Our prime minister, David Cameron, has revealed that he intends to cap the number of wind turbines in our oceans and on our hillsides. It seems a long way from his ‘Vote blue, go green’ days. “get rid of all the green crap”, he said recently.
It is hot news in our parts– the rights and wrongs of wind farms.
I have always found myself slightly divided in my opinions about the giant turbines springing up on our hillsides. On the one hand, I love the wilderness of Argyll, and I do not want anything to steal from this. On the other hand, far too much of the land is covered already with contour planted conifers, and these offend my eyes every time I drive north. The fact is, despite how wonderful Argyll is, very little of it is true wilderness. Every hill has been shaped and changed by man, or by the animals we put there.
But a whole hillside full of white windmills? You can’t ignore them can you?
I still remember the first time I saw a wind turbine. I was about 19 or 20, and visited the Alternative Technology Centre in Macynlleth, Mid Wales with my friend Mark. It was a magical place full of hippies eating bean burgers and experiments with compost and conserved fart gas. Up on the hill they had two of these new fangled turbines, turning in the Welsh wind, regal and wonderful. I could not take my eyes of them. They had a grace and a wonder- they promised to my naive eye the possibility of a real alternative to the consumption of fossil energy that was surely of the devil.
They seem to have gone all posh these days- not a tie died pair of underpants on show anywhere;
But just because I went all tellytubby back in the 80’s, this does not really make an argument for or against industrialised wind farming now does it?
Well, perhaps it does. I suspect that our opinions about these turbines has little to do with the hard ecological/economical facts. These are obscured by entrenched battlements, from behind which hand-grenade statistics are lobbed out by each side.
One side opens with stats that suggest that wind farms are not an economic reliable source of power- wind is not constant, it can not be matched to peak demand, it can only manage a few 40 watt bulbs. The other side counters with the fact that wind IS constant enough in the right sites, of which the UK is almost uniquely blessed, and technology to store energy (such as using pumped hydro electric schemes) is getting better all the time. They would also suggest that the unit price of wind power is less than that using generation through heat from fossil fuels. (If you are interested in some of the more balanced use of facts around all this, check out the wikipedia entry.)
The other side comes back with the impact on wild life- bird strikes in particular. We are siting these giant scimitars in the paths of migrating birds, and in places where some of our most iconic raptor species cling to the fringes in small numbers. This is countered with the fact that any bird deaths caused by wind turbines are localised, and tiny by the numbers killed by the polluting effect of more traditional generation technology, which kill birds a thousand miles from their smokestacks.
Perhaps the real issue is that we feel out of control of all these carbunkles festooning our hillsides. They are schemes cooked up by big business and planning departments- contrast this with the German situation, where most windfarms are owned and administered by local communities.
Back to David Cameron and the Tories. Given the global and national pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, their willingness to stop new wind farm development seems rather bizarre.
Perhaps Cameron is pandering to the far right of his party, who would see The Centre for Alternative Technology as some kind of hell. They shoot Grice in these places old boy…
Perhaps the other driver is the fact that even though wind farms are big business, they are not the right kind of big business- too European, too beanfeast. The City of London prefers Nuclear. Even French Nuclear.
But I think the main reason is that they never stood before a turbine as an impressionable teenager, slightly bloated from undercooked pulses, awed by the grace of the things- and the possibility that technology could be good, not just expensive.
I, on the other hand, would happily strap one to my house…