Windfarm Wars: Filming the renewable energy debate in Devon

Tuesday 24 May 2011, 13:32

Jeremy Gibson Jeremy Gibson

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When I convinced the BBC to commission Windfarm Wars, call me naive, but I had no idea it would take seven years of my life to deliver. And doubtless most of the people we've followed with the camera over all those years didn't figure their lives would evolve this way either.

And, over that time, the whole question of how the country best provides for its burgeoning energy needs in a sustainable way has, quite simply, become more and more tortuous. Toxic even.

Windfarms divide opinion like few other topics. They are beautiful to some, eyesores to others.

Rachel Ruffle from Renewable Energy Systems, standing by a wind turbine.

They are free sustainable energy or expensively inefficient. They desecrate the landscape, or they protect its future existence.

For a filmmaker treading into this minefield, the antagonism between incoming developers and the local residents they seek to convince can be most difficult to negotiate.

Renewable Energy Systems, or RES, first put forward their plans for a windfarm in Devon in 2004.

It would be sited four-and-a-half miles from the northern edge of Dartmoor National Park, in the shallow valley of Den Brook.

I started as the film's executive producer, largely office-based, but with a director and small team on location.

But, seven years later, I had become the sole production member the budget could still afford to have on location, shooting on my own to see the story through - and the windfarm had still not been built

Early on, we were lucky enough to gain access to all sides of the Den Brook dispute, from developers RES, to landowners and protestors alike, and to the council and council planning committee.

As the story went on, and on, over the years, this access widened to include lawyers and barristers, expert witnesses, and the planning inspectors involved in public inquiries.

Maintaining everyone's commitment and involvement over the long years of the process demanded confidentiality and tact.

Each side had to trust that we would not tell the other things that only we knew.

Windfarm Wars was originally commissioned as a single film - an observational documentary. We would follow whatever happened, wherever developments took us.

By the time the commission fell into place and the director of the first film, Olly Lambert, arrived in Devon, RES had already held their introductory exhibitions, where they showed the residents of the nearby villages what the windfarm might look like and where it would be situated, and answered their interests and concerns.

Feelings for and against the windfarm were already running high.

It's difficult to gauge the true feelings of a whole community. One of the ways is to go by those who have bothered to write letters to the council.

When the closing date came, the council had 402 letters and 3,000 questionnaires in objection and 31 letters in support.

We roughly assembled the material as we went along but each time a viewing with the BBC had come due, it was apparent that a chapter may have finished - but the big story was still unresolved.

Luckily they had the vision to keep running with it. Eventually it became a four-part series. BBC channel controllers have come and gone while waiting for it to materialise.

At times, as long waits for the next part of the planning or legal process had to be endured, it was tempting to wrap up the project, but I wanted everyone involved in the whole process to know it was being documented very publicly, and that it would be seen through to the end.

Bash and Mike Hulme, who were campaigning against the wind farm, outside their cottage in Devon.

And, as concerns about global warming, reduction of carbon dioxide emissions and the security of energy supplies became more and more acute over the years, the project gained in significance, and just had to be seen through.

What emerged is what I hope some people will see as a unique social record of how one of the nation's key dilemmas has unfolded in the early 21st century.

The four films unravel as a narrative story, and while viewers think they may know where they stand initially, a fair few may well change along the way.

Windfarm Wars will no doubt raise tempers, and for some of the many people who've taken part it will be difficult viewing - not least to see how we've all aged through the process.

Perhaps it will be difficult too, because all sides may need to confront and acknowledge mistakes, to review how they could have done things better.

For many, it's clearly been a journey that's taken courage, commitment and faith in the search for what each perceive to be the truth - the best way forward for the good of all. There may be regrets.

I hope, though, that the end product of the process of documentation has been usefully revealing and thought provoking, and that it will, in time, repay the commitment that many gave to the project. We'll see - soon enough.

Jeremy Gibson started as executive producer and also worked as series producer of Windfarm Wars.

Windfarm Wars is on BBC Two on Fridays at 7pm until Friday, 3 June. The first two episodes are available in iPlayer until Friday, 10 June.

For further programme times, please visit the upcoming episodes page.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I really enjoyed this, one of those hidden programs that is far better than the mainstream stuff on bbc1.

    The only thing that confuses me is how its going to end, I cheated and googled the project after the end of the first episode to see what happens, and still cannot figure out if its going ahead or not. Maybe it will be like Lost and we will end with a hatch in the ground!

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    Comment number 2.

    Having participated throughout the filming of this revealing documentary series, I can only say "well done" to Jeremy Gibson and his team for producing such a watchable, accurate and impartial record. The characters and events are allowed to speak for themselves. Some truths are out.

