Are the turbines outside your window yet? Well it won’t be long now.
It’s a full-on invasion.
When did wind become big business? Is it the only option?
The machines are coming. From every direction they rise up, column after column, cutting a harsh industrial line through a once-untouched landscape. Their blades move at express-train speed, a rhythmic swoosh every other second. It is the unmistakable sound of technological order imposed on nature’s chaos. We must get used to this. It is the future. A green, renewable one, supposedly. A light-footed tiptoe away from the choking, polluting power stations of the last century.
Nobody can deny the attraction of energy taken from wind rather than oil or coal. But gazing out across Whitelee, Europe’s largest onshore wind farm, I can’t help thinking this is less a tiptoe and more a full-scale blitzkrieg. You are encouraged to wander among the 140 metal triffids, to stand underneath and gaze up in dizzying awe. Quite sensibly, there is no mention of the 14-tonne, 150ft blade that snapped off one windy night last March. Nobody died.
Whitelee already occupies a great blanket of moorland around the southwestern perimeters of Glasgow – but it’s not stopping there. In 2009, the Scottish government, on a mission to become Europe’s renewable powerhouse, gave the go-ahead for another 75 turbines. Whitelee isn’t operated by a planet-hugging NGO either. In charge is ScottishPower, the energy giant that last month hiked prices for hundreds of thousands of its 5m customers by as much as 45%. Going green is big business. And it’s going to get a lot bigger.
As of this month, there are 3,344 turbines operating in the UK, with a capacity to generate 5.5 gigawatts (GW) of energy. For most of us, this means we see them only occasionally. They are still the exception rather than the rule, but this will change. Another 1,161 are under construction and 1,966 have planning permission. A further 3,252 are awaiting approval. Even at that pace, it’s not enough. In 2009, the last government signed the EU Renewable Energy Directive, committing us to a 15% target for renewable energy by 2020. To achieve this legally binding agreement requires us to increase the proportion of renewable electricity production from 7.4% to 30%. By some estimates, our paltry 5.5GW of wind energy must grow sixfold to keep Brussels happy. Expect more wind farms near you. Expect more super-turbines like the 436-footer being built in a “not very windy” valley in Leicestershire. It will be as tall as the London Eye. Others will be taller still.
I am a cycling, recycling, occasionally lapsed greenie. I hate our love of Range Rovers, I feel sorry for the polar bears, and I’m not remotely convinced by anyone who tells me there’s loads more gas left in the North Sea. But is this turbine race the answer? Or is the well-meaning EU directive doing more damage than good? Like Whitelee, the majority of projects are owned and operated by the old guard, the fossil-fuel fossils. Our bright green future has been hijacked by the Npowers, EDFs, E.Ons, Enecos and Centricas, with their smiling salesmen, confusing tariffs, spiralling prices and eye-watering profits. I understand you don’t want incense-burning hippies running these great big complicated machines. That would breach health and safety. But do you really want the gas and oil giants doing it either?
“Menacing,” says the cleaner at the Haylie Hotel in Largs, Ayrshire. “I don’t mind the occasional one, but when they’re in packs, I don’t like them at all.” She glances out of the window nervously, an HG Wells character in the midst of an alien invasion. I’ve left the epic Whitelee to visit a much smaller wind farm under construction.
On the hills above Largs, 14 turbines are bound for Lord Glasgow’s Kelburn estate. A lot of lords and ladies are involved in wind these days. It’s a good way to pay for the leaking roof in one’s stately pile. So the Dukes of Roxburghe and Beaufort are cashing in. Sir Reginald Sheffield, the prime minister’s father-in-law, has eight turbines, estimated to yield £3.5m a year, on his 3,000-acre Lincolnshire estate.
Now the Earl of Glasgow – who had to hold a boot sale to raise restoration funds after a fire at his castle in 2007 – is joining the band of wind-powered nobs.
Kelburn will be the third farm in the area. It is being built by RES, a multinational company that has invested millions in the renewables rush. The people from RES are keen to stress the low impact of a small wind farm. They talk of harmony with nature, of mountain-bike trails and educational tours for schoolchildren. They are impassioned about their cause. But standing here in a hard hat and high-vis jacket, watching the heavy machinery in action, I’m struggling to accept the low-impact argument. Even before the turbines appear in this stunning landscape, there is a heavy access road snaking up to a control station.
