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
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    Comment number 61.

    Well done Mike for all your efforts. You have helped many people in the same situation across the UK. Unfortunately RES are not the only developers who behave like this - most do from what I have learnt. I bet they wish they had never agreed to this filming - it has stunningly backfired for them. If only wind power was worth it but you only have to look at the Renewable Energy Foundation website where you can see what individual wind farms actually produce - far less than the developers tell the planners. The John Muir Trust also recently published a report into the inefficiency of wind farms. Developers should be made to take the turbines down if they don't perform as they say or create more noise or shadow flicker than they said they would? It seems they get planning on some well massaged expectations of performance. I hope RES are worried about building the wind farm now this has been filmed. People will be watching what happens and they will be held to account. What a PR disaster for them! They should hang their heads in shame and leave the valley as it is.

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    Comment number 62.

    I've just read this:-

    http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-06-battery-electric-vehicles-jolt.html

    There are many stories of this kind which show that solutions to many of our problems are on the way. The danger is that we won't take sufficient action in time to avoid catestrophic climate change, and every story that speaks of a solution has the unfortunate side-effect of making people think the problem's going to be solved and they don't need to take any action. Every time you build a wind farm you give more phychological room for people to think they can burn more coal and oil as a result. Wind farms simply aren't going to solve our problems - the sensible way forward is to focus full square on energy conservation and then to look to nuclear to fill any gaps that the more benign renewables can't cope with.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 63.

    Hi David, fascinating posts. One or two paradigm shifts required there I think. I just checked out the "Machine of Loving Grace" blog site

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/2011/05
    /all_watched_over_by_machines_o.html

    I wonder if that would be a more appropriate place for a continued discussion? Many parallels with the three episodes of that program. Perhaps the forthcoming revolution will fare better next time round. It sounds to me as tho there is a great deal of merit in the concepts but is it fantasy growing out of general disillusion with politics which appears to be leading us - well where?

  • rate this
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    Comment number 64.

    David @ 62, many thanks for pointing out these emerging technologies, the sum of which will surely make a difference given proper investment.

    Our current strategy, as Bogbrush48 @ 44 points out pays 34p in the pound to the likes of RES and Ecotricity for a technology (wind) that is 27% efficient and relies on spinning backup that negates any CO2 savings, is costing billions at at time of financial fragility, skews the planning and appeals process in the wind lobby's favour, destroys lives in the process, scars the environment in the process.

    Yesterday we learnt that Scottish Power is raising prices by 19%, the first of many price rises no doubt. We're all in this together!!!!!!!!!!!

    I seem to recall we got very exercised by MPs fiddling their expenses, are we not being similiarly ripped off here?

    I'm excited by AI but for now should we not be creating just a little bit of a fuss to get this farcical situation turned around? What to do? How about a letter campaign to MPs and newspapers to get this raised up the coalition priority list. FaceBook and Twitter, I'm not an expert but I'm told it lay at the heart of the Arab Spring!!

    Come on Britain wake up!!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 65.

    Sorry SesReay, but I can't afford to get tied up in an extended discussion about A.I. What I've already said will have to suffice - if people think my analysis and predictions sound reasonable they can easily calculate all the likely ramifications without any further input from me. All I wanted to do was give people a hint of what is on the way, because the future of law everywhere will be pure, applied morality. The little people all matter and absolutely no one has any moral right to trample over them. Mike has impressed me enormously because he's managed to remain one of the most impartial people involved in this whole thing, despite being the worst affected. I don't know how he manages to be so polite to people who repeatedly say one thing and do the opposite. It looks to me as if most wind farms are actually subsidy farms, and that's why it doesn't matter to them whether they ever manage to make enough power to cancel out the pollution put out during their manufacture and installation. I can't afford to get tied up in campaigning either - people don't listen and don't want to listen, so my time will be best spent on creating something that will force them to listen, and program code doesn't write itself (yet).

  • rate this
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    Comment number 66.

    Great posts notabene1 and bystander1944. Totally agree about the Shakespearean characters! Well done Mike for your perseverance. Res treated you despicably. You came across as a decent, honest human being; Rachel didn't (notwithstanding the fact her eyes remained cold and hard when her face muscles were pulling a smile.)

    I agree that Res now have an obligation to financially compensate Mike for his loss of earnings and personal financial input into fighting for what is morally right and to be provided with information which was continually witheld from him. To compensate Mike and to publicise that fact would go some way to redressing Res's now disastrous public image and if I were head of their PR team that's the first thing I'd do. They certainly need to do something...

    And congratulations Jeremy on a superb series which had me riveted all the way through and completely changed my opinions on wind farms. If I see you at Sheffield Doc/Fest this week I'll congratulate you in person.

    Finally thankyou David Cooper (blimee it's like an Oscar acceptance speech this) for a fascinating few posts about AI. I'm with you 100% on everything you say; makes perfect sense to me. And you have summed up this entire debate with your comment:

    "It looks to me as if most wind farms are actually subsidy farms, and that's why it doesn't matter to them whether they ever manage to make enough power to cancel out the pollution put out during their manufacture and installation." Nice one.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 67.

