Why are wind farms sparking protest?

Continuing controversy over wind farms in Wales illustrates the need for a redistribution of power and wealth in the energy sector, writes Kelvin Mason
June 2012

The transition to sustainability is not going smoothly. Making the change to sustainable sources of energy, for instance, is not just about technology. It is not simply a matter of choosing renewable sources, such as solar and wind, that do not emit carbon dioxide.

Blatantly sidelining solar power and neglecting energy conservation, the UK government has opted for a future mix of wind, nuclear and fossil fuels. The last means relying on carbon capture and storage (CCS), the viability of which is dubious. The prospect of plentiful supplies of shale gas is sorely tempting, however, and in April the government funded a £1 billion-plus competition to come up with a working CCS model. Meanwhile, nuclear power divides environmentalists, with some prominent voices – including George Monbiot and, less credibly, Mark Lynas – advocating its low carbon credentials while downplaying the legacy of nuclear waste. This division illustrates how mitigating climate change is now widely viewed as synonymous with sustainability.

But at least we can agree on wind, you might whisper? Not a bit of it.

Not only does harnessing wind power to generate electricity not emit carbon dioxide, its legacy of mainly metals and concrete can be readily reused, recycled or safely disposed of. Why then are wind farms bitterly dividing communities throughout Britain? In Wales in March 2012, Powys County Council refused permission to develop three wind farms. Its rejection of the modest 11-turbine, 16.5-megawatt Waun Garno wind farm in Montgomeryshire was typical, citing concerns about landscape and visual impacts, biodiversity, cultural heritage, public rights of way, noise and access. This decision followed an organised local protest campaign that elicited the vociferous support of Tory MP Glyn Davies.

While there must surely be continued rational debate about ‘facts and figures’, protesters’ technical and financial objections seem insubstantial and a distraction. Wind power is a sound technology that can continue to improve. Moreover, developing successful technologies often requires subsidies, as Denmark and Germany have demonstrated with wind. In Britain oil, gas and nuclear have all benefited from huge public subsidies.

The political concerns protesters are voicing, on the other hand, are valid and call into urgent question the relationship between sustainability, politics and capitalism. Skewed terms of reference driving renewable energy planning in Wales, along with inadequate public consultation in its formulation, delivered Technical Advice Note 8, which does not take sufficient account of the related issues of landscape, visual impact and cultural heritage. Typically, large wind farm developers and landowners try to buy off local communities with financial ‘sweeteners’ that represent a tiny fraction of expected profits. Most developers are foreign-owned utility companies – for example, Scottish Power (Spanish), E.ON and npower (both German). The landowners, who benefit hugely, receiving £40,000 per annum for each 3 MW turbine, reflect national patterns of land ownership: a preponderance of the aristocracy in Scotland and England, the Forestry Commission in Wales.

Community wind farms in Wales are a rarity because communal ownership is less culturally familiar than in, say, Denmark, while getting organised and obtaining finance are daunting tasks. Bro Dyfi Community Renewables, an industrial and provident society with over 200 shareholders set up in 2001, is an exception. Though Bro Dyfi owns only two turbines with a combined rating of 575 kW, the Machynlleth project yields valuable lessons.

So, if a shift to wind power is part of a transition to sustainability, where is the distributive justice that is integral to the concept of sustainable development constitutionally enshrined in the Government of Wales Act? With beautiful landscapes and a valuable wind resource, the people of Wales should be twice blessed. Yet, as local protesters have duly noted, the benefits from wind look set to be sucked out of Wales to line the pockets of the global ruling class, just as happened with other resources, notably slate, coal and water.

By contrast, the downsides of wind farms are felt locally. Landscapes are changed without due consideration of aesthetics and cultural heritage. And if tourists feel these landscapes are degraded, they may go elsewhere to spend their money. Meanwhile, jobs manufacturing wind turbines and associated equipment are located elsewhere.

Imagine how different it could be with communal ownership, public support and celebration of the beauty of wind farms in the right places. Instead, the transition to sustainable energy is serving to entrench privilege and magnify inequality.

Pam 1 July 2012, 18.16

Thank you for a very timely article. Unfortunately the article fails to mention, specifically, the problem of pylons. I have been a long term supporter of wind turbines. However, until recently, I had not given any thought to the pylons which carry the generated electricity to, in general, population centres, where it will be used. I’m sure I’m not alone in seeing beauty in the turbines themselves, while being offended by the pylons. Sadly, the people who have to live with the pylons are not those who stand to benefit in any significant benefit. The Bro Dyfi project near Machynlleth, seems to represent the most acceptable use of wind power generation for local communities, but, as the article points out, the turbines are relatively small and there are only two of them (which doesn’t constitute a wind farm), with an associated a smaller demand for pylons. However, this “solution” fails to address the supply of electricity to homes and businesses in towns and far away. Without access to the windy hilltops of rural areas, how will they be supplied?

Andy 2 July 2012, 07.46

There is also the issue of construction traffic for 600 wind turbines in an area with singular highways of victorian size and standard. The routes are required for residents, tourists and travellers and there are very few sensible alternative routes. This is an area where it takes hours to travel relatively short distances due to the landscape, roads must follow valley bottoms or snake up the side of mountains, there are no motor ways and a dual carriageway is a rare sight.

Build a new highway and things might work. Try to make do with existing routes and it will end in tears. The scale of the proposed undertakings speak for themselves in the context of the regions fragile infrastructure.

JW 17 July 2012, 08.54

You do not mention what is often the greatest impact on individuals living near wind turbines – noise pollution – which is constantly downplayed or ignored by the wind industry. The ETSU-R-97 standard used to address potential noise impacts is seriously flawed (see the following report on the subject : https://46640c50-a-62cb3a1a-s-sites.googlegroups.com/site/windvigilancecom/Wind_turbine_noise_sleep_health_November_2010.pdf?attachauth=ANoY7cq0bOR3QajDIFojP8bwhtTA3Re1SHvSp6lnARWenegT_Jkl8qAFY9QJiWM8HkaWg5uBMD6XfiOahrK2j62STIkEesQpCLzpT7mK5R0jCWWn77kpWU5vnYiO4eaVmGgDHuQOsxON8bkBW6eamISUSwsT4SseLKxTiDZlwWvONeDO9lXUz_0xbiXmDWXKzHoSzLiPI-qYCXIiYPYODGArxF0HE1kqDxXYIwCq25wFu9mPIOzilpl04A1PDLliaydT16jtc4PnVuCpxa7tzE_oqmqvbaCjNg%3D%3D&attredirects=3). There are widespread reports around the world from those affected by low frequency “infrasound” noise pollution generated by wind farms even though they live several kilometres away. Those living closer suffer more conventional noise disturbance from the machinery within the turbine. A recent out of court settlement by a Lincolnshire couple, Julian and Jane Davis for an undisclosed sum has been widely reported but underlines the inadequacy of the current planning regime. In fact the couple are now having to fight another proposed wind farm near the new home they moved to having had to abandon their original home to escape the noise (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lincolnshire-18863376).

JW 18 July 2012, 16.34

A working link to the above referenced document … http://windvigilance.com/A_Primer_on_Adverse_Health_Effects.pdf

Comments are now closed on this article.

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