Opinion: Tories’ onshore wind farm opposition is based on a fallacy

Only three days into the job and Ed Davey’s first political challenge has arisen – a demand from the unreconstructed Tory back benches for a halt to onshore wind farm development. The Tories are taking aim at the subsidies onshore wind farm receive to enable them to compete with fossil fuel, claiming that they’re unaffordable in a time of austerity – and in this, I’m sorry to say, they’ve been joined by two of our Welsh MPs, Roger Williams and Mark Williams.

While one expects the Tories to be at their most equivocal on green issues, it’s a bit worrying when our side joins in – not the least when the newest wind turbine factory in the UK is actually in Wales, at Chepstowe. The environment to one side, I can’t imagine a political strategy of trying to prevent jobs is going to be successful. That being said, the strength of local opposition to onshore wind farms – particularly amongst the retired, who are more likely to vote – can make it difficult for traditional localists like ourselves to not join in. I can understand why Roger and Mark have found it expedient to sign up to the Tories’ letter.

However, they were wrong to do so, as the letter itself is simply incorrect. It demands that subsidies for onshore wind are transferred to other, cheaper, forms of renewable energy. It doesn’t specify which ones, for the very simple reason that they don’t exist. Onshore wind is the cheapest low-carbon energy source, less expensive than nuclear, and much less expensive than carbon capture and storage (CCS). Cutting subsidies for onshore wind means we’ll need to pay other technologies more to displace the same emissions, pushing up the cost of going green.

It will have other costs too. People make a big deal out of wind power being intermittent, without realising that’s kind of the point. It’s a free resource we can use when it’s available, and go back to non-renewable sources when it’s not. It allows us to minimise the emissions of our existing energy infrastructure, until it’s replaced or we finally get CCS working, whenever that might be. Even then, it will save fuel – fuel that’s only going to get more expensive.

And this is the fundamental point. Even if the subsidies are cut, all it will do is delay the expansion of wind power, which will always have the advantage of zero fuel costs. Bloomberg has predicted that it will become cost-competitive with gas power by 2016, meaning that all the Tory proposals will do is delay its expansion by at most ten years. However, that’s ten years of higher carbon emissions, and hence a greater risk of climate change. If we drop it now, we’ll only repeat the 80s – when the previous Tory Government failed to support the nascent British wind power industry, and all the jobs went to Denmark and Germany. If we want to build a green economy – and I would hope all our MPs support that – onshore wind must be part of it.

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24 Comments

  • I’m afraid to say I completely disagree with you. We’re all for supporting British jobs but if they come purely from tax money then we’re taking on new public employees at a time of austerity when we’re laying others off.

    I don’t personally believe wind is affordable; it only appears so if you use completely misleading figures about the amount of power it produces which is practically none. Nuclear is the cheapest renewable for the amount of power actually produced per pound.

  • Daniel Henry 6th Feb '12 - 4:05pm

    Tommy, didn’t all new forms of energy technology start off subsidised and then gradually became more competitive as the price went down?

    The subsidy is to get things started after which the industry will gradually become self-sufficient.

  • Keith Browning 6th Feb '12 - 4:13pm

    Has nobody in parliament heard about PEAK OIL.

    There used to be dozens of programs on the TV about the subject in the 1970s and 1980s but now Peak Oil is with us there is a total silence. 101 Tories speaking up for the oil companies when we need to be planning for flat growth and conservation. The graphs dont lie. Estimates are that the oil has already peaked. We need new technology – quickly !

    http://www.energybulletin.net/primer.php

  • Tony Greaves 6th Feb '12 - 4:16pm

    Wind turbines have their place but in my view the place for large-scale wind factories (“farms” is a silly word to use) is in the sea.

    The most efficient place to put wind factories on land is along the coasts, particularly those in the west, and on our great wild open spaces, moors and mountains. If we want to cover these wonderful areas with industrial wind factories (enormous power stations if you like) we will not be thanked by future generations.

    Either we treasure and protect our landscapes or we might as well just give up. (There is also the question that in many of the best upland areas, the disturbance of peat deposits seriously negates the carbon gains.)

    I am totally opposed to covering areas like the Pennines and mid-Wales with wind factories. I suspect that most Liberal Democrats who live in or visit such areas are equally opposed.

    Tony Greaves

  • Keith, “Peak Oil” is one of the reasons we need to reduce our carbon output. When people talk about lowering CO2 emissions. CO2 reduction is not just about climate change, but about the dwindling reserves of the resources that lead to CO2 emissions.

    However when people talk about CCS being a solution to CO2 emissions, rather than a stop-gap, it possibly shows that they don’t understand this.

  • emsworthian 6th Feb '12 - 4:32pm

    As an active environmentalist I support Tommy position. The anti wind energy argument is fanned( sorry) partly by unvarnished nimbyism, misconceptions about nuclear and elements of the Right that hate all things green.
    Wind is a virtual resource and the UK has more than most, Gas and oil are are very damaging and set to get more expensive through supply contraints. Nuclear wil not happen without massive public subsidies. Where does that leave us? Admiring the view, in the dark and freezing cold.

