Sunday, 15 August 2010

Someone Else's Backyard

You can't deny that it's beautiful countryside. Nearly all countryside is beautiful, if that's where you happen to live. And you can't deny that it's unique. The UK includes four climate zones, and any number of geological zones, making for a huge number of possible combinations of the two, each resulting in a different landscape. All of which, in their own way, are unique.

So what of it? Well, a large overseas conglomerate wants to build wind turbines on it. And of course the locals are up in arms. Which, from where I look at the problem, is a terrible shame.

I look at the problem from the point of view of a physicist: we all use electricity, we're no longer "an island of coal...", our gas supplies are fading fast and we don't have any Uranium to call our own. But given that we have plenty of wind, and that we don't have to pay for it, worry about it getting used up, or risk it falling into the hands of terrorists, it seems only logical that we should use it. And if this means adding odd-looking new bits of infrastructure to a landscape already alive with ingenuity from times past (everything from an iron-age settlement, through a motorway, to a nuclear power station and a generous sprinkling of communications masts) then so be it.

This means that when I happen to see wind turbines, in whatever kind of setting, my first thoughts are...Good, someone's addressing our energy problem. Note the use of "our". If they're on wild hills, the wild space is still there, only with the addition of "our" now-visible wild wind blowing over it. The view beyond is still ours to see.

What's missing from my point of view is of course the question of whose wind turbines they are.

It's a sad fact of life that the usual way of doing things involves the large conglomerate paying large sums of money to the people who own the particular field on which they want to build, and nothing to anybody else. Which is immediately divisive. If the field's owners live miles away, and the nearest house happens to be lived in by someone unconnected with the deal, things start to get unfair. As far as I know, the bog-standard wind energy contract doesn't allow for near-neighbours to get a share of the loot. There isn't even a mechanism for the deal to endow the little town with cheap electricity, lower business rates or some kind of part-ownership of the new features in their landscape. However there is a mechanism for the government to pay the large conglomerate, to encourage it to do the right thing.

It gets worse.

Before applying for planning permission, the company had to show off its proposals in the town hall. They conveniently "forgot" to put up most of the photomontages they had prepared, and which now appear on the website of the obligatory protest group (which of course has some friendly-sounding accronym like "Save Our Fells Today"). The website is slick and professional-looking, and so it should be considering the help that Country Guardian can offer in these matters. Like every other piece of anti-wind-farm literature I've ever seen, it portrays the proposal as an "invasion", and the efforts to thwart it as a "battle".

The town council (until recently the parish council), like parish councils all over the country, are all, shall we say, of a certain age, and the conglomerate has the misfortune to be based in Germany. To top it all, while I was staying there a neighbour dropped by to ask, on behalf of his friend in the town council, if we'd like to fly a flag (many of the houses have poles for christmas trees) to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. The town council have to consider the wind farm plans and make a recommendation to the nearest city council. The latter happens to be in a different goes on. There was, in short, a general feeling of being "got-at" which was bringing out the worst in people.

In a completely separate incident, there was a water shortage in 1976 following a particularly dry summer. The water board put out publicity asking people to use water sparingly, and people obliged. In 1995 England (but not Scotland) was again short of water. The newly-privatised water companies, whose newly-very-rich bosses had been front page news, put out similar publicity, and people just ignored it and thought, what a cheek. The sensation of being ripped off by large conglomerates overpowered the natural drive to "do our bit".

And so I wonder, would all this have turned out differently if the electricity grid were still a public service, making the new arrivals, in some way, "ours"?

1 comment:

  1. In Denmark under a Feed-In Tariff scheme, 80% of the wind projects have been initiated and owned locally by local farmers or wind coops. In Germany it's 50%. In the UK maybe 2%.

    The Danes say 'your own pigs don't smell' and there is very little opposition to wind power projects.
    Dave Elliott editor Renew: