John Humphrys - Windmills: Blessing or Curse?

September 08, 2023, 12:24 PM GMT+0

It’s not so very long that the world was divided on the subject of global warming. Not any longer. The days when the BBC felt it had to balance debates on the subject between believers and sceptics have gone. The world is getting hotter. Dangerously so. That is accepted by every reputable climate scientist, every government on the planet and – according to polling in this country – by the vast majority of ordinary citizens. But divisions remain.

Now the debate centres on what we should do to cut the amount of carbon in the atmosphere before it’s too late to save the planet. And this is proving to be an increasingly divisive political issue in our own country. Not least over the seemingly benign issue of windmills.

The nation – or at least large parts of it – is divided between those who see windmills as the ideal way of generating electricity without emitting carbon. The energy comes from the wind and the turbines convert it into electricity. Until eight years ago they were popping up all over England’s green and pleasant land and mostly met with approval. But not entirely. It rather depended on how close you happened to live to them. From a distance they might have been inoffensive. Indeed some of us might have found them rather attractive. But maybe that’s because we couldn’t hear the noise made by their increasingly large blades. Compared with the idyllic image of an old windmill, whirring quietly away in some rural backwater, these were seen by many as monstrous intrusions into their hitherto tranquil lives.

Until a few years ago these windy islands were regarded as the perfect location for windmills. It’s true – as the sceptics endlessly pointed out – that the wind doesn’t blow all the time but when it did the electricity was generated. The government did everything it could to encourage them. Subsidies were handed out and for a time it seemed that every hilltop and village would boast its own windmill. Or more than one.

But local opposition continued to grow. Tory MPs in rural areas began to pile on the pressure and, in 2015, David Cameron’s government brought in measures that effectively banned them. Instead, generous subsidies were handed out to companies that would build windfarms offshore. And that’s what has been happening since.

The drawbacks are obvious. It costs vastly more in time, equipment and effort to build a platform to house the turbines in the ocean than it does on land. And even more to bring the electricity on shore. And then transport it to where it is most needed.

Onshore turbines face few of those drawbacks. Which is why the prime minister Rishi Sunak had been coming under so much pressure to ease Cameron’s ban. That pressure bore fruit in the House of Commons this week. Sunak faced the possibility of a revolt by some of his own MPs led by Sir Alok Sharma, the former president of the Cop26 climate summit and one of the leading Tory “greens”, and he backed down. He made an important concession that will almost certainly allow more onshore wind projects.

Under the Cameron “ban” all it took for an onshore turbine proposal to be blocked was for a single protester in the area affected to raise an objection. That will no longer apply. In future onshore wind will be treated in the same way as any other renewable energy source. Councils will still be required to ensure that they have broad local consent for a wind farm, but the bar to blocking one has been raised. Indeed, the proposals may go further. Local people may be offered an incentive to welcome – or at least tolerate – the turbines in the form of a share in the profits that they generate. One way of doing it might be lower electricity bills.

Unsurprisingly the reaction from the climate sceptics was swift and angry. Rupert Darwall, who has written several books on climate change, made his case against wind turbines in the Daily Mail this week. He claims that wind-powered electricity turbines are inefficient and horrendously expensive. He accused Sunak of caving in to his party’s mutinous MPs and, by so doing, “ has done enormous damage both to the countryside and to Britain’s hopes of securing reliable, low-cost electricity.” It was, he wrote, “a shameful exhibition of short-term political expediency.”

“These eyesores”, he wrote, “blight our landscape, despoiling many of the most beautiful views in protected areas. Any visitor to southern Snowdonia will know how hideous the hillsides have been made with industrial clusters of turbines, an aberration repeated across the UK. Wherever they spring up near villages and towns, such as in Keadby in Lincolnshire or at Hyndburn in Lancashire, house prices take a pummelling. They are so big they even need lights to warn air traffic.”

He claimed that the beacon that sits on top of the turbine is not only “ a source of light pollution, but the constant flickering shadows of the blades have been reported to cause headaches and nausea.” And then, he wrote, there’s the noise - “a low-frequency rumble that travels for miles” – and the constant threat of an accident. Blades have been known to shear off in winds.

All that, of course is when the wind is blowing. But it has to be blowing at an acceptable speed: “Any gust above about 55mph, or Force 10 and above, is too great for the turbines and they have to shut down.” In short, he says, turbines don’t work when there’s no breeze, and they can’t work in a strong gale.

And when they are working, says Darwall, they are lethal to wildlife: “Their turbines wipe out insects, birds and bats. For bats in particular, flying mammals with internal organs similar to ours, death by turbine is unpleasant: the pressure causes their lungs to explode. Bats are so protected by law that, if a colony comes to roost in your loft, it’s illegal to disturb them. Yet wind farms are exempt from any obligation to protect these mammals. Some of Britain’s rarest birds are also being slaughtered. Eagles, ospreys and harriers are being forced to share their habitat with these devices, with hideous consequences.”

All of which, you might think, reinforces the argument for more wind farms at sea. Not so, according to Darwall. “The Germans and the Scandinavians certainly thought this was the answer — until they saw the bill. The Swedish wind operator Vattenfall is cancelling offshore turbine construction in the North Sea, due to unsustainable costs.”

The problem is, he says, that they have a lifespan of about 20 years, a “comparatively short time to recoup their high costs —around £300,000 to install a 250kW turbine plus annual running of £5,000… That’s why the Danish firm Orsted is demanding higher subsidies before it goes ahead with more windmills in the U.S.”

In short, he concludes, “wind power is a bust. Turbines are useless when wind isn’t blowing, or when it blows too hard, which means doubling up on generating capacity to keep the lights on. When the wind is blowing, it forces other generators off the grid, making it impossible to harness a steady supply from other forms, such as nuclear…. We have to pull the plug on this failed experiment. Windmills are not the future. They belong in fairy tales — ones with unhappy endings.”

To which Darwall’s critics would say it is he who inhabits the land of fairy tales because he is on record as denying the existence of a climate crisis. If we continue to burn fossil fuels to create energy at our present rate the world will indeed face an “unhappy ending”. The evidence is there for all to see.

The fact is that wind was the second largest source of energy in this country last year after gas. And if we do not build more wind turbines where should we turn for our growing energy needs as we shun the burning of fossil fuels? Solar power is making a growing contribution but, just as the wind does not always blow, the sun does not always shine. Modular nuclear power stations are seen by many as a long-term solution to many of our energy needs but the cost and technology present obvious problems.

The other “resource” is the way we live. We must accept that we should drastically reduce the amount of energy we burn. We must travel less – especially by air – and we must consume less. But would you want to be the prime minister who delivered that message to the nation? Or the chancellor who had to deal with the economic consequences?

If the answer to that is no the question is: What would you do?

Let us know

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