Keeping Britain’s beauty spots turbine-free might mean missing energy targets

Britain’s wild and beautiful spots are havens for nature and draw visitors from around the world.

But they also tend to be windy – and keeping them turbine-free might mean missing energy targets, new research has found.

A study from Aberdeen University and Warwick Business School found that scenic sights are more likely to be turned down as potential sites for wind farms.

And keeping the top 10 per cent of most scenic places wind farm-free will limit the efficiency of wind and make it less cost-effective, the researchers said. It is the first study of how Britain’s beauty might affect its capacity for wind energy.

The paper, published in the journal Nature Energy, examined data from the website Scenic-Or-Not, hosted by Warwick Business School, which asked the public to rate images of Britain on a scale of one to 10 based on how scenic they think they are.

Some 200,000 photographs have been voted on, allowing researchers to analyse the factors that make a place look scenic, based on the features it tends to have – including natural aspects like trees and fields, as well as man-made structures such as viaducts, castles and lighthouses.

Among the most scenic places which also have a potentially high wind energy yield are parts of Aberdeenshire and Argyll and Bute, the Isles of Jura and Raasay, Scotland, as well as Eden in Cumbria and Powys, Wales.

Top beauty spots with wind farm potential

The scientists examined 1,324 planning applications for onshore wind farms across the UK, finding that for every one per cent more scenic a place was rated, it was six per cent less likely to be approved as a wind farm site.

In 2017 a proposed extension to the Scout Moor wind farm in Lancashire, which would have added 16 turbines, was rejected by the Government, citing its status as a "valued landscape because of its openness, tranquillity and attractive views into the lower valleys".

A wider analysis of the entire country found that preserving the top 10 per cent most scenic places from becoming wind farm sites could cut energy generation potential by 18 per cent and push costs by up to a quarter. 

The Government has announced a goal to deliver 40 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2030 and one gigawatt of floating offshore wind, but there is no specific target for onshore wind.

Earlier this year the National Infrastructure Commission, which advises the Government, updated its recommended 2030 renewable energy target from 50 per cent to 65 per cent of the electricity system.

In 2019 the average level was 37 per cent, but levels have nudged closer to 50 per cent over shorter periods such as the first three months of last year, largely due to high wind speeds.

Study co-author Tobias Preis, professor of behavioural science and finance at the University of Warwick, said policymakers had to make "very tough decisions" when deciding whether to prioritise scenery or clean energy generation.

Previous research published in 2015 by some of the same authors found that living in more scenic areas was linked to better health, meaning scenery was more important than just something "nice to look at", he said.

"In an ideal world, you would like to have as much wind energy as possible, and you would like to protect as much scenery as possible. But in reality you unfortunately need to actually make decisions," he said.

Professor Russell McKenna, chair in energy transition at the University of Aberdeen and the study’s lead author, said: “Compromises are required at all levels to achieve the energy transition.

“To effectively address these compromises, policy needs to incentivise investments in onshore wind that consider both cost and landscape as quality criteria.”

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