An Ill Wind?
It was supposed to be a green solution to the environmental crisis. But Britain's 'wind rush' - the world's fastest expansion of renewable energy - has split the green lobby and whipped up a storm of protest from a powerful coalition of countryside groups. So are wind farms the answer to global warming - or merely a blight on the landscape? John Vidal reports
Friday May 7, 2004
The road signposted away from global warming and towards clean energy snakes 800ft from the Conway valley and narrows to a single track as it reaches Moel Maelogan on the edge of the Denbigh moors in north Wales. It is glorious, lonely sheep-farming countryside, full of dips and rises, with views over to the Snowdonia peaks and to the Irish sea. Last month the rain was driving almost horizontally into the faces of Geraint Davies and his neighbouring hillfarmer Robin Williams as they did the spring lambing.
These two young men, together with their business partner, Williams's brother Rheinalt, have divided the local community, split the broad British green movement and reaped indignation as well as respect. Davies and the Williams brothers own one of Britain's smallest windfarms. Their three slender white turbines tower 150ft above a derelict stone barn and can be seen from many of Snowdonia's peaks.
Few people objected when their cooperative sought permission to erect the machines four years ago. The community liked the idea of local families, with 13 dependent children between them, diversifying out of loss-making sheep rearing.
But now the three say they need to build 10 more turbines to stay viable, many former sympathisers are rattling sabres. The Snowdonia Society, the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales, the Conway valley civic society, North Wales tourism, the Ramblers, the National Trust, the local Labour MP and Welsh Assembly member have all objected to the proposed extension, along with up to 1,800 individuals. The council will decide on the application shortly.
Davies and Robin Williams dismiss their opponents as "mostly white settlers who have bought a view, or people who are just plain jealous". They will try to "hide" the new machines in a dip, and have reduced the number and offered to resite some. They have also invited locals to invest in the farm, suggesting an 8% return on capital. More than 500 are interested. "We've had offers of up to £30,000," says Davies. "Local ownership is why we did it in the first place. People recognised the benefit of it. We've all got to adapt.
"Our copper, our slate, our coal, our young people and our water have all gone over the border. Well, our wind won't."
Britain is right at the start of what is being called the "wind rush", and rural communities are being convulsed by arguments for and against wind technology. Encouraged by the government, which has set targets of generating 10% of all British electricity from renewables by 2010 and is heavily backing developers with grants and subsidies, large companies are piling in with ambitious plans for most of Britain's highlands.
In the next few years utility companies and others will invest £10bn in British wind projects, attracting government subsidies to the value of roughly £1bn. The 1,034 turbines already running produce about 700mW of electricity - about as much as one conventional power station - but over the next seven years more than 7,000mW of generating power will be installed on 73 new farms.
It will be the greatest and fastest expansion of renewable energy attempted anywhere in the world - a suitable response, says the government, to global warming. This year, 22 new farms with a capacity of 475mW will be built. Next year there will be even more - but instead of the 100ft high machines now dotted around Wales, the west country and Scotland, the industry is moving to 300-, even 400-footers, each generating enough electricity for several thousands homes. Dozens of companies are piling in with proposals.
Plans are in place to move much of the building out to sandbanks and shallow water off the coasts from 2007 onwards. Fifteen giant offshore farms will be built, in the Thames estuary, the Wash, and off the north-west and Welsh coasts. Each could have up to 500 of the biggest turbines in the world, generating potentially 4.5kW each - more if the technology moves on as expected. Altogether, 9,000mW of new wind power is planned, enough to meet the government target of 10%. By 2020, the government wants 20% of our energy to come from renewables.
But the proposed farms are provoking fierce opposition from an increasingly organised countryside lobby, which claims that wind power is not green, will not contribute to the fight against global warming and will wreck the countryside. More than 60 national and local groups, led by some of Britain's highest profile conservationists, are now hounding the planners, whipping up antagonism, and undermining the arguments for switching to renewables. As the propaganda war against wind farms heats up, the green movement finds itself split.
