Is it fair for the chancellor to cut pensions for the poor while offering a million pounds a year to the Duke of Roxburghe for letting the wind blow? Is it fair to offer half a million to the Earl of Moray, a third of a million to the Earl of Glasgow, and a quarter of a million to the Duke of Beaufort, Sir Alastair Gordon Cumming and Sir Reginald Sheffield, the prime minister’s father-in-law? Is it fair to promise a reported £1bn to Charles Connell over the next 25 years?
I am not particularly egalitarian. I support austerity in the public finances and accept that this may require a bit of smooth with the rough. But George Osborne is going beyond smooth.
British energy policy is chaotic. It is intellectually incoherent, lurching from fashion to fad with each lurch breeding a pile of taxpayer cash and a carnival of lobbyists out to protect it. Never in the history of public subsidy can so much have been paid by so many to so few.
The chancellor’s well-trailed announcement that money for onshore turbines will be cut in favour of offshore is welcome in part, but it makes no sense. While less intrusive on the eye, offshore turbines are even more expensive and inefficient than onshore ones. The bizarre plan to erect 240 down the middle of the Bristol Channel has already been abandoned as uneconomic, despite Osborne’s subsidy. The huge East Anglian field may cost billions. It all makes nuclear seem a bargain.
I have sympathy with the wind lobby in one respect. Its members are trying to turn an honest penny and must plan ahead. Just a couple of years ago they were told by wind’s most fanatical subsidiser, Chris Huhne, to plan for 10,000 onshore turbines. Contracts were promised. Public money was unlimited. Offshore wind alone would “generate 20,000 British jobs”. It was rubbish. The giant Sheringham field is so Norwegian that the country’s crown prince was invited to declare it open.
There are almost no British jobs. The German firm Siemens makes most British turbines and sensibly does not rely on British government policy for its investment. It builds on the continent. Its competitor Vestas has pulled the plug on a plant in Kent, and South Korea’s Doosan has done likewise in Glasgow. The energy required to mine the turbines’ rare minerals and build, import and erect them makes a mockery of their “greenness”.
The industry lobby, RenewableUK, on Thursday deplored what it suspected was a “political decision” to cut subsidy, and it was right. The switch reeked of Downing Street’s obsession with Ukip, which has shrewdly opposed wind turbines. But an industry that is effectively a state subcontractor must accept such whims. The golden goose would never last.
I have spent two years traipsing Britain in search of the finest views. It is hard to convey the devastating impact of the turbines to those who have not seen them, especially a political elite that never leaves the south-east except for abroad. Fields of these structures are now rising almost everywhere. They are sited irrespective of the wind, since subsidy is paid irrespective of supply, even if there is none. It makes EU agricultural policy a paragon of sanity.
Turbines are to surround Cornwall and stretch along the north Devon coast. They will form a wall off the Dorset shore. They will line Offa’s Dyke from Gwent to Shropshire, with a single giant on Clyro Hill looking down the Wye Valley like Rio’s Christ the Redeemer. The once desolate Cambrian Mountains are on the way to being an estate of 840 turbines filling views in every direction.
The shires of Northampton, Nottingham and Cambridge are already gathering turbines. Heckington Fen in Lincolnshire may have ones higher than Lincoln cathedral. They are to appear in the Forest of Bowland in Lancashire, in the Brontë country of Yorkshire and on Spurn point off the Humber.
The wildest coastline left in England, in Northumberland, is being flanked by 70 turbines. In Scotland the Roxburghe array of 400 turbines has turned the once lovely Lammermuir Hills into a power station. Inverness and Caithness are to lose their open vistas, as are the Shetlands and the islands off Argyll. Scottish aristocrats have not seen such a turn in fortune since the Highland clearances.
Britain’s landscape has never before been subject to such visual transformation. Human hands have always refashioned the country, urban and rural alike, but they have not industrialised its appearance on remotely this scale. Roads, railway lines, quarries, even towns and cities, are inconspicuous compared to wind turbines. Few of Britain’s greatest views will be free of the sight of them.
Mostly the gain is footling. Turbines seldom produce their declared capacity. The one that towers over the M4 at Reading generates just 16% of its capacity. What they really generate is money, up to £30,000 a year each in subsidy. The billions poured into wind would have been far better spent – as energy professor Dieter Helm, the consultants KPMG and others have long argued – in pursuing lower emissions through energy efficiency and cleaner carbon.
Yet the myth that wind is “free” has driven politicians mad. They have chased the length and breadth of the land showering quantities of public money on a tiny handful of the rich. Britain’s modern landscape is their memorial.
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