The ill wind blowing through energy policy
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
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
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
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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