and guidance presents what is intends to be effective methods of dismantling wind farms to ensure they leave as little trace as possible.
The organisation’s report, Research and guidance on restoration and decommissioning of onshore wind farms, builds on the practices to date of dismantling onshore wind farms.
The research was undertaken by SLR Consulting Ltd with support from a steering group including representatives from the renewables industry.
It provides guidance on the development of a Restoration and Decommissioning Plan (RDP) template to help develop good practice guidance.
The research proposes a planned phasing out of a site to leave as little trace as possible. The report states that early consideration and regular review of these plans by developers will benefit the environment.
Operators are being urged to build up a greater understanding of a site’s natural heritage features and how these respond to change before considering it for use.
An example of a potential future option is ‘repowering’ – where next generation turbines are built on existing sites. This is particularly popular in Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands where competition for space has encouraged diversity.
The report also examines the used turbine market. It cites the example of the Isle of Gigha community on Scotland’s west coast, who bought three second hand Vestas machines in 2004 – known as the ‘Dancing Ladies’.
Gigha became one of Europe’s first buyers of used wind turbines, the 675-kilowatt wind farm producing enough power to meet almost all of the island’s annual electricity needs with a yearly £93,500 profit for locally-owned Gigha Renewable Energy.
More generally, the report recommends that decommissioning conditions are improved to set the scene for restoration work on areas such as peatlands.
Kenny Taylor, Renewables Policy and Advice Officer with SNH, says: ‘In our experience developers are keen to consider the issue of decommissioning their wind farm when the time comes. We hope that they will find this report helpful in considering decommissioning options as early as possible and in the context of wider implications.
‘As well as covering the ins and outs of decommissioning, it highlights other techniques such as repowering where new technology is used to resurrect an older site and can benefit the environment by using ‘cleaner’ and newer techniques.
‘Looking ahead, the report will help developers of future wind farms to build them with decommissioning in mind. Knowing how they will remove them will help inform how they will build them.
‘We are confident that this report will be of benefit to the industry in considering the wider implications of wind farm removal and the best ways of doing this. What we have found is that developers are enthusiastic about safe and effective decommissioning and restoration and this report contains guidance on how to help them achieve that.
‘Our advice is that environmental statements should cover restoration and dismantling by having a detailed description of options and the impacts associated with them in future renewables work.’
With attention about to turn to offshore wind, it wold be helpful of SNH were to address decommissioning in that environment, in the immediate wake of the publication of their onshore guidance.
Offshore installation is substantially more expensive than onshore, as is maintenance. The fabric of the installations is subject to a wider spectrum of natural derelictions. Decommissioning and repowering will be significantly more expensive than onshore.
Guidance and statutory action on the required content of planning applications for offshore wind will be necessary before any consents are given.