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 30, 2012
4 min read

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.