Each turbine requires 60 lorries of concrete and 28 tonnes of steel for its foundation. What was once wild heathland is now a landscape imposed upon by humans. Far less horrific than a coal-fired power station, far less alarming than a nuclear one, it is about as unintrusive as an industrial project could be – but it is still unquestionably industrial. I don’t know if I should celebrate its renewability or lament its muscling in on nature.
Matt Ridley, the author of The Rational Optimist, is less equivocal. “I genuinely don’t understand why wind turbines are considered green,” he says. “They intrude into natural landscapes, chop up rare birds, including white-tailed eagles in Norway and golden eagles in California, and require huge amounts of concrete and steel – all for a small and intermittent trickle of power. What’s more, they depend on magnets made of neodymium alloys which have to be imported from Inner Mongolia and are mined in an especially dirty process involving boiling in acid that produces toxic and slightly radioactive waste. So they are more dependent on foreign suppliers than the oil industry.”
Acid lakes and chopped-up eagles do not sound good, but at least RES is burying the cables that will connect Kelburn wind farm to the National Grid. Elsewhere, the energy is carried along overhead lines, “clean” energy conveyed by dirty great pylons because it’s cheaper. This is the most indefensible aspect of wind farms.
Across mid-Wales, desperate farmers are fighting plans to build a massive 400-kilovolt (kV) transmission line through their fields to connect the “turbine ghettos” of the north to the grid. Last month, Carwyn Jones, first minister of Wales, sided with the farmers, declaring that his government “would not support the construction of large pylons in mid-Wales”. Westminster, which has that EU directive to worry about, may yet overrule the revolting Welsh.
In Suffolk, miles and miles of protected countryside are at risk because the grid wants to plug in an offshore wind farm but is unwilling to pay extra to bury the cables. “We’ve been fighting them since September 2009,” says Chris Leney, a chartered surveyor and founding member of the vociferous campaign Bury Not Blight. “It is a struggle, but we’re making progress.”
The grid, which has just celebrated a 15% rise in profits to £3,600m for 2010/11, claims it will cost 12 to 17 times more to bury the cables than to run them through pylons. Campaigners say it is more like three times as much, which is worth it to conserve the landscape and quality of life. “At least 200 kilometres of pylons are planned across Britain over the next decade,” warns Leney. “It will affect tens of thousands of people. For an average of £5.90 per household per year, all of it could go underground.” That’s a small price to pay to ensure against the horror of a pylon outside your front door. Given the grid’s epic profits, it wouldn’t be much for it to absorb either.
This is not unfounded nimbyism. Studies have shown that pylons can wipe up to 40% off the value of a property. Nobody gets any compensation, as they might if a road or railway line came past. And though no definitive link has ever been made between pylons and childhood leukaemia, Leney points out that in Germany any cables within 200 yards of a home are buried. “The government is encouraging all these wind farms, but it has no interest in how you get the power to the end user,” says Leney. “It’s being done as cheaply as possible by profiteering companies – and it’s ruining people’s lives.”;
The same battles are being fought in Cumbria, Kent, the Lake District, Snowdonia and a 50-mile corridor of as-yet-unspoilt rural Lincolnshire.
The anti-wind lobby says turbines are great white elephants: they fall still for up to three months a year, they ruin our countryside and add hundreds of pounds to our electricity bills through disproportionate stealth subsidy.
As you would expect, the pro-wind lobby vehemently disagrees. It points out that a typical turbine can supply electricity for more than 1,000 homes (Whitelee’s 140 supply enough power for up to 180,000 families). It points out that any development has to face intense planning scrutiny, and that the cost of subsidy is far lower than people imagine, particularly compared with the subsidies for nuclear and North Sea gas.
Anti-wind says it costs much more than nuclear or gas. Pro-wind says only for now. The price of gas has doubled in the past 10 years. It is projected to do so again. Renewing and maintaining our nuclear industry isn’t exactly cheap. And as the scale of wind-energy production increases, the costs will come down. One day, wind will seem like a bargain. Relatively speaking.
“I’m ducking the whole issue – to turbine or not to turbine.
Instead, I’ll worry about how energy-efficient my own life is.”;
In April, it was reported, six wind farms in Scotland were paid £900,000 to switch off for one night – because it was too windy. Too much wind equals too much power equals the equivalent of Scotty from Star Trek in the National Grid control room shouting, “She’s gonna blow, Cap’n.” But Scotty didn’t have to pay £900,000 to his electricity provider to have less power, did he?
