More than just spin

Is renewable power generation simply another buzzword addition to the CSR phrase book, or can it provide a reliable, cost effective source of energy? Mark Young investigates

In 2004, well before the cost of energy began to shoot up, car manufacturer Ford teamed up with the renewable energy firm Ecotricity to install and run two wind turbines at the Ford Dagenham plant, 10 miles outside of London on the Thames estuary. Under the terms of the agreement, the energy firm built the turbines, and owns and operates them, selling Ford the power it requires to run the plant. Any excess is then sold on to the National Grid. The company claims that the excess power sold to the Grid exceeds the amount it draws from it when the wind is not strong enough to fulfil its needs, and in this way the plant runs 100 per cent on renewable energy. Expansion at Dagenham over the last few years has since led to an increase in its power requirements, and a third turbine is currently at the planning stage, which will make Ford’s Diesel Centre once again run 100 per cent on renewable power.

Ford UK’s corporate affairs manager Brian Bennett explained that the venture has been a savvy one for the firm. “It’s actually been a good business case,” he said. “Initially the electricity was more expensive but as energy prices have risen over the years, it’s actually now working out to be cheaper. When you then count in the environmental advantages it makes sense all round. Also, the wind is powering production of our lowest carbon emission engine – a perfect combination.”

Wildlife conservationists have long expressed concerns over the effects on plants and animals who share their homes with wind turbines.Bennett explained how Ford had to take particular care in relation to the swans and other birds nesting in the Dagenham Breach, an inlet of the Thames, and that preserving their natural habitat undisturbed was the key concern. “We had to ensure that while construction was taking place the water remained clean. That is, clean in an organic sense; how it would naturally be,” he said.

Bennett noted that the location of the Dagenham plant has been a major factor in the success of the scheme. Apart from the care needed around the Breach, there were no other major obstructions as the plant is situated away from domestic areas on an industrial site. Other companies, he warned, might not be so fortunate in this regard.

Similarly to Ford, McCain Foods now claims it can harness 70 per cent of the power needed to run its plant in Whittlesey from wind turbines and an anaerobic lagoon – a system which takes waste water from the plant’s manufacturing process to produce biogas which is burned to make electricity. At certain times the plant runs solely on renewable energy and, again, any excess is sold back to the National Grid.

Its initiatives received praise from the Minister for Energy, Malcolm Wicks, who said: “McCain Foods has set a fantastic example to UK manufacturers by harnessing wind energy to power its business. The investment in wind turbines at the plant in Whittlesey will cut McCain’s carbon dioxide emissions and generate clean, green, secure and sustainable energy.”

The actual carbon emissions produced by the plant are down by 7,500 tonnes. Combined, the schemes create the equivalent of the energy used by 7,500 average three bedroom homes – or 32,200 MWh.

Ecotricity is also working with Lotus for a proposed installation of three two-megawatt, 120-metre turbines as part of the Norfolk car manufacturer’s endeavours toward ethical and efficient production. In a similar arrangement to that with Ford, Ecotricity will cover the costs and operate the turbines, selling the power to the National Grid which will then supply Lotus. The scheme will lower Lotus’ carbon dioxide emissions by up to 15,431 tonnes, cut sulphur dioxide by 263 tonnes and reduce nitrogen oxide by 71 tonnes per year. The power output of the three turbines is approximately 17,319,000 kWh per year – the equivalent of the power used by 5,248 average homes.

One criticism often levelled at wind as a renewable energy source is that it is unreliable and unpredictable. Where there is no wind, there can be no power. The location of the Lotus production plant has, however, been a favourable factor for the firm. Sited near Norwich, in the infamously flat lands of East Anglia, Lotus’ headquarters is positioned on the site of an old aerodrome. The vast open space formerly needed for aircraft to manoeuvre offers little obstruction to the channelling of wind through the turbines, making the constant harnessing of power consistent, thus helping to diminish the criticism of wind power as an undependable source.

Alastair Florance, a Lotus spokesperson, explained that the scheme is all part of “a holistic approach towards the company becoming environmentally sound and continually improving efficiency in economies.” He said the firm looks to make its operations as eco-proficient as possible, in all stages of production through to the performance of its cars on the road.

CEO Mike Kimberly added: “Lotus is globally recognised as a pioneer in vehicle technology and is now working worldwide in environmental and green transport research. By sourcing our electricity needs in Norfolk from these wind turbines, we can contribute to reducing our corporate CO2 emissions dramatically and provide a definitive demonstration of our commitment to the environment.”

Apart from wildlife concerns and the consistency of the source, various other factors must be considered in the planning stage of any potential wind farm installation. The energy firm E.ON, formerly Powergen, cited noise issues as the grounds for recently pulling out of a project to install eight wind turbines in Ferndale, Wales. Though the 10 megawatt scheme would generate enough renewable power to supply up to 6,300 homes per year, E.ON quashed the move after local residents petitioned against it. After conducting an investigation, E.ON concluded that, to eliminate the risk of ‘noise nuisance’ to neighbouring homes, fewer than five megawatts could be produced at the site. This would not qualify for the company’s criteria for such projects.

Danny Shaw, head of new business at E.ON, said: “We certainly didn’t take this decision lightly but, as a responsible developer, we simply wouldn’t be willing to build a scheme that we thought had the potential to exceed acceptable noise limits.”

The Lotus site was, however, faced with a different stumbling block when it first attempted to get clearing for turbine installations; standing in its way was the Ministry of Defence. Due to the height of the masts, the MoD could not be certain that the radar at RAF Trimingham on the Norfolk coast would be unaffected. Thus, despite having satisfied the local council’s criteria on noise, ecology and landscape issues, the application was turned down. With the MoD updating its systems this year, the problem has been eradicated, allowing the scheme to restart.

One of the biggest objections to wind farms, however, has been on aesthetic grounds. The generators have become almost synonymous in recent years with the not-in-my-backyard mentality – or ‘Nimbyism’ as it has come to be known. Charles Anglin, communications director of the British Wind Energy Association, said: “What you almost always find is that a vocal minority of people get organised to oppose wind farms. T

he objection is usually visual. That is a legitimate view but it is a subjective one. There is a clear need to tackle climate change and that means changing the way we use and make energy.”

Companies wishing to build wind turbines at their sites must apply for planning permission from the local authority. An environmental impact assessment will usually be required which will gauge the factors discussed such as noise pollution as well as ecological and aesthetic issues. Each case is decided on its own merits, and location and design aspects will also come into consideration. It is to be hoped that this stage of the process will be made easier in the near future, after the Government voiced favour for such moves. Gordon Brown promised recently: “The Government will do more to remove the planning and other obstacles that are currently holding renewables back. I have asked the secretaries of state for defence, business and transport… to identify and test… solutions to the potential difficulties wind farms pose to air traffic and defence radar.”

Green schemes have become inherently essential as a branding tool, adding invaluable inf luence to commercial prospects, with the environmental profit a by-product, and the same vice versa.

While wind may not be the answer for all manufacturers, it is clear that, for some at least, it can certainly become a blessing rather than a burden.