    Curious, though, that the developer has already started to put out defensive videos. Perhaps they were surprised at what an objective vision actually looks like, and can't credit that this is how they seem to others.

    One can only hope that policy and decision makers will watch and take note; and act to right the wrongs being perpetrated without due consideration.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Indeed the term “toxic” springs to my mind. Green isn’t working, it has become toxic in a number of respects:

    The utopian dream of wind has turning into a dystopian nightmare. Divisive a threat to landscapes and energy security, expensive (already cost us £2billion) adding to fuel poverty. The John Muir Trust’s report on “Wind farm research concludes they are not a fit and proper solution to: the perceived need to cut carbon emissions, the growing demand for energy security, and will have significant human, environmental and economic impacts.”

    Also green jobs growth is not sustainable, because for every 1 new green job created 3.7 jobs will be lost in the real economy and carbon dioxide taxes will cause “carbon leakage” – the export of British jobs to countries without carbon dioxide taxes. Evidence of this is the export of 1,200 TATA steels workers jobs and the threat to the 600,000 workers in the energy-intensive chemical industry. Not a vote winner!

    The ‘Green Deal’ has also gone pear-shaped, the E3G report stated that proposed retrofit of housing to be more energy efficient will cost £15,000 in loans at 8% and will not save on energy costs, it would not be worth the trouble! Even if the loans were 0% and the household gained a 35% energy saving they would be worse off by £2,777 over 25 years. The report concludes that the public - quite rightly - would reject the ‘Green Deal’.

    Why do we only find this out after the policy has been announced?
    I am reminded that the dictionary definition of a green person - is gullible.

    And let’s not over look the fact that carbon dioxide taxes and green subsidies will increase the average energy bill from £1,215 to £2,500 per year or more. This regressive tax will increase the price of food, clothes and travel, which especially impacts on our rural communities.

    The Times stated that 5.5 million households or 21% of the 26 million British households suffer fuel poverty – spending more than 10% of their monthly income on energy bills.

    Last February, overnight temperatures fell to minus 10, and this winter temperatures fell in some parts of the UK to minus 23. Being cold in the home increases the risk of strokes and heart attacks. So much for global warming!

    There are now 20% more cold related deaths in winter. Resulting in an average of 30,000 excess winter deaths across the UK. That is around 250 excess deaths per day. The current policy will only make the situation worse for those on low-fixed incomes. The reality is we should stick to fossil fuels in the short to medium term and develop better alternatives to wind and solar. We have time - and over 250 years worth of shale gas on our doorstep let’s use it. Conclusion - green = toxic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    As someone who has had to complain dozens even a hundred times regarding their totally biased covering of the global warming "debate", I will be very interested to see how much push this failed concept by blatantly suggesting that global warming is a huge problem that needs to be solved.

    The facts are that the "science" only supports a fraction of the suggested warming (the rest is pie in the sky speculation). The facts are that there is no indication of a rise in extreme weather events worldwide. The facts are that there is no CO2 signature of sea levels. The only supporting "facts" remain Arctic ice retreat by about 3% over a relatively short period (since satellites) and anecdotal evidence ice was just as scarce in the early 20th century. And glacier melts ... which has been happening since the last big and little ice ages.

    Given the compelling evidence against this global warming nonsense, I will watch with interest to see any actual balance on this subject (Note: the BBC are legally required to be unbiased and to give us all the evidence even if the "scientists" keep trying to deny us the evidence and by e.g. ignoring Freedom of Information law.)

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    FayKT: "Also green jobs growth is not sustainable, because for every 1 new green job created 3.7 jobs will be lost in the real economy".

    Back around 2000 I tried for about a year to get the Scottish Parliamentary Renewable Energy Group (a cross party group of the parliament) to look at the economics of wind energy. Having researched the area, it was obvious to me that this sector would create very few jobs. I wrote many letters to MSPs to the paper, but for one simple reason it never got discussed by this cross party group of the parliament: IT WAS RUN BY THE WIND LOBBY!

    I've never had the misfortune to see how other cross party groups run, but how any democratic institution could allow its parliamentary committees to be run by wind lobbyists seems like the basist form of corruption. It was also rumoured that the person running the wind lobby group in Scotland and the committee had bought up all the best wind sites for their own profit. OK, it was only a rumour and one I cannot substantiate. But did anyone ever investigate? Did the BBC do anything when I wrote to them?


    And, I can remember attending a meeting when the Scottish Civil servants actually asked a room full of people with a business interest in wind farms: "what level of subsidy do you think we should set". The impression I got was very clearly that they would set the level at whatever the room suggested. I was horrified at the time when I was intending to work in the sector. Now that I've learnt global warming was a total con based on a small bit of science and huge bit of .... "economy with the truth", it amazes me that they were allowed to get away with this.