  • Having lived in Mid Wales, I can understand some of the opposition. Its time for the government to fund a tidal scheme to test the technology. More reliable than wind, and with lagoons, less impactful on the environment and continuous generation through the day and night. I personally like wind turbines but when it comes to national parks, the only areas where I would want turbines would be the areas where access is restricted to the military.

  • Let’s be clear about this – the call is for a halt to onshore wind farm development. Not for a halt in areas of outstanding natural beauty (where they are not permitted anyway and few people would want to put them). The reality is that onshore wind farms will remain a key part of the energy mix because they are currently the cheapest renewable form of energy. It would be great to see them used more frequently on ex-industrial sites where the planning issues should be simpler but those are precisely the places where advantageous tariffs are necessary to help make them economic.

  • Mark G – how many ex industrial sites do you think there are in Roger Williams’ constituency?

  • Terence Darby 6th Feb '12 - 10:28pm

    @Tommy and Stephen W:
    Figures for the costs of different types of generation technologies are based on ‘levellised costs per megawatt-hour’, or rather the amount every thousand units of electricity costs to produce from a given power source. This factors in intermittency. The figures I am using are from Mott Macdonald’s UK Generation Costs Update: http://www.decc.gov.uk/assets/decc/statistics/projections/71-uk-electricity-generation-costs-update-.pdf
    Gas: £80/MwH, Coal: £104.5/MwH, Nuclear: £99/MwH, Onshore wind: £94/MwH, Offshore wind: £154/MwH.

    @Tony Greaves:
    ‘Wind factories’ is even sillier as it implies that turbines make wind. Call them wind power plants if you like. Your comment about what our children will think is a bit bizarre; if our children don’t like them they can take them down without any impact on the landscape. It’s not like open-cast coal or nuclear.

    @Everyone talking about landscape:
    You’re absolutely right that there are some places that should be off limits for onshore wind development, national parks being the most prominent example. Clearly we shouldn’t build them everywhere, but assess each one on a case by case basis.

  • Tony Greaves 6th Feb '12 - 11:21pm

    I have not made myself clear. National Parks and Areas of Outstanding National Beauty (AONBs) are already fairly well protected against wind factories. But large areas of outstanding landscape are not – such as much of the Pennines and vast areas of mid-Wales – and many others. 60% of the English countryside is not protected against intrusive deverlopment and more in Wales. Most of Scotland is not.

    Will we learn the lessons of 19th century development which devastated vast areas of landscape, which we have had to spend large amounts of money restoring. It is not a matter of “liking” wind turbines or not liking them. I like all kinds of development but in its appropriate place. Covering large areas of fantastic landscape and many of our wildest places with industrial power stations is not appropriate. (And apart from aesthetic landscape issues it will also kill off a lot of actual and potential tourist economy and helping to degrade the local ecology. Ironically structures built in the sea often enhance the local ecology by acting as artificial reefs though there may be other drawbacks eg for navigation).

    Tony Greaves

  • Jonathan Price 6th Feb '12 - 11:29pm

    I can’t believe people are still talking about Peak Oil! Talk about myths. That is the greatest myth ever foisted on the energy debate. Of course fossil fuels will run out eventually, as there is a finite quantity in existence, but not in the lifetime of anyone alive today. Even in the last two years the fossil fuel horizon has receded further into the future with the vast increase in alternative sources of gas in North America, soon to be repeated here.
    The case for renewables has to stand on its own feet, as part of climate change control, and not with reference to any mythical problem with fossil fuel supply. Oil will last 100 years; gas 200 years and coal more than 500 years, and way before we get to any of those we will be able to make oil and gas from coal anyway.
    Onshore wind may be the cheapest renewable today, but intermittency is a big problem because of the need to keep conventional plant on spinning reserve. Ultimately solar is the best solution by far. Sunlight is after all pretty much pure energy.

  • An excellent article, followed by some less than excellent comments.

    I would particularly take issue with Tony Greaves’ attempts to protect the generations to come from unsightly wind factories.

    The 16-34 year olds of today (at least in Wales) are highly supportive of wind farm development as evidenced by this piece of research “Support for the doubling of wind turbines on land was greatest amongst 16 to 34
    year olds (90%) and men (78%). The lower socio-economic groups DE were less
    inclined to support the doubling of wind turbines (61%), however they were also
    more likely to provide no view (18% stated they did not know).” http://www.foe.co.uk/resource/reports/attitude_wind_energy_wales.pdf

    And factories?! Car factories do not capture the power of cars and turn them into energy. I am a wind factory. I suspect you are a wind factory Tony. I understand what you’re trying to do with your rebranding exercise, but it’s incredibly silly.

    Please don’t try to speak for future generations without asking them or researching their opinions first.

    The retired won’t suffer for the failure to source sustainable energy in the coming years. I will.

    Personally, every time I see a wind farm I puff up with pride and look forward to the future. The views of those with a much shorter future are not those we should be heeding on this issue.

