Martin Bellis dries himself off with his towel and gives a wry smile when asked if he is not just another Nimby objector looking after his own patch of beach against the potential encroachment of a wind farm near Faversham, Kent. “No, I’m really not. I am a supporter of clean energy and really care for the environment,” he said.
“I just happen to think wind is a bit of a white elephant because it’s so inefficient and I cannot understand why anyone would choose one of the best bird sanctuaries in Europe as a site.”
Mr Bellis, 67, has just emerged from a dip in the Thames estuary, where a cable from offshore turbines is to be placed. Behind him lies the land where Shell and its partner, E.ON, want to construct an electricity sub-station to process the offshore power and prepare it for the national grid.
The bather is just one of many local residents who are vehemently opposed to the London Array project in Kent. And so far they have managed to block what the operators believe is a proposed development of national importance.
The Array would be the biggest offshore wind project ever: capable of providing up to a quarter of the electricity to light and power London’s homes. It could also help Britain cut CO2 emissions. Andrew Murfin, a Shell manager and director of the London Array, says the 1,000MW scheme would displace nearly 2m tonnes of C02
But the determined resistance of locals in south-east England to what many environmentalists believe is crucial in the global fight against climate change, is being repeated up and down the land.
Despite government promises to streamline planning consents, a meeting of renewable power leaders in Glasgow this month, heard tale after tale of woe from companies whose schemes were bogged down in delays.
The industry secretary, Alistair Darling, triumphantly dug the first turf of the huge Whitelee wind scheme at Eaglesham, near Glasgow, but the developer, Scottish Power, is still far from happy. Philip Bowman, the chief executive, told 1,200 delegates at the British Wind Energy Association annual meeting that it took 50 months to win planning consents for Whitelee.
“Despite comforting words from government departments,” he said, “we are yet to see the impact of any significant progress.”
A further nine projects worth £1.4bn were stuck in the planning phase and Mr Bowman called on the authorities to narrow the gap between “rhetoric and policy”. The delays make it less likely that Mr Darling will meet his targets for reducing the UK’s carbon emissions but the wind industry has other worries.
A boom in demand for wind turbines has pushed up equipment costs by 30% and led to shortages of basics such as turbine blades. This kind of problem was revealed among frustrated delegates at the conference in Glasgow, where the mood was mixed.
Chris Shears, chairman of the BWEA and a director of wind company RES UK, described it as “the best and the worst times” for the industry, with 2,000MW of power in place by the end of the year. But he pointed out that there is 7,000MW stuck in the planning system.
A parade of Liberal Democrat, Conservative and SNP politicians praised the wind companies at the conference and promised to clear the planning logjams. The government, which was absent, has said it would adopt the more dynamic approach used in Scotland. This allows any wind farm over 50MW to be handled by Whitehall officials under the Electricity Act, bypassing the potential bureaucracy and perceived weakness of local authorities.
Even so, companies such as Scottish Power remain sceptical. “The [national] system is not resourced properly with only three civil servants. When a minister has got to take a decision all the evidence suggests he will sit on it rather than take a difficult decision,” said a spokesman. And Scottish Power pointed out that the prospects for quick and easy project approval in rival markets such as the US – supposedly a laggard in the fight against global warming – make them more attractive to investors.
That is even before the wind companies in the UK get on to other gripes such as the difficulty of connecting to the national grid from remote areas, plus government proposals to rejig legislation that forces utilities to buy a certain amount of green energy.
Critics, such as the Thames bather, complain wind is an intermittent source of power. The producers themselves argue that industry progress will remain intermittent until the government acts.
Opponents fear threat to views and rise in traffic
On Cleve Hill in Kent, where the sub-station for the London Array would be sited, stands Alison Mahon, a supporter of renewables. But the care homes manager is worried about the loss of a beautiful view over the Saxon Way coastal footpath. “They say they will plant trees around it but plonking something as big as that will destroy the view across the estuary, as well as damaging a lot of wildlife,” she says.
Elizabeth Bartlett, in the nearby village of Graveney, has other objections. “They want to bring another 50 lorries a day through here. The roads are horrendous now,” says the 65-year-old, who is worried about the vibrations to her 200-year-old cottage, which sits right on the narrow and pavement-less road. She also fears for the safety of children at the village school.
Despite local opposition, particularly to the increase in traffic, planning officers gave the go-ahead to Shell but the planning committee at Swale borough council vetoed it. Shell appealed while it awaits likely approval for the offshore site.
Mark Bilsborough, chief executive of Swale, is in two minds. “This is an exciting project with major benefits for the UK’s renewable energy programme and for jobs in north and east Kent. But significant local concerns need to be balanced against these advantages.”
Shell’s Andrew Murfin says: “There has been a misunderstanding here. The average number of lorries is likely to be two a day.” Developers are also offering £800,000 to the community.
By Terry Macalister
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