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Focus: Why the wind farms should be blown away

Is the race for wind power driven by greed more than environmental concern? Jonathan Leake and John Elliott report on a secret goldrush

When the news arrived out of the blue, John Constable could hardly believe it. An energy company was planning to erect six giant wind turbines, each 300ft high, with blades longer than the wing of a jumbo jet, just 700 yards from his farmhouse in the Suffolk village of Great Glemham.

Constable, a Cambridge University poetry expert, his mother and his seven-year-old son were aghast. The view from the house — with its oak trees, orchard and wild meadow populated by red admiral butterflies — would be ruined by the turbines.

“It’s creating outrage in the village,” said Constable, a descendant of the artist John Constable. So in January, he and other villagers joined the burgeoning ranks of Britain’s anti-wind farm campaigners to fight the plans.

Just another bunch of nimbies? How can they object if wind power is clean, simple and cheap? On the face of it, it would be all too easy to portray Constable and other protesters now springing up all over the country as small-minded and self-centred. Instead, by a strange reversal of opinion, they are winning increasing support from scientists, experts in renewable energy and even green campaigners.

As the costs and impact of wind power become better understood, divisions are opening up over its merits. On Friday at a conference in Edinburgh, Sir Martin Holdgate, an expert in renewable energy who once supported wind farms, fiercely criticised plans for expansion of the power-generating technique.

Holdgate believes wind farms are not worth the cost and environmental impact: they require large areas to produce only small amounts of energy. Wind turbines will simply not produce enough to save Britain from the effects of global warming and are draining resources that might be better spent elsewhere.

Sir Ian Fells, professor of energy conversion at Newcastle University and one of the world’s leading renewable energy experts, said that for wind power to contribute just 5% of Britain’s electricity supply would “take a Herculean effort and a lot of subsidy”. He calculates that to achieve such a target would require a “subsidy” — that is, extra payments by customers above normal energy rates — of £8 billion by 2010.

In fact, behind the turbines sprouting across the landscape is a goldrush sparked by incentives created by a government struggling to meet its own targets for renewable energy. It has led to developers racing to build turbines with little care for the environment.

Tom Burke, a former director of Friends of the Earth, supports wind energy in principle but is concerned about its growth: “These wind farm entrepreneurs have seen there is big money to be made but they need to learn the same lesson as other developers, that they cannot just decide what they want and then do it.”

Professor David Bellamy, the naturalist, is campaigning against wind farms, warning of “plans that will make the British coastline ugly and impossible for birdlife”. He condemns the “government’s naive belief that wind farms produce green electricity”.

Even Jonathon Porritt, doyen of greens and former director of Friends of the Earth, has reservations. Although he strongly supports wind power and believes wind turbines are “compellingly beautiful”, he admits: “The real problem is that people building the things have been insensitive.

“They’ve put some of them in the wrong places and have not consulted local people or involved them in the benefits. The result is there is a growing anti-wind power lobby.”

Ten years ago there were hardly any onshore turbines in Britain and when they did begin to appear, they spread slowly. Today there are more than 1,100 and as numbers have risen, so have concerns. People affected include the actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, who has a house in Wales in sight of a planned wind farm. The mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington has protested against wind turbines.

“We are seeing the beginning of real unrest in the countryside about the way in which this is being done. There are a lot of people who are suddenly realising there is an application for one of these things,” said Noel Edmonds, the broadcaster who last week launched the Renewable Energy Foundation to campaign against the government’s wind farm policies.

Many more protesters are likely to join in because the government envisages at least another 2,000 turbines by 2010. In fact, meeting government targets for 20% of energy from renewable sources by 2020 will require up to 8,000 turbines, some of which would be offshore.

To encourage this amazing growth, the government has put in place a complex system of payments that stands to make developers very rich. It typically enables a single two-megawatt turbine to generate its owner nearly £385,000 a year for 20 years. Not bad for a machine that costs only £1.3m to build.

It is, however, where that money comes from that is most interesting. In a typical case, only £120,000 would be payment for the electricity generated. The remaining £265,000 — the real profit — comes from the sale of bits of paper called renewable obligations certificates (Rocs).

A wind farmer is allowed to create one Roc for every 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity they generate — and a two-megawatt turbine will generate about 5,300 certificates a year. The wind farmers are able to sell the certificates to the big electricity suppliers, who need them to prove to the government that some of their electricity comes from renewable sources.