"Wind power is sheer lunacy," argues the conservationist David Bellamy, who opposes all British wind developments on the grounds that they can kill birds and destroy countryside. "They can only work for 30% of the time," he says. "How are people going to be able to boil their kettles, or how are we to power our hospitals the rest of the time? It means we have to keep our other stations running in reserve, pouring out carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide. If they were producing a decent amount of power I would back them. But if you lagged the roofs of 500 homes it would have the effect of putting up one wind turbine. That is what we should be doing."
He also argues that they are a planning fiasco. "If I wanted to build in an area of outstanding natural beauty I wouldn't be allowed. Yet these turbines are 22 storeys high and put on hills where everyone can see them. They need 1,000 tonnes of concrete and a road infrastructure. It beggars belief that some environmental groups say they are 'green'."
The anti-wind lobby took off in 1992 with a group called Country Guardian, which was worried by wind power's potential to damage landscape. It strongly denies accusations of having close links with the nuclear industry (its chair is Sir Bernard Ingham, who is a paid lobbyist for British Nuclear Fuels). Its arguments were supported by many conservationists who feared the visual impact on lovely places, but also by old Labourites who supported the unions in Britain's nuclear industry, and others who accurately foresaw that wind power could scupper plans for new nuclear stations.
Neil Kinnock, a vice-president, resigned when he became EU commissioner for transport, saying: "My long-established view is that wind power can only provide a very small fraction of the output required to meet total energy needs and it unavoidably makes an unacceptable intrusion into the landscape."
For an amateur lobby group, Country Guardian have had spectacular successes. Their arguments are now widely used by national pressure groups such as the Ramblers, the Council for the protection of Rural England and its equivalents in Wales and Scotland, the RSPB and others. Almost 80% of all windfarm applications made in the past 14 years are believed to have been turned down. "We are not funded by the nuclear industry at all," says Angela Kelly, who runs the group full-time. We have very few members and about £3,000 in the bank, enough to just about cover our printing costs."
The antis recently picked up another prominent nuclear supporter. James Lovelock, the developer of the Gaia theory and an inspiration to green thinkers, was recently asked to open a windfarm at Delabole, Cornwall. "At that time nobody was talking about a gigantic programme, getting 15 or 20% of the country's energy from wind turbines. I think, now that I know as much as I do, I wouldn't have touched it with a bargepole. It has stolen up on us without any of us being aware of it," he told the Western Morning News recently.
More lately the antis have been joined by anti-environment "contrarians" who have long waged a separate war against green groups over GM crops, nuclear power, organic food, overseas development and trade. One of the more influential in Britain is Philip Stott, professor emeritus of geography at London university, who is a hero to the grassroots anti-wind lobby for his regular denouncements of proposed developments. "Onshore wind power doesn't deliver the environmental benefits it promises, and yet it carries substantial environmental costs. Promoting windfarms over other forms of energy generation will surely prove to be a most costly blunder. It is time to roar out against this crass industrialisation of our countryside and our last remaining wilderness," he says.
Their arguments are now becoming mainstream. The Conservative party is likely to come out against windfarms in the next few weeks, with Theresa May, the shadow secretary of state for environment and transport, promising "a very strong position". Tory HQ spokespeople now quote Country Guardian statistics almost word for word. "Do you know that if the government wants to meet its targets by wind power they will have to build a turbine every one or two days until 2010?" says a spokeswoman.
The core of the antis' argument is that wind power is expensive and will achieve little. "Why are we building wind turbines and paying three times the odds for their electricity when other options are so obvious? Why are we building the biggest passenger jet the world has ever seen? Why do we not reward people for saving energy?" says Dr John Etherington, a retired academic regarded as the intellectual guru of Country Guardian.
