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 81.

    Many congratulations, Mr. Gibson; the most compelling TV I've seen in many a year and I saw my first bit in about 1948.

    Everybody should know what we're doing without, in paying vast sums for inconsequential renewables, apart from the £1 billion we pay every year in hidden subsidies on our energy bills.

    Have a look at this: http://www.raeng.org.uk/news/publications/list/reports/Cost_of_Generating_Electricity.pdf

    You should note that nuclear is neck-and-neck with CCGT and if you add a carbon tax or fuel price increase, nuclear is ahead on its own. Onshore wind is money down the drain and offshore wind even moreso.

    I Blog on "LFTRs to Power the Planet" at: http://lftrsuk.blogspot.com/

    LFTRs are hundreds of times safer than LWRs and post-Fukushima, the sad, historical side-tracking of a thorium-fuelled, thermal, breeder reactor, which could have nullified the worst 40 years of planetary pollution and endangerment, needs telling - in spades.

    It's a tale of powerful politicians and military generals controlling $billions of cold-war funds, in league with scientists with agendas, not having the foresight to switch from reactors which answered the military's problems to the right reactor for civil power production.

    Alvin Weinberg, the doyen of Molten Salt Reactor design, operation and experimentation, invented and patented LWRs, of which the Fukushima reactors were the Boiling Water Reactor (BWR) version. He railed against the use of LWRs for civil purposes, fearing loss-of-coolant/meltdown accidents (Fukushima-style). We, in the thorium-proponent camp know that LFTRs are very capable of coming through such natural disasters, because of their inherent safety characteristics - they are walk-away-safe.

    Humanity will owe a debt of gratitude to the first documentary maker who gets this story onto front-line TV.

  • Comment number 82.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 83.

    May be Britain is waking up to the scam that is wind power. May be it will be exposed as bigger than the MPs expenses scandal. It's certainly costing us a whole lot more.

    The House of Lords debated it on 10th June 2011. See http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201011/ldhansrd/text/110610-0001.htm#11061043000429

    What is really disturbing is energy companies are supplying propaganda to our children in schools. BBC Breakfast touched on this on 11th June reporting that teacher's unions were expressing concern about how companies were involved in schools. Climate change and energy companies were mentioned. Parents should be outraged.

    Check out

    http://www.alienergy.org.uk/education.html
    Primary school children linking arms around a turbine



    http://www.scottishpowerrenewables.com/pages/education_pack.asp
    Education packs for secondary schools



    http://www.hi-energy.org.uk/Education/Primary-School-Factsheets.htm

    Check Greenhouse gas fact sheet - Fox's glacier mint illustration!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 84.

    Two brilliant blogs Lyndsey & Lftrsuk!

    I liked the suggestion to Chris Huhne about exercising consumer choice. It seems impossible to do. How can I select electron flows from non-wind sources only!! And yet I must be able to have some choice in the matter.

    I really hope the debate gets pushed up to the mainstream and we stop falling for the fantasy of "saving the planet" or more realistically mankind, that deludes so many. If the threat was real we'd be coming up with something a bit better than wind mills. Look back to 1939 for evidence of that!!

    Right - I'm definitely shutting up now and leaving it to you clever guys. I'll be watching the debate.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 85.

    But one last thing I am most definitely not Lord Reay (of the Lords Parlimentary debate referenced above)!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 86.

    Nothing much has been made of the appalling number of bird deaths caused by wind farms. Since a wind farm has become operational over the hills from us we no longer see the 4 or 5 Red Kites we used to. One bird was reported as killed soon after the farm opened - but then it did have a transmittor on it - so hard to cover the death up. See www.raptorpolitics.org.uk. Also www.wind-watch.org is an excellent site for reports on wind farms all over the world.

    See http://www.wind-watch.org/news/2011/06/16/bats-birds-and-blades-wind-turbines-and-biodiversity/

    So not only is wind power not delivering what the developers promise, it is polluting our environment, costing us billions, killing our wildlife, contributing to fuel poverty by hiking up our energy bills to pay for this madness, etc etc etc

    Wind power is wrong on so many levels.

