Monday, 26 May 2008

Hostility to Wind Turbines: Why?

I have seen hostility to the introduction of wind turbines in two locations recently: on posters in a Hertfordshire village and then in a column in 'The Guardian' and it still remains something I cannot understand. People whine on about how wind turbines spoil the landscape and are spoiling the British landscape. I used to cycle a great deal in southern Oxfordshire and for miles and miles across that landscape all you can see is one thing: Didcot power station, well in fact it is two coal and gas burning power stations next to each other. That is the alternative to wind turbines, more of those, not only spoiling the view (the Didcot power station has been rated Britain's third worst eyesore) but also polluting the atmosphere. Now opponents to wind turbines say they only last 25 years, but how long do they think a coal-fired or nuclear power station lasts? Even then a wind turbine can be dismantled whereas other power stations leave radiation and chemical pollution in the soil around making the area unsuitable for cultivation or housing. They say that because wind turbines have to keep turning that they actually use up electricity. This is wrong. I regularly pass wind turbines in the UK and abroad which are actually static without any difficulty. Secondly, what do these people think happens at a nuclear power station when it stops generating electricity? It is not suddenly all switched off and closed up, it takes a great deal of electricity to maintain safely. People's views of coal and nuclear power station have long been misled so that they believe they are ever-lasting systems with minimal impact on the environment. Rather, they were a more or less necessary evil. When did you last hear of a melt-down or a chemical spill at a wind turbine?

Another factor is how beautiful people think the countryside is. You only have to drive or cycle around British counties to see that in fact it is full of what one might term agro-industry. There are tyres and plastic in every corner of Britain, piles of rusting machinery, vast featureless barns housing thousands of chickens or hundreds of cows. I went to a house in Oxfordshire which sat next to a barn which held 400 cows at any one time. They never leave the barn and there is a channel which funnels all their dung down to a huge silo which resembles a white coloured version of the old gas towers in towns. That holds their dung for a year then it is emptied. It sits above a village and even one of the farm labourers joked about what would happen if it began to leak or burst. This is the picture of much of the countryside of Britain. Like towns, it is a working place not a 'chocolate box' idyll. Another thing is, whenever I see wind turbines in Belgium or Germany they are generally along motorways, so the British can easily follow this model. The trouble is all of these residents of these little villages thinking they are going to be overshadowed by wind farms are obstructing the increase of wind turbines in the UK as a whole. In fact, as discussed below, demand is forcing up costs so most of these people who assume they will be having wind turbines in fact will not get any.

The other thing I do not understand is that compared to hydro-electric turbines which flood whole valleys and lead to the drowning of whole villages, why are wind turbines seen as being worse. I know locals who lose their houses dislike the HEP dams, but generally there was minimal opposition to them and in fact many people enjoy the lakes they create. Yet compare the size of a vast dam compared to a clutch of wind turbines: which distorts the landscape the most? Maybe it is an issue of time and because HEP dams have been around seventy years they are accepted. Perhaps by 2078, wind turbines will be as acceptable. Of course by then it might be too late. Possibly it is the marketing. I think the government is very poor at pushing wind turbines.

People often look back to the 18th and 19th centuries as representing the ideals for the rural landscape. If you were walking or riding around an English county, say, in 1848, what would you see? Hundreds of windmills. Norfolk had 400, Suffolk had 500 (17 of which could be seen from Ipswich alone) and Lincolnshire had another 500. Thus, you were unlikely to travel for more than a few miles in Britain without seeing one of the thousands of windmills that were dotted across the landscape milling flour, throwing it into the air making white factory-like clouds around them or pumping water. These days the number of standing windmills is around 20 per county, a small fraction of what you would have seen in the past. People have no problem with windmills, they want them preserved and restored. Yet, 160 years ago surely they were as much a visual blight as the wind turbines that people oppose now. Maybe the turbine makers have missed a trick and should wrap them up in white wooden slats or have red bricks around the base.

When I was growing up in the 1970s the price of oil rose sharply just as it is today. This was a result of Arab states realising had they had done increasingly certainly since the mid-1960s that they had an economic/political weapon which they could use against Western states who had kept them in an informal colonial relationship and were exploiting these countries for vast financial gain. The situation has different causes but the consequences are much the same. People spoke then about the 'oil shock' and it was seen as ending the post-war economic boom. Naturally people looked around for alternatives to oil and the bulk of the alternatives were the same today. There were biofuels, which people have known for decades can be grown, especially in tropical countries. There was solar, wind, wave and geothermal power just as there is today. Of course technology has advanced in the past thirty years, notably in terms of generating solar power. However, in the 1970s the UK was a leading country for the development of wave power and not bad in terms of wind power. Yet for some reason, because oil prices stabilised or vested interests in nuclear power pressed the government, these ideas did not. Now we are in a situation in which everyone is rushing for wind turbines, forcing up the costs immensely as demand outstrips supply. If in the 1970s the British had properly funded and developed wind power (and wave power where the British government effectively gave away our lead in technology) over the past thirty years it capacity could have risen steadily and at lower cost compared to rushing to do it now. It was not that no-one knew what was happening it was just they lacked the political will to do it.

Whining about wind turbines is foolish. It obstructs their development for yet more decades and in the meantime we will get more coal and oil and gas and nuclear-fuelled power stations, (a new coal-fired one was announced for Kent this March) which will mean in years to come the delightful villages these people think they are protecting will be partly flooded and covered with soot and be surrounded by fields of unhealthy crops and livestock due to the radiation. Of course the average Briton always wants the problem to go somewhere else. They want to fly more often but do not want the airport on their doorstep. They want more prisons but certainly do not want one built near them. They want mentally disabled and mentally ill people to be kept in institutions but would prefer the one close to them to be turned into luxury flats instead. In terms of power, they seem to expect everyone except themselves to be forced to have electricity shortages and somehow revert to the 18th century with all its poverty and early death. The British will reap what they sow and those who love the rural spaces should be rushing to embrace wind turbines as opposed to other forms of power generation, but of course they will not and they will suffer the consequences.


Mike Grant said...

I detest NIMBYism, especially in its British manifestation, which usually involves what sometimes seems to be a deliberate disdain for scientific and technial issues, relying instead on emotional appeals.

Re wind turbines, though, current thinking would seem to be that they are better placed offshore. Of course, that doesn't stop people protesting them... the Gwynt y Mor wind farm in Liverpool Bay is being attacked on some amazingly specious grounds.

Rooksmoor said...

Mike, yes, certainly I accept there are parts of the country that need to be protected from development, but as you note, it is taken to the extreme and many British people seem not to accept that if they want to have something like a prison which they are always demanding, then it has to be built somewhere. Yes, offshore wind farms may be a solution. However, there are issues that they will be much more battered by the elements: wind, waves and sea water potentially shortening their life compared to those built on land. In Belgium I have seen a whole village and its tractor factory powered by a single turbine with power to spare. The water supply of the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands has been greatly improved by a whole mountainside of wind turbines powering desalination plants without throwing air pollution into the island's atmosphere. Hopefully some common sense can prevail. It seems a pity none of the UK governments of the 1970s had the political will to get things moving back then.