Since there are too few renewable energy sources around and therefore not enough Rocs, the price of these certificates rises. What is more, it is likely to keep rising because each year the government is raising the proportion of renewable energy that companies must supply.

The government currently aims at 4.9% of power coming from renewable sources. By 2010, the target will be 10.4%. Ultimately, it is the consumer who pays for the inflated price of wind power: it might be clean but it is not cheap.

The system creates an incentive for the industry to build more and more wind farms — even though the Royal Academy of Engineering calculates that power from wind farms is more expensive than that from coal or gas power stations.

These arrangements are also prompting the wind farm industry to build ever bigger machines. A typical two-megawatt turbine is 200ft high, but new ones envisaged for use offshore or in isolated areas will be 500ft — about 2Å times higher than Nelson’s column.

To help ensure that more wind farms are being built, the government is also expected to relax planning rules. By contrast, Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, will announce tomorrow that he would make it harder for Whitehall to overrule locals who oppose turbines.

Of course, arguments rage over how to calculate the real costs of different generating systems and their environmental impact.

Green campaigners believe that the government’s incentive system for wind power, while flawed, is the only way Britain can shift energy generation from fossil fuels to renewable energy. But Fells said: “There is no doubt that we need all the electricity we can get that doesn’t create carbon dioxide, but predicating this almost entirely on wind when there are other, less obtrusive technologies seems simplistic, stubborn and perverse.”

As he points out, one great drawback of wind power is that it cannot completely replace other energy generation: it requires “backup” power sources for days when the wind does not blow.

ARE there better alternatives in the long run? Hydroelectric power does not have much potential in Britain, although it may be useful in mountainous countries.

Fells suggests that money would be better invested in tidal and wave power generation. Earlier this month a House of Lords select committee also recommended that “there should be a co-ordinated programme of capital grants” to encourage wave and tidal power projects.

Others believe that the best long-term hope may well be solar power. Demonstrations around Britain have shown that a typical terraced house with modern solar technology can generate more than enough power for its own needs.

But the initial costs are daunting. A full solar roof installation costs £20,000 for an average house — three times the cost of an ordinary roof. With power prices so low at present, it is simply not viable.

So, without a short-term alternative, the march of the wind turbines is likely to proceed, even though they will not prevent global warming or provide a solution to the energy crisis on the horizon.

Some respected environmentalists believe here is only one realistic alternative available, and it is recognised by the man who opened Britain’s first wind farm, Professor James Lovelock, the much-admired seer behind the Gaia concept of the planet as a living organism. He, too, has now turned against wind power.

He believes nuclear power is the greenest energy option. It is a proven supply of significant capacity and does not consume fossil fuels. Fells also supports it.

But nuclear power has risks and long-term decommissioning costs. More importantly, the government is set to wind down the nuclear power industry and has no plans to build more reactors.

Which leaves one last option on electricity: use less.


Traditional environmentalists oppose nuclear power and the government is winding it down. But will it have to play a bigger, not smaller, role in Britain’s energy provision? A looming energy crisis could force a U-turn

  • Britain’s gas and oil reserves are declining. North Sea oil reserves could be depleted as soon as 2010

  • Renewable energy sources account for only 3% of supply at present. Even increasing that level to 10% is a huge task

  • Even if renewable sources are increased, demand may rise faster. UK domestic energy consumption increased by 19% between 1990 and 2001

  • Some 25% of Britain’s electricity comes from nuclear power. But our nuclear generators are old and due to close within the next two decades. There is no clear alternative to meet the resulting shortfall

  • In 1997 the Labour party manifesto pledged to block the building of new nuclear power stations. That pledge was dropped in the last manifesto

  • British Nuclear Fuels and British Energy, which run the country’s nuclear power stations, are understood to have drawn up plans for a “nuclear renaissance” with new plants around the country

  • Levels of nuclear power in other countries are considerably higher than in Britain. Over 30% of the electricity in the European Union is generated from nuclear sources. In France and Belgium it is 75% and 55% respectively

  • Nuclear power is gaining support among some environmentalists as a comparatively clean energy source. They believe it may be the only way to solve the energy crisis in the short term until significant other generating methods are developed