    Anyway who thinks this is a clean, green energy should research what is happening in China where the Neodymium is sourced from to use in the turbines. The mining and production is polluting in the extreme and local people are suffering huge health issues and their farmland is turned into a toxic wasteland as the pollution leaks into the surrounding soil. The rush for wind is driving this industry with over 2 tonnes of Neodymium used in each turbine. This is not emotive nonsense this is actually happening - but while there are vast amounts of money to be made nobody cares enough to stop it.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 87.

    Hi SesReay (#79),

    If you (and others) are interested in continuing the Windfarm Wars debate, there is a related discussion thread on the Points Of View message board.

    I've checked with the programme and scheduling teams and they say there are no immediate plans to repeat the series just yet.

    About Question Time - all the questions are suggested by the studio audience when they arrive for the recording. There's more information on the Question Time website.

    Thanks,

    Gary
    Assistant Content Producer, BBC TV blog

  • rate this
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    Comment number 88.

    I saw the damage limitation videos made by RES and made comments which were fair and accurate and factual - They were removed within 24 hours - says an awful lot about them.The series was really fair- all the characters displayed their true natures and did the damage for themselves . No prizes for the characters which fared the worse! Well done res a true portrayal of your business's character- the filmaker was entirely fair but res shot themselves in the foot!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 89.

    Hi Gary @87

    Many thanks for the links to points of view and questiontime.

    Unfortunately the POV discussion is closed.

    Question Time would be a great place to continue the debate but there is a catch. While the studio audience set the agenda it appears that the only topics on offer are the issues of the day or week (in order to give the panel a chance to get clued up or to get influential people on board).

    You'd think "saving the planet" might feature highly more frequently. What could possibly be more important? But sadly the only way it will become highly topical will be at the next attempt to get global agreement on the way ahead. It is therefore not going to feature any time soon.

    In the meantime RES and their likes will be taking comfort in the fact that the brief and limited stirring of interest that one off programs like Windfarm Wars generates quickly dies down. As you can see on these pages.

    I thank the G for Mike Hulme, Jeremy Gibson, Adam Curtis (I'm not just talking Wind Farm Wars here) and all others who are trying desperately to draw attention to this outrageous state of affairs.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 90.

    Thanks for all the postings, and for all the (mostly) appreciative comments. I’ve really been impressed by the exchange of ideas and opinions, and a lot of you have posted some good links to help spread information and ideas – from both sides of what is, as predicted, a deeply divided debate. In response to SesReay (89) I ought perhaps to remind you that I didn’t set out to expose or draw attention to any particular state of affairs. I was following a process, tracking whatever unfolded. Due to the way the story evolved, the BBC had to allow me to do that over a considerable period of time, something that is all too rare in documentaries now, and something that I think offers a more profound view.

    It’s a really interesting thing to watch what happens next. Will RES be able to go ahead and build and operate their hard-fought-for windfarm with Mike Hulme’s equally hard-fought-for AM noise planning condition in place or will they, as he seems to fear (76), seek some sort of variance to it? And what about the Planning Inspector’s recommendation that a review of the industry noise guidelines ETSU-R-97 is overdue? To anyone who sat through the confusion of the second Den Brook Public Inquiry, a truly independent and objective review of the guidelines would seem to be an obvious need.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 91.

    Apologises Jeremy, I realise you are completely impartial but many thanks to you and the BBC for exposing what we may all find ourselves up against when big business and government decide what is good for us!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 92.

    Hi SesReay (#89),

    I've checked with the Points Of View team and the Windfarm Wars thread is still open to discuss the programme.

    If you're having trouble posting, there's a FAQ for BBC messageboards that should answer most questions.

    Thanks,

    Gary
    Assistant Content Producer, BBC TV blog

  • rate this
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    Comment number 93.

    Firstly, many thanks to Jeremy Gibson for this excellent series – several people clearly dug holes for themselves, or indeed exposed their true natures, but that wasn’t Mr. Gibson’s fault.

    Having said that, Mr. Gibson’s comment (90) does not reflect sufficiently strongly an apparent Government cover-up of a recommendation to amend current noise codes to increase protection against ‘beating noise’ (i.e. amplitude modulation).

