What does the government like about wind farms? They are the alternative technology which requires least investment from the Treasury: they can be almost entirely funded through tradable green-energy certificates, bought by power companies which have been unable to meet their renewables targets, with the ultimate cost being hidden within your electricity bill. They are therefore the government’s preferred option. The one thing that can be said in their favour is that they do not require giant pylons to carry the power: so little is generated that barely more than a telegraph pole will suffice.
Ironically, the government’s love affair with green energy on the cheap could create a man-made environmental catastrophe which will change the British countryside for ever. Like the Cambrian Mountains, many wind-farm sites are uplands – those wild areas where people refresh their spirits in our crowded islands. In England, there is virtually nowhere that is not densely inhabited or, alternatively, treasured as a place of tranquillity and relaxation. Last November, when Country Life published a map monitoring pollution levels across England we found that the least polluted area of the country was around the Kielder Forest. This is just the sort of place you can expect to be targeted by the wind-farm developers. An application made a few years ago was refused, but only because the Ministry of Defence said that the turbines would interfere with its radar systems.
There are already applications threatening such cherished regions as Hardy country in Dorset, illustrated on this week’s front cover, the Blackmoor Vale in Somerset, and England’s ‘best county’ of Devon. Close to Loch Ness, in Scotland, no fewer than three applications threaten to create a new monster; another has already been granted. Only the National Parks are likely to be exempt from the wind-farm onslaught, although one can expect to see even them ringed by wind farms on their perimeters.
Even worse, sites will also include coastal areas that are neither hilly nor remote: places like Suffolk, which are far more populous than Wales. Here they will not just be a visual anomaly, but a blight on the lives of local residents. You need only to visit Anglesey to realise how visible wind farms can be in relatively flat landscape; and the Anglesey wind farms, built in the late 1990s, are only half the height of more modern turbines, which, at more than 100m, would tower over Nelson’s column. People living near wind farms have been driven to move away, half-maddened by the low infrasound hum which some scientists say can damage human health. Inevitably, the presence of a wind farm is likely to depress house prices. In struggling agricultural areas, such as the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, farmers and lairds may welcome the income produced from the ground rents of turbines on their land; their neighbours, conversely, may feel warmly on the other side of the argument.
If wind farms supplied genuinely green energy, one might be tempted to bite one’s lip and suffer the sacrifice of the countryside, however painful, for the good of the planet as a whole. But they are not truly sustainable. Figures are not available for the time it takes for the energy expended in building them to be recouped in terms of fossil-fuel savings, but consider what goes into their construction. Each of the 103 turbines at remote Llandinam stands on foundations containing enough concrete to build an Olympic-sized swimming-pool. Think of the number of lorries toiling up that mountainside, think of the new road that had to be built to take them, think of the energy used in making and transporting the towers.
Further, wind farms broach the principles of sustainability by leaving an indelible mark on the landscape. They damage the local economy by their effect on house prices and tourism (don’t think of riding a horse near one: it will be terrified). Their blades are believed to kill the rare birds that fly into their path. Those massive foundations destroy local flora which does not regenerate on top of them.
And above everything else is the extra-ordinary fact that they operate only part time. Even in Wales, the wind does not always blow hard enough for the turbines to be switched on; sometimes it blows too hard and they have to be shut down (they can operate only when wind speed is between about 13 and 45mph). As a result, wind farms cannot generate for more than a third of the time. For the other two-thirds, conventional power stations have to be on stand-by to take up the slack.
Fortunately, wind is not the only source of green energy available to Britain. With our long coastline, we have the opportunity to harness the waves and the tides. Inland, energy can be extracted from biomass and the composting of agricultural waste. These sources are surely more suited to agricultural areas where it is desirable to create more jobs on the land. The problem with all of them is that they need government investment in infrastructure to get them going. So Mr Prescott has backed wind, and seeing that planning authorities do not share his enthusiasm (many wind-farm applications have been refused), he is determined to overrule local democracy by changing the system. He has introduced a new planning instrument (Planning Policy Statement 22) to compel councils to accept wind farms which they might otherwise have rejected. Public consultation on PPS22 ceased on January 30 and it is now on the desk of his officials.
We at Country Life know how strongly our readers feel about the menace of wind farms: last year you voted them the worst of all the eyesores contaminating Britain. We have therefore made it our mission to campaign against the abomination. The most urgent priority is to persuade Mr Prescott to bin PPS22. The politicians have not managed to make him do it; now only public opinion can tell.
Our campaign will continue over the coming weeks, with articles addressing all the major aspects of the wind-farm issue. Mr Prescott, for the sake of everyone who loves the British countryside, for the sake of common sense, please listen.