People are frightened of criticising wind farms. It is politically incorrect to do so, for wind farms are hailed as powerful weapons in the battle against global warming. Unlike fossil fuels, which presently generate more than 70% of Britain’s electricity, wind turbines emit no carbon into the atmosphere. They are clean and green and therefore virtuous, unlike those who attack them. They are viewed as such throughout the world, and especially by the EU, which has told member countries how much of the energy they use must come from renewable resources by 2020: for Britain the figure is 15%. In our sunless country that kind of energy means wind farms, and the British government has actively encouraged them by requiring that power companies buy a percentage of their electricity from renewable generators or face fines. So to oppose wind farms is to be both unpatriotic and a bad citizen of the world.
There is a downside to wind turbines, of course. They are enormous. If Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North is considered tall, the average wind turbine is twice its height. Wind farms loom over the countryside, visible for miles around. They kill bats by exploding their little lungs. They frighten horses with an effect known as “shadow flicker”. They make a noise that keeps people awake at night. But all these drawbacks pale into insignificance compared to the great benefits they are supposed to bring to mankind. Even the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) decided at one stage that the “industrialisation of the countryside” was acceptable “in order to avoid the damage to the environment caused by not generating renewable energy”. If even the CPRE, the chief defender of the English countryside, was in favour of these huge excrescences in the landscape, how could anybody reasonably object to them?
Wanting to look on the bright side of life, many people claim to find wind turbines beautiful; and it’s true that one turbine standing alone in a windswept setting can look very striking. But just as the Angel of the North is striking, one might get a bit fed up with it if it were replicated thousands of times all over the country. Be that as it may, the drawbacks of wind turbines are well known and should, we are told, be tolerated for the sake of the greater good. And it particularly behoves those of us who live near potential wind-farm sites to forsake nimbyism and set an example of self-sacrifice. But at this point I must reveal an interest and confess that self-sacrifice is not an option I plan to adopt.
I live in south Northamptonshire, where I am the custodian of two 17th-century pavilions, once linked by colonnades to a country house called Stoke Park that burned down in the 1880s. Built originally as a chapel and a library, they are attributed to the architect Inigo Jones and are among the very first buildings in England in the Palladian style. They were almost derelict when my late uncle Robin bought them more than 50 years ago and restored them with the help of a large government grant. Though I say it myself, they are rather beautiful and look out over tranquil parkland that was recently replanted and returned to pasture with the aid of another government grant. Bordering the parkland runs the little river Tove, beyond which, along the length of the valley between Stoke Park and the racecourse at Towcester about three miles away, it is proposed to erect 16 wind turbines, each nearly 100 feet taller than Big Ben, or two and a half times the height of Nelson’s Column. They would be a blight not only on the Stoke Park pavilions, which would be the nearest buildings to them, but on everyone and everything else for miles around.
The formal planning application has yet to be made. It is being preceded at present by an Environmental Impact Assessment in which interested bodies (but, strangely, not individuals) are asked to give their opinions about how the project would affect landscape, heritage, wildlife, traffic, leisure and so on. It seems pretty certain that English Heritage will advise against it, as I expect will the CPRE, which is becoming daily less keen on wind farms. In a paper entitled Windfarms: Time to Change Direction? which was published in July last year, the Northamptonshire branch of CPRE said the organisation should “re-evaluate” its support for them in the light of new evidence suggesting “that the generation of electricity from wind is not an effective way of reducing carbon emissions”.
There are lots of reasons for believing this, but the main one is probably the fact that there is as yet no economic way of storing electricity; and since turbines generate it only when the wind is blowing, and this isn’t necessarily when demand for electricity is high (as during last December, when the weather was freezing but there was very little wind), the old fossil fuel generators will have to be kept going to keep supply and demand in balance. There is also a question as to whether the carbon emitted in the manufacture of wind turbines exceeds the amount saved during many years of their operation. A recent article in the Sunday Times also highlighted the disastrous environmental pollution caused in northern China by the extraction of neodymium, a metal needed for the magnets on which wind turbines depend.
However persuasive the case in general against wind farms may be, the district councils that decide whether or not they may go ahead are not allowed to take this into account. They may not question the government’s policy, which is that wind farms are a good thing, even at the cost of ruining large stretches of unspoiled countryside. But at least I don’t need to feel guilty any more about objecting to having one on my doorstep.