From outer space, Lundy Island isn’t much to look at. Zoom in on Google Earth and eventually you’ll spot a lonely speck of granite in the Bristol Channel, just three miles long and half a mile wide. It’s wild, windswept and utterly remote – the sort of place where if you run out of loo paper, you’ll need to wait for the next helicopter to drop supplies.
So when a German energy giant submitted plans to build a huge offshore wind farm eight miles to the north of the island in the summer, they probably didn’t count on much protest. The words “Population: 28” must be music to a developer’s ears.
Yesterday, however, plans for the £4 billion wind farm were suddenly shelved. RWE Innogy released a statement blaming “technological challenges and market conditions”. Others point the finger of blame at ministers because of their hardening stance towards green subsidies.
Those who love this nationally important island or the coast around it don’t care what caused the U-turn. We’re just whooping for joy that the Atlantic Array wind farm has been cancelled. Why? Because the scale of the project – like all offshore wind farms around Britain – was out of this world.
According to the planning application, it was to comprise 240 wind turbines with a maximum height of 220 metres (twice the height of Lundy) and “up to four offshore substations”. The project area was going to be 92 square miles – and, because of its proximity to Bristol airport, every single turbine was going to be topped with a red light that would have flashed day and night.
Atlantic Array, said campaigners, would have dwarfed the island, dominated its awe-inspiring seascape and ruined its unique sense of remoteness. They were spot on.
My interest in all this is a strange one. In 1836, Lundy was bought by a distant ancestor of mine, William Hudson Heaven, “as a summer retreat for his family and for the shooting”. The Heaven family owned the island – soon nicknamed “the Kingdom of Heaven” – until 1917 (and a sadly inevitable bankruptcy).
The Heavens – many of them Anglican clergymen – tamed the southern end of the island, building a church and making it habitable for about 100 people. Their descendants visit regularly: we can see why they fell in love with the place.
But we’re not the only ones who thought this wind farm project spelled disaster for the area. For the last 50 years, the Landmark Trust and National Trust have done brilliant work to protect Lundy’s beauty and its environment. In particular, they’ve preserved its timeless nature: there are no roads and (after midnight) no electricity on the island, meaning almost zero light pollution at night. Atlantic Array would have spoilt that, for sure.
Groups of diehard anti-Array campaigners in north Devon focused on the marine life around the island – particularly a rare animal called the harbour porpoise that has colonies in the Bristol Channel. “We are not going to let this company just come in and lay waste to the coastline,” said one.
Another energetic group, Slay the Array, expressed concerns over the safety of shipping, which sailors have echoed. “Should a tanker… break down it will be unable to anchor and will pass through the deep wind farm site within just a few hours,” said its campaign site.
Of course, it would be easy to dismiss all this activity as an extreme form of Nimbyism – one that involves not back yards, but the sea and its endless horizons. But Britain is now the world’s No 1 offshore wind generator, a position we’ve gained with no real public debate. By comparison, think of the vigorous arguments surrounding fracking and onshore wind farms, or even the new nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point.
Of the top 10 wind farms in the world by output, six are in Britain. The largest – London Array in the Thames Estuary – was opened in July by David Cameron. It is made up of 175 wind turbines which, claim the developers, could supply half a million homes with electricity every year.
Disciples of renewable energy approve heartily. We’re an island nation with plenty of coastline, they say – so let’s stick it in the sea and forget about it. It’s like the Victorian attitude to sewage. We could regret this in decades to come.
Ominously, RWE now says “expected innovation” may reduce costs in the future and allow them to revisit the “more challenging” sites in Britain, such as the Bristol Channel. So they gave up because of the money, not the Nimbies.
Fine. But they should know that as futile as our protest may seem to them, we’re not going to give up the most precious parts of Britain’s coastline without a fight.
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