    Almost literally you could say the renewable energy policy was dictated to the government by the wind lobby. No wonder it was such an abysmal mess and so disliked by anyone who was affected (including most of those in the room as little of the financial benefit flowed to anyone in manufacturing ...the only people to make a fortune were a few wind farm developers and rich landowners)

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    Comment number 6.

    Being green is so yesterday.

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    Comment number 7.

    Surely this series deserves an early airing in a mainstream slot on BBC1? You really cannot turn it off once you start watching. Are we really limited to just two more episodes?

    The characters could have stepped out of Shakespeare.

    Good, simple, honest, open Mike Hulme. His home and livelihood are at risk; he spent the first two episodes wrestling with the green issues, and trying to frame the questions about turbine noise that he wished to pose at the public inquiry. – And of course (if the trailer for part 3 is correct) he succeeds in extracting a severe rebuke from our high court against bad guys ‘RES’ (Renewable Energy Systems) who live on the M25 next to a turbine that boasts the lowest output of any in the country.

    Now to the multi-faceted (and wonderfully named) Rachel Ruffle of ‘RES’. Having accepted Mike’s invitation to make background noise measurements around his home, she spent weeks thinking up reasons to renege on her undertaking to give him the data.

    Rachel appears to have indulged in amateur dramatics at some time and believes that she can bring viewers on side with a combination of schoolgirl simpering and crying. Her only ambition is to save the planet, and to do this she poses as ‘Development Director, Renewable Energy Systems UK and Ireland’ with a parallel brief to bring Turbines to the whole world. It now seems that ‘Own Goal’ Ruffle should have sought an early Superinjunction! I wouldn’t buy shares in ‘RES’.

    The icing on the cake is provided by Rachel’s lawyer, pink tie-stroking and somewhat overstuffed Marcus Trinnick. Here is a man who knows a thing or two about keeping down yokels who want to know the truth about industrial wind turbines. Clearly the masses have no right to know whether they will produce any significant electrical output, nor how much it will cost.

    Nor, apparently, to know whether they will be so loud with their continual ‘whump-whump’ as to make sleep and sanity impossible. The ‘whumps’ are called amplitude modulation apparently. But this is not yet incorporated in the noise codes for turbines lest it denude the wind-power industry of megabucks. Oh, I forgot to mention – Marcus has served as a member of the board of the British Wind Energy Association – the industry’s lobby group. And, err ... yes of course, British Wind Energy Association was renamed RenewableUK in March 2010. Could this have anything to do with growing anti wind-turbine sentiment in the UK? – Surely not.

    Two episodes down and two to go – bring it on!

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    I am sure those people who think they are unaffected or who have not experienced first hand the effects of global warming have a different outlook!!! I don’t think the documentary to date has shown this view point and have to agree with the Telegraph article , the episodes so far are not impartial from what I see!! If the director really wanted to capture this snap shot in time maybe he should have gone and filmed some of the devastation and the impact that adverse weather is causing round the world. As a mother with young children, I have to believe that future generations must be the priority. If the turbines turn out to be as useless as some of the locals seeks to claim, they will be removed almost without trace – climate change effects are unlikely to be so easily removed. I would love to have one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Whilst at one point I would have supported R Jones' view. I now know that in the minority of cases where, for whatever reason, amplitude modulation, and indeed enhanced amplitude modulation DOES occur, it can mean that your own children are subjected to noise that deprives them of sleep, which in consequence significantly affects their ability to be educated, (because they are so tired and thus unable to concentrate). It is difficult, perhaps impossible then to support the need for this particular alternative energy source, in your own area, when it has and is having such an impact on your family life - including your children. As a mother I have found it very hard to sacrifice my children for the greater good. More research, better grid layouts, and better operating conditions are desperately required, as well as an acknowledgement by the industry that in the comparatively few cases where noise is a real problem, that they should acknowledge and address it, sooner rather than later.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Hello everyone - Jeremy Gibson has asked me to post this comment on his behalf as he's not near a computer today:

    Thanks so much to all of you for taking the time to post your feedback on the series.