This leaves Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and WWF, with more than 700,000 members between them, in the unusual position of defending multinational companies and the government, and trying to debunk what they call the myths put out by the antis. Tony Juniper, director of of Friends of the Earth, says that the opposition exaggerates shamelessly and dangerously.
"They are parochial, shortsighted, selfish, peddling falsehoods and misconceptions," he says. "Climate change is no longer a theory. It is the world's most pressing environmental problem and the anti-lobby, helped by nuclear interests, is trying to undermine Britain's role as a leader in tackling it and to fatally delay action. Wind is the most advanced of all the renewable technologies, but it needs to be followed quickly by solar, wave, tidal, biomass and others," he says. "No one is arguing that wind generators should cover all the national parks. That would be mad. The landscape can and must be protected."
The opposition is using every argument imaginable. Its websites claim that house prices fall near farms, that turbine noise, infrasound and the flicker of blades can drive people and animals mad, that bats die in great numbers, job figures are inflated, tourists are put off, and even that horses bolt near them.
One of the strongest arguments used is that every farm is liable to kill thousands of birds, including hundreds of golden eagles, kites and other rare species. The RSPB, which supports wind power, says it objects only when there is "insufficient information about the risks to birds and their habitats to conclude that there will not be a problem". The British Wind Energy association, the industry lobby group, is perplexed. "Even in Altamont Pass in America, where 7,000 turbines were erected on a migratory route, it was only 0.2 birds per turbine per year. Compare this with the number killed by cats, cars and by flying into windows, or even by global warming, and it is not significant at all," a spokesman says.
The antis "are a well-organised small minority," says Allan Moore, chair of the British wind energy association and head of renewables at National Wind Power. In the next 10 years he expects to invest almost £1bn in wind. Moore spent 30 years building and installing nuclear, coal, gas and other power stations before moving to wind. "Proportion is needed. In the 17th century we had 90,000 windmills in Britain. They were a part of life. What we're looking to do is install perhaps 4,000, making 5,000 in total. Roughly half will be onshore and half offshore. If 4,000 turbines sounds a lot, compare Germany, where last year alone they installed more than 2,500mW of capacity and now have 7,000 turbines."
Wind, he says, is not the only answer to producing clean electricity or combating global warming. "What wind is about is displacing fossil fuels, saving carbon and greenhouse gases. That is the driver. Every kilowatt of wind power generated is one less of polluting power. The wind industry can do a lot quickly. If in 30 years' time someone comes up with something better, we'll take the turbines away."
The future, he accepts, will be a mixture of tidal power, solar, biomass and other renewables, "but these technologies have some way to go and are where wind energy was 12-15 years ago. I think ultimately we'll be using many sorts of power. "
Moore refutes Bellamy and Country Guardian claims that the intermittency of wind power makes it unreliable and dangerous to base a country's energy policy around. "Actually, it is very predictable. Clearly there's a time when the wind does not blow. The antis rightly say that back-up power is needed, but it's not one [kW] for one . Surges of power - the kind when everyone wants to turn a kettle on at half-time in the Cup Final - are more of a problem [for the industry]," he says. "Everyone is comfortable with Britain producing 10% of its electricity from wind. Even 10,000kW of capacity would only need one extra generating unit as a backup".
In the meantime, he is a total convert to wind. "There's something right about wind. It is a hearts-and-minds thing. I think most people's instincts are with renewables."
The two battlegrounds are Wales and Scotland, which have taken very different approaches. Where Scotland has welcomed developments and made the planning system easy, Wales has been ultra-wary and developers have almost despaired of getting permissions. As a result, Scotland is about to become one of the world's windfarm leaders.
It has the best wind power potential in Europe and, theoretically, could produce almost all the renewable electricity Britain needs. While the UK has a target of 10% of electricity supply from green sources by 2010, the Scottish Executive has set 18% as its target, largely because it already gets around 11% of its electricity from hydro. Likewise, the UK's aspirational target is 20% for 2020, while the executive has set a whopping 40%. It says the turbines will bring up to 1,400 full-time jobs in depopulated areas.
