Wind turbines in your living room: The changing (political) landscape

By Mark and Robin Abrams

In 2011, a couple from Lincolnshire, Sarah Jane and Julian Davis, sued their local wind farm in the high court. The company had built a wind turbine less than 1,000 meters from their property. They claimed that the turbine, through its "unbearable hum", had disrupted their quality of life and devalued their home, forcing them to move out. The matter was quietly settled out of court, with rumours of the amount being in the millions of pounds.

Wind farms are contentious. Opponents commonly refer them to them as a blight on the natural landscape and complain about amplitude modulation – the continuous pounding noise regularly associated with turbines. But at the same time, the electricity they generate contributes to UK government targets.

There have been no updates to noise guidelines since 1997 and, according to Tory MP David Davis, this has resulted in a situation where no wind farm planning application has been refused on noise related grounds over the last five years. During the same period, there have been over 600 noise related complaints against wind farms.

Davis argues that, since the Lincolnshire case, the wind industry is using more complicated corporate structures to reduce the likelihood of legal claims being brought against operators. These company structures, he suggests, have little benefit to society. So the Tory MP has penned a 'public nuisance from wind farms' bill. It would require each site to hold capital covering end-of-life costs and give those people with grievances a reasonable chance of success in court.

The proposed penalty for not having cover would be the loss of the government subsidy. In 2015, £797 million of subsidies were paid out to the UK wind power industry.

The wind companies under discussion use a loan from the parent company to build the turbines. The profits of the wind farm are then passed to the parent to pay off the debt. Some say that this makes it difficult to make a claim against the operators. It also makes it unclear who will bear the burden of decommissioning as these turbines reach end-of-life. The maximum quoted lifespan is 25 years.

But then, making life difficult for wind power providers runs counter to government strategy. David Cameron recently committed himself to accelerating Britain’s transition to a low carbon economy at COP 21 meeting in Paris. That hasn't stopped the Conservatives from cutting renewables subsidies for solar PV installations though, so it's possible it will be insufficient to protect wind farms.

With or without political will, the continued discomfort with wind farms suggests more community action – and backbench pressure – could be on the way.

Mark Abrams is a lawyer focussed on trade finance and commodities, and Robin Abrams is an energy researcher and a fellow of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.

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