    I'm tempted to take up a few of the comments posted so far, but as the last comment uses the recent Telegraph crit as evidence, I'll just point you to that same paper's latest preview of episode 3, on tonight at 7pm on BBC2 (not Scotland) -

    As I said at the beginning, this is a narrative story - anything may happen - and does.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Really interesting documentary from what I’ve seen so far, I’ve been following the tweets on twitter for a bit and liked the one ’ they want their cake icing and want to eat it’’ Been enjoying it as it’s a real insight as to what people do and think and full respect to the planning inspector can’t be an easily job, they seem to do a full investigation but I guess they have to given all the scrutiny, love the bit when he is at the B&B and assessing what impact there might be from the up stairs windows and he clearly knows what he's about and where the wind farms are going to be seen from and how you would normally layout a guest bedroom!! He was not having any of it !!

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    The film so far anyway have not change my attitude, our planning is still laughable ineffective and useless, to slow, to clumbersome and a wast of money.

    An if we are to build what we need to build over the next 50 years it will a radical overhauled that cut out much of the rubbish that goes on.

    The film prove to me we need this more than ever. This was not even a major development, 9 wind turbines is just small fry to what we actually need to build in this country.

    I give the produces and the credit for having the patent to stick through all the of the rubbish that goes on through out planning system.

    I wish the developers best of luck in getting this project of the ground. Hopefully the next one will not take 7 years to get planning permission for.

    NIMBY need to be defeated in the country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Only caught two episodes but I think it's great TV.
    Just had a presentation from Dong Energy for an extension windfarm off the Wirral coast. Try as I would, I couldn't get from them an estimate of the likely output from the new windfarm, only the "installed capacity" which assumes the wind is always ideal.
    The whole wind energy plot is to keep the public ignorant of the level of subsidies, the poor output over long periods (around 25%), the building of extra gas powered stations to compensate for wind variability and the deleterious effect of the National Grid.
    Still, to the politicians, "green energy" is a simple concept, bound to win votes.
    I will not ever again vote for an MP who takes the simple view.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I am really enjoying this series. I started as a huge fan of all types of renewable energy and probably like many people thought that people who moaned about having wind farms near them were doing simply that - moaning. However, I have to say I am reconsidering my opinion. It seems from this series and from other items I have read that wind farms can generate a huge amount of noise pollution which can be utterly unbearable to those living near. I can't help but admire Mike Hulme whose professional and, at least externally, unemotional battle to get at the real facts of this is fascinating. It is amazing how this quiet Devon farmer can make experienced, professional people look a little foolish and inept.

    As I said, I am very much in favour of green energy, but are wind farms really the best solution? It seems schemes like these are being pushed through as fast as possible (although not in this case!) in order that the government can meet its green energy targets but without sufficient impartial evidence to show that they are effective means of generating power without adverse 'side effects'. The fact that that the wind farm companies base their expected power output on what it would be in the wind blew strongly all the time is completely ridiculous. Why on earth is it not based on a study of local conditions in the proposed area over an extended period of time? Surely that is just common sense?

    In the wider sense why not promote other less invasive forms of renewable energy such as photovoltaic cells (my roof is covered in them, all generating electricity silently!), wave power (again silent I think, or certainly less obtrusive) or much smaller wind turbines. If there has to be wind farms, can't the turbines be much smaller so as to create considerably less noise and less visual impact. 120 feet is pretty massive, lets face it. Can the gearing be changed so they turn slower and therefore reduce the noise? After all, windmills of previous centuries were not noisy (except inside obviously) and did not have an adverse visual impact. They turned slowly and steadily. Would turbines designed to look like windmills be more acceptable? We have mobile phone masts designed to look like trees after all...

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Graham is right.
    the WIND man speaks with forked tongue. They have taken in the uninformed and numerically illiterate MPs .

    INSTALLED CAPACITY is the amound of electricity that COULD be generated if they run 365 days a year in ideal conditions.

    This is the basis of the number of wind turbines they calculate will need to be 100% 'reliant' on Wind Energy.

    Without adding in other factors that will increase this figure, lets look just at Installed Capacity and Load Factor .

    For easy counting lets imagine they say we need 10,000 3MW turbines to reach 100% from wind.

    If the LOAD FACTOR- lets think of it as efficiency or average output for the moment- is even the optimistic 30% as the wind industry claim (NOT 100% you will note ) , then the minimum number of turbines needed would actually be THREE times what they are calculating based on Installed Capacity.

    So this jumps to 30,000 Turbines , not 10,000, and the area covered also is hugely increased. If you install larger output turbines the numbers of course decrease, but the spacing has then to be increased for them to operate correctly.
    ORCHID says use smaller turbines, but that means MORE turbines , more area covered, and more people effected.

    If the true Load Factor of an average Wind Farm is a more realistic 20% (1/5th ) then that original number of imaginary turbines suddenly rises to FIVE times the number of turbines they originally calculated based on 100% Load Factor.
    So NOT 10,000, but 50,000

    And if you think that even that guarantees 100% output you only have to look at intermitancy figures and actual outputs as low as 4% (effectively zero useful generation) to see that the Wind Industry are trying to pull the wool over your eyes.

