Fyson on... which direction to take when considering the various technologies to reduce carbon emissions

The government's long-awaited consultation paper on easing up planning regulations for domestic green microgeneration equipment foresees the need for a more permissive regime to help reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide.

The intention is also to protect the interests of neighbours, the environment and the community, especially in the matters of visual intrusion, noise and vibration. Launching the consultation this month, communities secretary Ruth Kelly said she would also ensure that local authorities "retain the right to restrict planning permission in exceptional circumstances, where the benefit is clearly questionable".

Despite the consultation document's even-handed treatment of the various technologies, it is clear that some will be much less effective than others in reducing carbon emissions and some have more negative impacts. For example, given recent revelations of the limited effectiveness of wind turbines in urban areas and their potential for noise, there is a case for controlling such installations on a case-by-case basis.

The proposed development restrictions on wind turbine size and siting may be insufficient in dense urban contexts. The observations that "defining readily acceptable noise limits is not easy" and "current research suggests that perception of vibration is directly linked to the onset of annoyance" reflect the subjective nature of perceived disturbance.

The anticipated growth in wind generation needs to be channelled into rural locations and stand-alone installations, otherwise they will damage urban living conditions for negligible returns.

Likewise, relatively cheap but inefficient solar hot water installations may be unsuitable for many existing houses that have inadequate internal space, because of the substantial extra tanks and plumbing that they entail. In fact, they may soon need to be actively discouraged through building regulations and housing standards, if not by planning itself, and their popularity should decline.

By contrast, photovoltaic cells and ground-source heat pumps appear to be the most effective and unintrusive systems for residential areas and need to be promoted. However, their relatively high cost, although not a planning problem, will probably mean that they need to be subsidised.

Necessary restrictions on the siting of photovoltaic panels should distinguish more clearly between roofs, where they are generally acceptable, and walls, where they are not - especially if publicly visible parts of historic structures and areas are involved.

Anthony Fyson, a freelance writer on planning issues.


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