    Having rapidly educated myself on the dreaded ETSU-R-97 noise code I was a legal ‘Rule 6’ party to the public inquiry into the proposed Glyndebourne turbine in 2008, I argued the noise case. It was ‘Déjà vu all over again’! - The applicants were represented by Mr. Marcus Trinnick (who appeared for RES in the Den Brook inquiries). Glyndebourne’s specialist witness on noise was Dr. McKenzie of the Hayes-McKenzie partnership (who appeared in the second Den Brook inquiry).

    I argued that there was credible evidence from the respected Dutch researcher, Dr. Van den Berg, of problems relating to ‘beating noise’ (amplitude modulation) and that an allowance should be incorporated for this effect.

    Dr. McKenzie of the Hayes-McKenzie partnership rejected my points under cross-examination. The chair of the inquiry (Mr. Pikett, who chaired the second Den Brook public inquiry) did not accept my arguments.

    Subsequently, on 13 December 2009, a Sunday Times article: ‘Officials cover up wind farm noise report’, explained that in 1996 the Hayes-McKenzie partnership had produced a report for government that recommended a very large reduction in permissible noise levels. Crucially it recommended a further reduction in relation to ‘beating noise’ (amplitude modulation):

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/environment/article6954565.ece

    The Sunday Times states: “It has now emerged that officials removed the warnings from the draft report in 2006 by Hayes McKenzie Partnership (HMP), the consultants. The final version made no mention of them.”

    It took FOI requests by Mike Hulme plus an Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) decision to extract this information.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 94.

    Hi Gary, yes the POV blog is open. I must have looked at a time when it was closed perhaps. The last post on there was several days ago so will stick with this blog for the time being esp. when you get posts like Tony Parker's above!

    Where are the pro wind lobby on this blog? Do they shy away from defending the indefensable?

    BTW I noted a piece about solar on countryfile on Sunday (what a sad act I am) where the government minister explained the decision to review the funding mechanism there (my MP was obviously not joking when he drew attention to that. Good on him and the coalition!). He was setup to respond to the heavy slant toward the case for solar (in my opinion) which suggested we ought to follow Germany and cover our countryside in solar farms!!

    All very interesting but its just a distraction. Why can't we have a proper mainstream debate between experts who put the case for the best solutions to what I and I'm sure others are prepared to believe could be a real problem???

    Wind and solar relatively very low in "energy intensity" (compared to fossil and nuclear for example) and so would require carpetting the country with installations to achieve a fraction of the demand. Do we really want that?

  • rate this
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    Comment number 95.

    If I was to go out into my street every night and hammer something for hours, I expect it wouldn't take very long before the police and courts got involved. I don't think they'd take seriously any defence of mine that the average noise level of my hammering was utterly insignificant and that they shouldn't be judging things on the momentary peaks of 100 decibels. Clearly the true loudness of the hammering is the peak volume, and the duration of the noise from the point of those disturbed by it is clearly going to be from the first significant peak to the last. Exactly the same should apply to any noise which varies in amplitude. Isn't that obvious? I don't know how things are going in the current legal arguments, but if a judge doesn't agree with this, someone should try doing the hammer thing outside his house to put his beliefs to the test.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 96.

    "Isn't that obvious? "

    David, it is to me!!

    However, I won't be volunteering to try it on the judge (appealing tho that might be). I think I can guess the likely outcome!

    Bring on AI I say, the quicker the better!!!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 97.


    If you want to 'carry on blogging' go to http://alansloman.blogspot.com/2011/06/highland-wind-farms.html or windfarmactopn.wordpress.com

    If you have time go back through the older posts. A very sad tale indeed is told - mainly from hill walkers. And the powers that be tell us it won't affect tourism. When will their heads come out of the sand?

    This recent report says the energy companies are now saying we need back up power because wind isn't reliable! The penny has dropped but guess who has to pay for the back up AND the wind energy that can't be relied on? Us as usual.

    http://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/article-2008055/Energy-giants-want-billions-windfarms.html


    Do you think there is a chance the government might think they have got it wrong at last?

    There is to be an investigation into noise problems in Australia see

    http://www.wind-watch.org/news/2011/06/23/blow-for-wind-farms-as-senators-push-probe-into-noise-and-health-fears/

 

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