Exploring the implications of landscape visual impact of renewable technologies for future low carbon energy systems in Great Britain

Exploring the implications of landscape visual impact of renewable technologies for future low carbon energy systems in Great Britain

Prof Russell McKenna, University of Aberdeen; Department of Mechanical and Process Engineering, ETH Zurich, Switzerland and Laboratory for Energy Systems Analysis, Paul Scherrer Institute, Switzerland
Dr Stefan Petrovic, Technical University of Denmark

Jann Weinand, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology
Prof Ismir Mulalic, Copenhagen Business School
Dr James Price, UCL Energy Institute
Prof Marianne Zeyringer, University of Oslo
Dr Kai Mainzer, greenventory GmbH
Prof Tobias Preis, Warwick Business School / Alan Turing Institute
Prof Suzy Moat, Warwick Business School / Alan Turing Institute

Policymakers require reliable information about the cost and potential capacities of renewable energy technologies. The realizable potential for these technologies is strongly dependent on a range of constraints. While certain constraints such as economic feasibility and supply chain capacities are relatively amenable to quantitative modelling, other concerns such as the visual impact of renewable energy installations are more challenging to capture.

This contribution improves existing methods for renewable energy resource assessments. The approach accounts for the distance of potential wind farm locations from the nearest transformer and thereby also assesses the related network connection costs. In addition, the method explicitly considers one significant aspect of public acceptance, namely the visual impact on the landscape, based on a public database of landscape evaluation. Here, we draw on over 1.5 million ratings from “Scenic-or-Not”, an online game in which users have rated over 200,000 geotagged photographs taken across the UK. The ratings from 1 (low scenicness) to 10 (high scenicness) are employed here as a proxy to quantify the aesthetic value (scenicness) of the landscapes in which renewable energy installations could be situated. An analysis of planning applications provides quantitative evidence that onshore wind projects are more likely to be rejected when proposed in more scenic areas, whereas no such relationship exists for installations of ground-mounted solar panels. We build on these findings to generate new estimates of the UK’s feasible potential for these technologies, when taking landscape aesthetics into account. The results show a strong correlation between the most scenic locations and the best wind resources (in terms of wind speeds), indicating an inevitable trade-off between cost and public acceptability.

We then use three scenicness scenarios in a cost-optimising model of Great Britain’s power system to assess their impact on the cost and design of the electricity system in 2050. Our results show that total system costs can increase by up to 14.2% when public sensitivity to visual impact is high compared to low. It is thus essential for policy makers to consider these cost implications and to find mechanisms to ameliorate the visual impact of onshore wind in local communities. These results provide a quantitative methodology for managing the inevitable compromises between renewable energy capacity and visual landscape quality as the UK works towards its pressing net zero emissions targets. The method is in principle transferable to other contexts, but requires either a comparable scenicness database or a more profound understanding of how it correlates with different land use categories.

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