    Hi David, no problem. Thanks again for some fascinating insights. I hope it works out, it would appear to be badly needed and maybe this time round it will work (see machines of loving grace) - out of necessity.

    I too have overdone the blogging so will stop now!

    Best Regards, Ses

  • rate this
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    Comment number 68.

    To be fair, this particular wind farm may be one of the more sensible ones in that it has a better chance of saving more pollution than it causes. The ones that do the real damage are the offshore ones (using masses of concrete to hold them in place) and the ones put in peat bogs where they can cause CO2 to be released in large amounts if they impact badly on the drainage - those developments are all about collecting subsidies, as no doubt were most of the German ones where they put them up in places with insufficient wind. I don't know what the figures are in the Den Brook case, but then I don't suppose RES have released their wind speed data because it'll be an "industrial secret".

  • rate this
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    Comment number 69.

    David, you've tempted me out of retirement!

    I have to disagree with your last comment. If we're talking CO2 saving, Den Brook and in fact all UK wind farms put together will make not the slightest difference to the overall global situation. If there is any percentage benefit at all it will be any number between 1 and 9 to the right of the decimal point with with many many zeros between them (my math isn't up to it!). Yet the cost in financial (and "spiritual" terms) is massive and is diverting added investment away from real solutions such as the sort of technologies you have drawn attention to.

    Landscapes such as the Den Brook Vally matter in the same way that so called "little" people matter. To me it's as absurd an idea to destroy Den Brook Valley as it would be for the national gallery to burn works of art to heat the building for a day or two!!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 70.

    SesReay - when I said this particular wind farm "may be one of the more sensible ones in that it has a better chance of saving more pollution than it causes", I wasn't saying it was part of a real solution to anything, but simply that it may generate enough power to avoid doing more harm than good purely in terms of CO2 emissions. Clearly it would actually be far better to put all our efforts into energy conservation instead, and that's where all the subsidies should be going because the reduction in CO2 emissions there would dwarf anything wind power can do. What's the point in covering the countryside in turbines to generate energy to heat buildings that aren't properly insulated? If you insulate a house properly you can heat it with a candle.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 71.

    Thanks for your clarification David, I am in full agreement with you now!!

    BTW, I had a very positive response from my MP who assures me this government is bringing forward a review of the funding mechanism to ensure subsidies will not make it attractive to put wind farms in unsuitable locations and give more powers to local councils to decide for themselves how they should be developed.

    At last some common sense may be about to prevail.

    I wonder if Scottish Power might take note given their apparent inducement to reduce prices the more power their customers consume!!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 72.

    Good point, SesReay - the price should really go up for people who use excessive amounts of power, making them pay more than the cost of removing the CO2 from the atmosphere.

    By the way, if anyone thinks my involvement in this discussion has a NIMBY aspect to it, I live near Aberdeen and far enough from any possible wind farm site not to need to worry about being affected by them. I'm not opposed to wind turbines if they make a genuine contribution to protecting the planet, just so long as they don't damage people's quality of life if they live nearby (unless sufficient compensation is paid to make it up to them). There's one case near here of disturbance through vibration rather than noise, presumably because of the underlying geology. In any such case (whether noise or vibration) it should be possible to measure this and to require appropriate compensation to be paid whenever it happens. Not to compensate people in such situations is simply theft and cannot be allowed to happen in any civilised society.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 73.

    A bit late, owing to computer issues that also caused me to miss episodes 3 and 4, though I learned about the outcome from other sources. I wish the BBC would keep such informative and gripping programmes on iPlayer a lot longer - this was one of the best programmes I've watched for a long time - Mr Gibson, can you do anything, please? And thank you Mr Gibson, for sticking to it - you've given everyone an insight into the difficulties of those trying to oppose wind farms (some larger than Den Brook) face, particularly when most of those advising Governments, including Scotland, have interests in wind!! Credibility?

    Mike H, I am so sad for you and your wife that the outcome was as it is. You have fought an heroic fight and this programme should be compulsory viewing for the British public to show that the ordinary person can stand up and speak for their cause.

    One thing - global warming has become climate change - the planet has always undergone periods of warming and cooling - we should get back to the original argument of man-made global warming and stop fudging!

    R.Jones and others - you seem to be under the impression that turbines just get plonked and nothing else happens. You would be well advised to look up Derry Brien (Eire) and you will see just what happens when a wind farm is put in - vast pits excavated to be filled with concrete to form the base for the towers; quarries that the wind industry think sound nicer if they're called "borrow-pits" to form the vast number of access roads which in turn can cause problems with watercourses, not of course to mention cutting down all those trees in many of our forests (trees absorbing carbon) to make room for them - and how about the carbon cost of extracting, transporting and processing all those rare earth minerals from China to make an essential component?

