Ill wind
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The ill wind blowing through energy policy

A sharp blow over the head, said Chesterton, can change a man’s philosophy overnight. I wonder what a biomass converter in St James’s Park, or a wind turbine at Chequers, would do to Tony Blair’s “renewable energy” policy. I bet it, too, would change overnight.
Yesterday’s Downing Street Performance Unit report on Britain’s long-term energy supply says that “the nation must not be lulled into inaction”. It advocates inaction, plus wind farms. It takes as axiomatic the controversial Kyoto Protocols on global warming. It suggests that Britain might get 20 per cent of its electricity from non-fossil fuels within 18 years. But that is just a suggestion. If other countries do not do the same, there is apparently little point in Britain going alone.

What the report does not confront is the one stark fact about global warming. To make any difference, if you hate carbon you must love nuclear. The French, who know how to make a decision, went nuclear long ago and are now 95 per cent non-carbon. They are not running round with two heads, nor are they telling their Government merely to “keep the nuclear option open”. As for CO2 emissions, even the report accepts that cutting them will require a politically unacceptable curtailment of motorcars. This is not blue-skies thinking, but smoggy-skies politics.

The report is in part sensible. It stresses the energy efficiency of gas and is strong on conservation and competitive imports. But by refusing to grasp the nuclear nettle, the authors are left chasing the wind, literally. They do not say why the French are wrong. They do not answer the protests of environmentalists such as Bjorn Lomberg and Philip Stott, that the Kyoto targets would divert billions of dollars from more productive forms of global investment and conservation.

Nor is any attempt made to present wind power as a remotely sensible resource. Indeed any conclusion about wind power must “await upon the review of the working of the Renewables Obligation in 2006”. What does that mean, when the Government is pouring subsidies into wind power, rising to £340 million a year by 2010? The only return is a ministerial boast at the next United Nations conference that Britain is trying. Forty five million pounds is spent on “researching wind power”, but no reason is given as to why this is better value for money than researching cleaner carbon power stations or more efficient nuclear waste disposal. The trouble is that British energy policy, unlike the French or American, is primarily about fashion. Nuclear may be the cleanest and least dangerous fuel, but it is out of fashion. The fashion was once for hydroelectric, but dams were bad politics. Fashion demanded solar power, but the sun failed to shine. One day geothermal energy and waste methane will be all the rage. At present, the craze is for wind.

Between the lines, the report is unequivocal. Such is Downing Street’s philistinism that wind turbines are never described as ugly or an environmental offence. Yet they are inefficient, dispersed, intermittent and low output. Even with hundreds more turbines put up, the wildest estimates of supply suggest little more than 5 per cent of demand met from this source, up from 1 per cent today. The report has to keep stressing the need for a high-profile gesture to meet “international obligations”.

The gesture is bought at an astonishing price. It means covering Britain’s foreshores, sandbanks, headlands and mountains in whirling turbines, masts, wires and distribution pylons. No one need ask what this would be like. There may be no turbines within 100 miles of London — there is no nimbyism like turbine nimbyism — but there are plenty in Cornwall and the Pennines. They ring the Lake District and will shortly sprout in the Western Isles. They are foresting Mid Wales.

Indeed Wales, without so much as a by-your-leave or public inquiry, is now the largest concentration of on-shore turbines in Europe. The wild isolation of the Cambrian Mountains was once their protection. It is now their vulnerability.

Turbines may be regarded by some backers as beautiful — so are cooling towers and blast furnaces — but that does not make them suitable adornments of wilderness or national parks. The whole of the Cambrian Mountains were denied park status in the 1980s because Snowdonia in the North was considered big enough. The unspoilt South was thought too inaccessible to need protection. Scenery the equal of Dartmoor or the Pennines was thus left to the mercy of Wales’s notoriously suspect local planning committees. Farmers who suddenly found themselves offered over £1,000 a turbine in annual rent took it, and to hell with tourism.

The Energy Minister, Brian Wilson, is desperate to safeguard a constituency nuclear plant in Scotland. He needs a diversionary tactic and has found it in raping the Mid Wales landscape. Two months ago he permitted the largest turbine cluster in Britain, 39 towers at Cefn Croes, near Plynlimon, to be built without any public inquiry. The towers are to be 320ft tall, twice the height of Nelson’s Column. Already the hills above Llandinam, Carno, Cemmaes and Aberystwyth are festooned with lesser tubines. The mountains of Powys and Cardiganshire carry what from a distance look like a golgotha of gibbets, their arms turning only a third of the time. Since electricity does not store and wind is intermittent, these turbines must be run in parallel with a conventional power station. Wind power is always backed up by a normal power source.

Every environmental body in Wales protested at the Cefn Croes decision, including the Countryside Commission and two thirds of local opinion. Mr Wilson disregarded all this, relying only on a planning permission given, against officers’ advice, by the farmer-dominated local council. But his decision is merely a prelude. In the offing is the biggest turbine cluster in the whole of Europe, 165 linked 440-footers covering 48 square miles on the Brecon-Cardigan border. These are truly mammoth structures.

Wales is watching the desecration of its landscape as it watched the damming of its valley for Midlands water in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet no local inquiry is permitted into this traumatic change of land use. Inquiries are specifically derided in yesterday’s report as obstacles to progress. An arrogant aside dismisses them as “failing to place local concerns within a wider framework of national and regional need”.

The Welsh turbines will replace barely 1 per cent of the output of the nuclear power station at Wylfa Head, on Anglesey. Those who might once have protested are silenced with power company hush-money. Thus Scottish and Southern Energy have done a lucrative deal with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds not to protest at turbine bird strike. The kites of Mid Wales are not its concern.

This cannot be a sensible way to proceed. Ministers would not dream of visiting this fate on the South East of England. Millions of pounds in subsidies and discounted energy tariffs are going on this project. The energy gained is trivial and unreliable. Projections put out by the wind farm lobbyists are never realised in practice. The new generation of offshore turbines will cost huge sums in construction, protection and undersea cabling.

It is hard not to conclude that in this matter there is one law for the South East and another for the Celtic fringe. If the Cornish or the Welsh were to march to London and build power stations on the North Downs, there would be a national outcry. Once there would have been no question of building such structures in areas of obvious natural beauty. No longer. We have lost the capacity to value landscape. The “Friends of the Earth” turn out to be its enemies.

The West of Britain may be windier than the East but it is not much windier, not enough to justify so much wreckage in so meagre a cause. The West is also more beautiful by far. But that beauty is enjoyed by few members of this Government and by even fewer members of the national media or the green lobbies.

They all holiday in France. There they would excoriate turbines in their gardens. They would see no need. For they heat their holiday homes and cook their holiday meals with French power. Nuclear power.

Simon Jenkins Reprinted from The Times, February 15, 2002


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Last modified: September 20, 2006