Thousands more wind turbines can now be built across Britain after energy companies struck behind-the-scenes deals to overcome military objections to wind farms.
New mobile radar systems, each costing about £20 million, are being purchased from a US defence contractor to ensure Britain’s early warning systems remain effective in detecting enemy aircraft and missiles.
Tests show that wind turbines, whose spinning blades are about the same size as a passenger jet wing, disrupt the radar systems currently in place around the UK coastline.
Radar operators find it hard to distinguish between aircraft and wind turbines, creating ‘black holes’ in Britain’s early warning radar system as well as confusing civil and military air traffic controllers at inland locations.
The Ministry of Defence had objected to a number of large-scale developments over fears for national security.
It opens up swathes of Northumberland and the Scottish Borders to wind farms, as well as offshore turbines in the North Sea off Norfolk.
The move has alarmed opponents of wind farms who claim a massive increase in new turbines – typically 400ft high – will destroy previously unspoilt countryside while adding tens of billions of pounds to household electricity bills.
Currently about half the income generated by onshore wind farms comes in the form of a consumer subsidy. Because the new device removes problems with early warning and with air traffic control systems, it raises the prospect of more turbines not only offshore, but also on the coast and inland.
The first of the new mobile radars, a Lockheed Martin TPS-77, built to order in the US, will be delivered and installed in November at Trimingham in Norfolk, removing military objections to a series of offshore wind farms in the North Sea.
Another deal was signed in the past fortnight for a second TPS-77 to be installed in the Scottish Borders, overcoming objections to a 48-turbine wind farm at Fallago Rig being built on land owned by the Duke of Roxburghe.
The purchase of this device will pave the way for at least half a dozen more wind farms in the area.
Earlier this month the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Ministry of Defence signed a memorandum of understanding with the renewable energy industry and others, pledging their commitment to overcome aviation planning objections to help the Government meet stringent climate change targets.
The memorandum, which has alarmed the anti-wind farm lobby, estimates that over the next decade, ten gigawatts of onshore wind energy – equivalent to about 4,500 wind turbines – and about 17.5 gigawatts of offshore wind energy – or about 6,000 turbines – could be built if aviation objections are overcome.
Opponents say that the £20 million cost of the radar stations shows just how profitable wind farms are, thanks to the consumer subsidy introduced by the last Labour government to encourage renewable energy projects.
The devices will largely be paid for by the energy companies themselves.
Dr John Constable, director of the Renewable Energy Foundation, a think tank critical of onshore wind farms, said: “The 27 gigawatts of wind power thought by government to be enabled over the next decade if aviation objections are lifted will cost the electricity consumer approximately £164 billion in subsidy alone over the life time of the wind turbines, around 25 years.
“That is a sum nearly five times the annual cost of the entire Ministry of Defence: Army, Navy and RAF combined. Coming at a time of constrained budgets, not least in the MoD, there will be intense and justified questions about the value for money represented by public subsidies on this scale.”
Mark Rowley, who heads up the Say No to Fallago campaign, said: “If even a fraction of the extra schemes are consented, this important gateway to Scotland will become a 21st century Hadrian’s Wall made of 400 foot turbines stretched across some of the finest landscapes in Scotland.”
The deal signed at Fallago Rig follows negotiations between the MoD and the energy company North British Windpower. The MoD had originally objected to the wind farm but withdrew those objections at a planning inquiry.
North British Windpower (NBW) refused to comment on the deal, other than to confirm a contract had now been signed to purchase the Lockheed Martin radar.
It is thought other energy companies with plans for further wind farms in the area will contribute to the cost.
In the course of the 25-year lifespan of Fallago Rig, it is estimated it will generate income for the developers of about £875 million – about half of it in the form of a consumer subsidy.
North British Windpower’s discussions with the MoD have opened up Sir John Chilcot, the chairman of the Iraq war inquiry and also a director and minor shareholder of NBW, to questions of a possible conflict of interest.
Sir John met with MoD officials at a private home in London in 2009 to discuss objections to Fallago Rig. His inquiry is expected to criticise Tony Blair’s Government for its lack of planning in post-war Iraq. He has denied any conflict of interest.
Other shareholders of NBW include Michael Ancram, the former Tory Party chairman, and Stella Tennant, the model and granddaughter of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire.
A spokesman for Lockheed Martin said last week: “There are more than 170 TPS-77 radars operational around the world. It just so happens they don’t have a problem with distinguishing wind turbines from aircraft. I can only hope you [Britain] will need more and more TPS-77s. It is a good solution and it is ready and available now.”
A spokesman for RenewableUK, the renewable energy trade body, said: “The wind industry has been striving for a solution to radar issues for many years, and we’ve made significant progress.
“Working with the government and other stakeholders, we’re moving from the research and development phase to actually implementing technical solutions on the ground.”
The spokesman said that economies of scale “will make wind energy even cheaper in the long term, as we develop a cost-effective low carbon economy”.