    Jobs - well, take a trip up the A9 from Rosyth into Perthshire and follow the loaders with turbine towers made by a non-UK company as is happening right now! Vast sums of public money have been spent on a Scottish wind turbine/tower manufacturer and they bring the fabricated parts in from abroad? Sense?

    I have absolutely no objection to anyone wishing to take personal action to reduce their energy costs but not at the expense of others, some of whom may not have the right location - including a conservation area and orientation of the property plus other planning regulations. If anyone wants to do it - pay for it and no feed-in tariffs. If major wind farms are so efficient as the

  • rate this
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    Comment number 74.

    It is outrageous that the final episode of the 'unmissable' Windfarm Wars was removed from iPlayer on 10 June. We returned from holiday yesterday (11th) to find that 'Freeview' scheduler had failed to record it (it worked for first three episodes) and that it had been removed from iPlayer. Is there any way of obtaining a copy of episode 4? Or better still, a set of all four on DVD to give to the members of local authority planning committees (yes, I am totally serious).

  • rate this
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    Comment number 75.

    How very odd, how many Mbytes of disk space would these programmes occupy on iPlayer?

    A cynical view might be that the politics of FUD (Fear Uncertainty and Doubt) this time relating to Global Warming are now being seen through and so we need to curtail the debate.

    Adam Curtis revealed this phenomenon in The Power of Nightmares a few years ago http://thoughtmaybe.com/video/the-power-of-nightmares. Are we still being lied to?

    Certainly the precautionary principle has merit where Global Warming is concerned but it is still causing stupid actions (such as billions poured into the least effective solutions) to be taken. It is to be remebered that the precautionary principle demands action without fully formed evidence.

    If you pump CO2 into the atmosphere it will warm it - no doubt. But the myriad of natural responses to it are not fully understood. So why not concentrate for now on actions that really will address the needs of carbon reduction and energy security without sacrificing our natural heritage.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 76.

    BBC, please reinstate the iPlayer recordings of Wind Farm Wars or re-broadcast the series. Many, along with ‘bystander1944’ appear to have not only missed the final episode but would also wish to view again.

    Bash and I have been inundated (pleasantly on the whole) with phone calls, emails and letters as the programmes were aired. Our website: www.denbrookvalley.co.uk has been accessed more than 12,000 times during the period. It’s very gratifying that our efforts have touched so many and, more importantly, the series has clearly been an education, maybe even for RES.

    I met with RES’ latest Den Brook project manager a couple of days ago and asked for categorical reassurance that the now robust noise condition would be complied with and not tampered in any way: a possibility exists for RES to seek what’s known as a ‘Section 73 Variance’. “I don’t know, I don’t know” was the response when pressed.

    It seems that the story may be set to continue in any event!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 77.

    "Section 73 Variance" - would that be the technique of wind farm operators switching off their turbines last month and getting paid £2,600,000.00p for doing do? As reported by the Sunday Times yesterday.

    Included in that were Scottish Power (allegedly!) who, while hiking their energy prices by 19%, picked up £720,000.00p last month from the national grid for leaving their turbines idle.

    Something doesn't quite add up! but maybe the National Grid hate wind power for the disruption they caused to their operation. That chimes with e.ON who have a very different view of wind power in Germany because there, apart from generating electricity, they have an obligation to run the grid also! (Google their annual wind reports!!

    Can I have my money back please??

  • rate this
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    Comment number 78.

    Hi,

    Thanks so much for all your comments on Windfarm Wars - it's been really interesting to read the debate around the programme unfold on here.

    Mike H, bystander1944, and others have asked about the availability of Windfarm Wars in the iPlayer. Generally programmes tend to be available in iPlayer for seven days - there's more information about this at the iPlayer's FAQ Page, which should hopefully answer your questions as to why it's no longer available.

    Thanks,

    Gary
    Assistant Content Producer, BBC TV blog

  • rate this
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    Comment number 79.

    Hi Gary, if not iPlayer what about a repeat or some other means of continuing the debate, such as it is, the pro-wind lobby are remarkably quiet on this blog!

    There are serious issues raised by this programme and while this government may bring forward a review of the funding mechanism for wind farms, the visibility of the whole issue needs to be raised in my view.

    What about raising the issue on Question Time or a topic for The Big Questions? I'd love to see Lord Lawson (An Appeal to Reason A Cool Look at Global Warming) arguing the toss with Dale Vince, whose Nympsfield turbine was barely moving yesterday!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 80.

    The fourth episode was compelling viewing and thoroughly deserves a repeat. Perhaps the BBC should compress the first three episodes into a single hour and then show that followed by episode 4 again as a two-part series. I'm sure a lot of people didn't bother to watch any of the programmes because the thought of watching four hours of it was simply too much for them, and the first three episodes were also rather slow, as admitted in the Radio Times reviews. There was no review of the fourth part, so it probably lost a lot of potential viewers as a result - they would likely have assumed that it was duller than the previous ones, whereas in reality it was must-see TV.

 

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