RenewableUK, “the voice of wind and marine energy”, claims the figures have been taken out of context and that this is small potatoes compared with the overall costs of balancing Britain’s energy supply with demand. But they are very expensive small potatoes.
ScottishPower charged £308,000 to not produce electricity at Whitelee at a rate of £180 per megawatt (MW) per hour.
Npower charged £265,000 to not produce electricity at Farr wind farm near Inverness at an astonishing £800 per MW per hour. It’s up there with the alfalfa farmer in Catch-22 being paid for all the alfalfa he didn’t grow. It smacks of opportunism.
How much is all this costing us, the bill-footers at the end of the whole process? Nigel Lawson, former Tory chancellor and chairman of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, claimed last month that an average £200 a year is being added to our electricity bills to subsidise “green” energy. It made a splash in the Daily Mail. But the Department of Energy and Climate Change says he got his maths wrong. It says the figure is closer to £80 for all environmental levies, of which only £16 relates directly to renewables obligations – and only half of that goes to wind. The wind lobby says the figure is set to fall over the next decade as the industry grows and becomes cheaper to operate, but I’ll bet you my £16 it doesn’t.
Matt Ridley remains adamant it’s all nonsense: “As Robert Bryce has shown in his book Power Hungry, they haven’t saved an ounce of carbon emissions even in Denmark, because of the need to keep fossil-fuel generators spinning in reserve for when the wind does not blow. Coming from a long line of coal-mining entrepreneurs, maybe I start out biased, but I really cannot see what’s greener about wind or why it deserves such a huge subsidy.”;
There is a problem, however. As Gordon MacDougall, chief operating officer at RES, says to me on top of that Kelburn hill when I start whinging about the bulldozers and the trucks and his great big windmills, “What’s the alternative? We can’t just go on using fossil fuels. We are already a long way behind other countries investing in our future energy needs. If we don’t deal with this now, when will we deal with it?”;
The more wind farms we build, the more consistent and reliable wind energy becomes. The more turbines we put up, the cheaper they become to subsidise. And MacDougall has a point. What is the alternative? Would you rather have a turbine or a dose of shale-gas fracking? Do you want the energy giants to make a killing from wind or do you want the energy giants to make a killing from oil and coal? Do you want renewable energy or, as some greens now accept, do you want more nuclear?
The debate will rage on as the green machines march across our green and pleasant land. But I’ve grown tired of all the paradoxes, the lesser evils and the greater goods. I’ve decided to take the third option, the green equivalent of the fifth amendment. I’m ducking the whole issue.
While you work out whether to turbine or not to turbine, I’m going to worry about how energy-efficient my own life is.
If I lead a green life, at least I can feel good about myself. This, I’m told by a better-read greenie than me, is the Candide cop-out. Like Voltaire’s protagonist, I started out wanting the best of all possible worlds. Now I’m just going to give up and cultivate my garden. But guess what? It isn’t a cop-out at all. It might just be the solution.
According to Julian Allwood, who published a landmark study earlier this year, changing the way we use energy could be far more effective than changing the way we produce it. Dr Allwood and his team at Cambridge looked at what would happen if we applied best practice in energy efficiency to our buildings, vehicles and industry. The results are staggering.
“As far as we trust our numbers,” he explains, “we can save 75% of the energy we currently use across the globe by being more efficient.
This requires a big effort: for instance, retro-fitting all UK buildings is a huge undertaking, and reducing the mass of our cars to about 350kg each requires a different approach to safety, but it’s physically achievable with known solutions. It’s also much more achievable than trying to find a ‘carbon-free’ source of energy that can replace 75% of current supply.”;
For the past two months, I’ve been attempting to apply best practice. With the help of an array of energy experts, I’ve cut out some of my crazy, wasteful, polar-bear-killing habits.
I’ve altered the way we use electricity (success), I’ve tried to find solutions for our home’s wilful heat loss (early-stage success) and I’ve test-driven a zero-carbon car (not a success).
With a few minor tweaks, I’ve cut our energy usage by almost 20%. The long-term plan, with more serious investment in the insulation of our home, is to cut my bills by half.
Imagine if everyone became as penny-pinchingly committed as I have. With a little more self-interest, we could really make a difference. How many eagle-chopping wind turbines would not need to be built if we cut our energy use by 20%?
How many nuclear power stations would we not have to fund if we got to 50%? I have no idea. What I do know is that I am now paying EDF a little less for my electricity each month. And that is a victory in itself.
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