    Knowles2 is entitled to his opinion(and so am I) These Turbines work well on the small scale, and where there is a local demand, they should have them. The Northern Isles people for example do not all want to have to be a Power Station for the city dwellers who can't even be bothered to save electricity, why should they. However, if locals want a few turbines for local use , this is the true best use of this technology. It does not scale up.

    The wind lobby have taken in the MP's as green jobs is a vote winner (or they are just gullable, stupid or both)

    Listen out for people who use the Words 'Installed Capacity', it's a key phrase used by the Wind Industry, and it IS designed to mislead.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Caught this programme by accident yesterday, and was hooked!

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Apart from being biased against wind turbines this programme is a good illustration of why the UK is now such a mess. On the one hand we have a company trying to develop a viable new energy source and a farmer trying to generate a good income form his farmland. Pitted against them we have the NIMBY villagers with too much time on their hands who seem happy to stifle this key development for their own selfish gains.

    Then you through in the grasping lawyers, reams of red tape that strangle any business and an archaic planning and legal system that slows any new devlopement to a snails pace.

    Mix it all togther and you have 21st Century Britain a living museum where nothing ever gets built for fear of upsetting any inhabitants.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    In the wider sense why not promote other less invasive forms of renewable energy such as photovoltaic cells (my roof is covered in them, all generating electricity silently!), wave power (again silent I think, or certainly less obtrusive) or much smaller wind turbines. If there has to be wind farms, can't the turbines be much smaller so as to create considerably less noise and less visual impact. 120 feet is pretty massive, lets face it. Can the gearing be changed so they turn slower and therefore reduce the noise? After all, windmills of previous centuries were not noisy (except inside obviously) and did not have an adverse visual impact. They turned slowly and steadily. Would turbines designed to look like windmills be more acceptable? We have mobile phone masts designed to look like trees after all...

    Basically, it a no to all those questions. The reasons wind mills are design like they are is because they are the efficient design we have come up with so far. Change the design, reducing size for instants reduces the efficiencies.

    Solar power is all well and good, except it does not work at night without expensive battery facilities. An they are expensive to install, but getting cheaper. An I have my doubt many people would actually be willing to invest in solar panels for the house on there own.

    Wave power is still the most undeveloped form of renewable out. There are a few trials going one, but a commericial farm is at least 5 years away, and that if the test go well. I believe there so far been little to no impact studies on wild life habitat so.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I ask myself this:
    i) is it fair on families who might have to live next to nuclear power stations along the coast, to supply most of our electricity, because of a few NIMBYS in the countryside, who's main argument is they are worried about their views !?
    ii) is it a good idea to use up the worlds precious resources on coal fired power stations and nuclear power stations so future generations have no resourse left!!
    There are only so many places windfarms can go because of all the existing restrictions placed on the countryside and where there is enough wind for them to run effectively !! Over the past few years i have taken an interest in green matters and now have a 2.22kWh solar PV system on my roof, which is all I can get on there. It unfortunately does not produce enough green, clean, energy for us to be completely sustainable at the mo, but it helps!!

    Last nights episode showed bang up to date recording equipment measuring sound on an old windfarm site, which it would appear the locals searched the whole of the country to find in order to get the worse case scenario ... and they also amplified the sound!! Now I ask you is that a fair comparable!?!! As the sound recording technologies have improved in the last year, so have the design of windfarms and planning guidance protecting community interests. From the programme so far Rachel Ruffle seems like she is a conscientious developer who is passionate about her job, and I don't personally see noise being an issue here, the local chap Mike Hulme said it for himself she can't lie or something along them lines.. we need as much green, clean, energy we can get, can't we all do our bit here for the bigger picture?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    R Jones - last nights filming was done at a house in 2007, with a wind farm erected in 2006. The sound was amplified to give you an idea of the CHARACTER of the noise, as the low frequency noise does not transmit through the media of television. The graphs on screen showed actual wind turbine noise (not the amplified noise) in a 16 year old girls bedroom, that prevented her sleeping. That family left their home in 2007, due to the effects of sleep deprivation on their lives, including work and education, and have still not been able to return home - 4 years later!
    That house suffers from Amplitude Modulation and Low Frequency Noise from the turbines 100m away. Currently there is no legislation to protect the relatively few homes that suffer in this way - Mike Hulme is trying to get an enforceable noise condition in place, so that if (not when) such a problem arose at Den Brook it can be enforced and mitigated against. Is it so unreasonable to deny the ordinary person that kind of protection?


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