Wind turbines could soon outnumber church spires in the Westcountry as planning permissions hit record levels.
Countryside campaigners say the steel structures are threatening to replace ancient stone towers as the region’s iconic landmark.
The number of schemes could be set for a six-fold increase over the next few years, analysis by the Western Morning News has found.
The scale of the plans has horrified campaigners, who massed in Truro on Saturday in a bid to halt the march of renewable energy, which they say ruins views and produces far less power than is claimed.
The green energy industry trade body says the prediction may be exaggerated but calculates that if all consented schemes were built, Cornwall could see 26% of its energy produced by renewables.
Regen South West argues there is room for “considerably more” wind and solar schemes but admits a new model allowing affected communities to buy cheaper energy direct is long overdue.
According to the latest figures from the Government, planning permission has more than doubled over the last two years, prompting fears that hand-outs for energy firms are too high. In Cornwall the number of turbines could increase from 100 to more than 600 over the life of this parliament.
Almost 200 are either approved and un-built or waiting for consent, with a further 200 subject to screening operations.
Councils across Devon are also seeing dozens of schemes landing on planners’ desks every month.
Danny Mageean, of Cornwall Protect, said the “whole fabric” of the rural area was about to change.
“Cornwall is accepted nationally and internationally as being important and we want it to develop not become a museum piece,” he added.
“But turbines will soon replace the church tower as the iconic structure in the landscape, with medieval fields covered in blue solar panels, and that would be a sacrilege which would leave us all poorer.
“If that’s what people want then fine – but people who think they are helping the environment are actually doing it a huge disservice.”
Latest figures from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) showed that in the first eight-months of this year, new onshore wind farms were given planning permission, a 49 per cent increase on the same period in 2012.
It is also more than double the rate of planning permissions granted for the same period in 2011, when 83 turbine projects were approved.
By the end of August, 597 applications had been received by councils across the UK, DECC results show.
This was compared to 470 for the same January-August period last year, and just 203 in 2011.
The total number of applications for planning permission for new onshore wind farms during the year more than doubled between 2011 and 2012, from 365 to 820.
In Cornwall, there are currently around 137 wind turbines, approved and un-built, and 72 in planning.
Cornwall Protect says its figures show the number has risen from 100 in 2010 to 250 this year. It calculates that adding those in the pipeline and the majority of the 200 schemes in screening could push the figure past 600 within the next two years.
English Heritage figures show 339 listed churches in Cornwall and 608 in Devon.
A spokesman for the conservation group said they are “cherished landmarks providing a sense of belonging and sense of place”.
“National planning policy seeks to protect the setting of historic places such as the churches of Devon and Cornwall so that they continue to have a powerful presence,” the spokesman added.
“English Heritage’s role is to make sure that in the consideration of the public benefits of renewable energy that the historic environment is given proper consideration, not just the fabric of historic buildings but also their settings and their views.”
Changes made to planning guidance this summer by Secretary of State Eric Pickles’ Communities department are designed to give communities more say in refusing unsuitable projects.
Merlin Hyman, chief executive of Regen SW, predicts a drop in incentives of around 20% next April will curb the rise in single turbines (up to 500kW)
He said there was no longer “a serious debate” about whether wind power was effective, pointing to its much greater use in other countries.
“The amount of UK wind power is a long way behind most other developed countries and the argument about whether it works is ‘peculiar’ to England,” he added.
“We do need to see a mix – solar, biomass, heat pumps, thermal panels and geothermal – and we should see this as an enormous opportunity to make ourselves more secure in terms of energy.
“The total energy bill for Cornwall is £1billion and tourism brings in £800million, so most of that spend goes out of the county.
“It is easy to think that everyone is against wind turbines but it is just not the case – the majority of people are very much in favour.
“We need more local opportunities for people to buy into schemes in the right places – if they are in the wrong place the planning process should weed them out.”
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