The Scottish antis are led by the umbrella group Views of Scotland, which draws heavily on Country Guardian. It is waging a war against the turbines on many fronts, and the sites it is defending reel off like a list of battlefields: the Glens of Foundland, Cruach Mor, Causeymire, Ardrossan, Boulfruich, Crystal Riggs and 30 other important upland places, they say, will be for ever industrialised.
The antis are backed by mountaineers and ramblers. Cameron McNeish, the president of the Ramblers Association in Scotland, says wind power is the biggest threat Scotland has faced since the Highland clearances. "It seems that Scottish tourism and the Scottish landscape are being sacrificed to create more electricity for the big power users in the south of England. People come here because of the landscape quality of Scotland, because it's the last remaining wilderness on the edge of Europe and that would be very much threatened if all these proposals go ahead."
The political and financial stakes are high too. The wind industry, given the chance to deliver carbon-free energy for the first time, has very little time to prove itself. If it cannot meet the ambitious targets set by government within four years and reduce Britain's growing carbon emissions, it is widely expected that it will have its financial support unplugged. Powerful pro-nuclear forces, arguing that nuclear power is reliable and climate friendly, are fervently hoping that wind fails.
"Wind has to work. A lot is at stake," says Moore. "The government will have to decide in a few years' time whether they put their eggs in the nuclear basket or renewables. In 2005-6 it will step back and review whether the wind industry is meeting its targets. If it isn't then they have got a lot of old nuclear stations ..."
Last week two new reports attacking wind power were published. The influential free-market David Hume Institute in Edinburgh commissioned economist Professor David Simpson to study the economics of wind. Working with Robin Jeffrey, a former head of British Energy (Britain's nuclear energy company), he concluded that wind was twice the price of coal and that subsidising renewable forms of energy would cost households about £1bn extra a year by 2100, and twice that if the government pushed to 20% of energy from renewables. He recommended that Britain reconsider nuclear power. Meanwhile, a Royal Academy study published in British nuclear fuels's house magazine, argued that offshore wind was three times more expensive than nuclear, and onshore wind more than twice.
"Fluctuations in the energy source [wind] may limit the output of generation..." "Standby generating plant may have to be provided..." "Wind power needs to be subsidised if its environmental credentials are to be fully exploited," said the report, which ignored the costs of building and commissioning nuclear power stations.
Other countries are having their own problems with wind energy. Denmark, the world wind technology leader, is to scale down the number of windmills, the Dutch government fears public hostility will force them to shelve expansion plans and Germany, the world's largest wind power producer, is also convulsed with arguments and angry protests.
The grassroots antis all describe themselves as environmentalists, and do not accept that the nuclear industry may be using them. Martin Wright led - and lost - a bitter five-year campaign to stop the disgraced US company Enron building 39 giant turbines in the wild Cambrian mountains of mid Wales. The Cefn Croes scheme has now been taken over by the Renewable Development Company, which is even now clearing tracks through Forestry Commission land to install the turbines.
"They won't affect my life at all," says Wright, at the top of a hill outside his home from where he can glimpse eight other windfarms. "Perhaps I will hear them, but I can hear the main road, too. But it will deeply hurt me. The next generation will not have our sense of perspective. It won't be able to stand on top of Plynlimon mountain and have an uninterrupted view to the Brecon Beacons. The likelihood is that the area will be industrialised by windfarms.
"At root these protests are about defending the principle of open landscapes, which will assume even more importance later. I would not like to see these landscapes lost through carelessness.
"What the real solutions are I don't know. It's certainly not nuclear. It's probably energy conservation and solar. What galls me is that we do not need to build wind power stations in places like this. Wind is not at all evil. I'm almost a heretic and say that we should not rule it out. But we are dealing with the real problems of global warming in such a crude way."
The issue explained
14.12.2001: Renewable energy
Offshore wind farms
Friends of the Earth
British Wind Energy Association