  • jenny barnes 7th Feb '12 - 10:07am

    “mythical problem with fossil fuel supply. Oil will last 100 years; gas 200 years and coal more than 500 years,” It wasn’t that long ago that on every thread about energy people claimed there were 300 years of coal supply left in the UK. Peak coal in the UK was 1910 or so. Peak oil in the US was 1970. Those are not myths. Peak oil is just about now. Look at the prices; you could argue that the 2008 economic crisis was due to rising oil prices.
    World energy demand rises 2% per year. That’s a doubling time of 35 years. Peak Fossil fuel is likely around 2050. If you don’t understand exponential growth and what it means – do you remember the story of the king who agreed to pay the inventor of chess 1 grain of wheat on the first square, 2 on the second, 4 on the 3rd and so on?…. the total is around 400 times the total world production of wheat ever. Anyway – have a look at this video.

  • Terence Darby 7th Feb '12 - 10:58am

    @Tony Greaves:

    Tony, I’ve already said that wind turbines can be taken down. They are not like open-cast mining, chemical factories or any other of the landscape-defiling industries of the past. If our children don’t like them, they can get rid of them reasonably easily. In fact, most planning consents for wind turbines put the responsibility for removing the turbines and landscaping the site onto the developer once the period of the consent is up.

    I also have to ask: do you live near any proposed developments?

  • Alistair – I assume none but that really isn’t the point. As I mentioned above, the request being made is to stop onshore wind. That’s stopping onshore wind – full stop. Not about stopping onshore wind farm in Roger Williams’ constituency or particular siting issues (where people will no doubt have varying views about what needs protecting).

  • Keep on saying it, Terence – WIND TURBINES CAN BE TAKEN DOWN!
    We must all look to a future in which new sustainable and effective ways to produce energy are discovered – nuclear fusion being the most obvious one. On-shore wind farms may not survive even oldies like me but they do make a very worthwhile contribution in the meantime.
    Let’s not forget how imminent climate change disaster now is.

  • I actually really like the look of wind turbines. When I can I like to get out and hike and have walked in areas in Yorkshire with wind farms and I think they did not detract from the natural beauty at all.

  • I am generally supportive on onshore wind power, but if you live somewhere as I have (Mid Wales) where there are already a considerable number of wind turbines and continuing applications for new wind turbines you do start to understand why people in those areas have particular concerns. I think you need to live in one of those areas, not just visit it, to really appreciate the strength of the feeling. Whilst many Lib Dems may not agree with them, Roger Williams and Mark Williams are supporting a very strongly held view in their constituencies.

  • Terence Darby,

    “I can understand why Roger and Mark have found it expedient to sign up to the Tories’ letter.”

    What an outrageous slur on the integrity of two Liberal Democrat MPs! Might it not be the case that they consider onshore wind farms hideously ugly and inappropriate in the hills and mountains of Mid Wales?

    Tony Greaves is absolutely right. Our countryside is non-renewable. Once you destroy it, you don’t get it back.

    One of the nastiest tendencies on the left is to regard the wish to protect the countryside and historic environment as a bourgeois eccentricity of no interest to the working-class. Hence the bandying about of the term, “nimby”, and the left back in 1973 denouncing the residents of Cublington, Dunton, Stewkley, Wing and Whitchurch as “middle-class” outsiders and not “genuine country people”, and therefore jolly well deserving a hideous great airport where once were homes, fields and historic churches.

    Onshore wind farms are both ugly and unnecessary. I have seen the ones in Mid Wales and I don’t like them. We have stopped desecrating hillsides with conifers, so why replace them with wind turbines? And look at Romney Marsh. The view from Rye Castle to Dungeness is ruined by wind turbines, each producing a minimal amount of electricity on those occasions when the wind happens to be blowing. And for those who think Romney Marsh is “middle-class” and therefore undeserving of sympathy, it is actually one of the most deprived parts of the South East, on a par with Margate and the Isle of Sheppey. Do those turbines provide jobs for people in Lydd and New Romney? Pull the other one! Dungeness Nuclear Power Station, which is the size of a warehouse and emits no smoke, is surely the better solution?

    I have no objection to offshore wind farms. Go to Birchington or Reculver in Kent, or Waxham or Caistor on the Norfolk coast, and you will see forests of them so far out they don’t affront the eye. Stick them all on the Dogger Bank, if we must have the things.

    Emsworthian,

    Would you like one on top of Butser Hill?

  • Renewable energy must be invested in and must be part of the mix , fossil fuels are pollutting and are getting scarce (fracking will not bring down energy bills) . All forms of energy are subsidised even nuclear but wind and solar (if the Nimby’s don’t stop investment) will become more and more cost effective in comparison to the upward trends of oil and gas .(The world population is growing) Even nuclear power will become more expensive as we have to come to terms with the waste problem. Climate change will become a main issue on the level of the NHS,DEFENCE,etc.To deny climate change is to play Russian roulette with our childrens future,it simply is not worth the risk or gamble.

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