A fair wind

One tends to come new to this debate thinking that wind power is a good thing and should be supported except where there are over-riding negatives. Not until one attempts to research the facts does it become clear that the efficacy of wind power has not been established – far from it. Binding, long-term decisions are made on the basis of partisan and self-serving statistics and predictions which are unreliable and shaded to further vested interests. Every statistic that is quoted can be countered by another statistic furnished by an equally qualified ‘expert’. All that can unequivocally be stated is that the government has a long way to go to convince people that turbine towers must overshadow all our homes in order to save the planet.


There is no overstating the depth of feeling in Withiel over this issue. Wednesday’s meeting, once again attended by about a third of the population of the village, coincided with the overnight construction of the Dingle Brothers turbine in Bodmin, which gives some indication of the profit to be had from Feed-In Tariffs for wind power. The turbine cost £1.3 million net of installation, money which will be paid from surcharges on our electricity and gas bills and sent straight to America, where the turbine was made. While it’s difficult to be precise about how long it will take to cover this capital outlay, it is clear that a single turbine will make the owner millions of pounds in its lifetime. In many cases, however, single turbines are being constructed at the expense of agents who pay a rent to the landowner, and the major portion of the subsidy goes to middlemen outside Cornwall. Billions of pounds are being made available, and we are facing well-financed corporate opposition backed by government promotion and apparently unfettered by local authority planning constraints.


What is clear that little or no account has been taken of the environmental cost of single turbine development, of the divisive effect on parishes like Withiel, the lack of benefit to communities of so called ‘community energy projects’, and in particular, the devastating effect of continued turbine development on our neighbourhood. As one participant said, “Cornwall’s greatest asset is its landscape, and if we destroy the landscape, we destroy our future.” It was agreed that Withiel would put forward its own plans for renewable energy generation which take into account the concerns of the parish. A sub-group was set up to look at what form this could take.


The meeting agreed that a discussion paper to form the basis of a discussion with Dan Rogerson MP on December 16th should cover the following points:


*We are concerned at the level of subsidies being afforded to wind power generation at a time when six million people are deemed to be in fuel poverty and energy bills are rising in a way that is profoundly worrying for many Withiel residents.


*Withiel has made a full contribution to wind power generation through its hosting of St Breock Downs since 1996. The promotion of single turbine developments, however, puts a new complexion on the issue. The result is bitterness, division and the breakdown of relations in small communities, and it has become imperative that the government look again at the damage this is causing. The benefit must be proportionate to the environmental and community damage. Withiel is split between landowners who choose to take the subsidies, and those who pay them and suffer the environmental degradation. People who have been friends for life are at loggerheads, and the bitterness will last as long as these turbine towers stand.


*What of those who were invited to profit, but declined to do because of the effect it would have of their neighbours? We know of five in Withiel. They see their neighbours taking the money; what can be said to them?


*Turbines are built abroad and installed by companies and labour from outside this area, providing nothing to the community other than payments to landowners.


*The ‘spot’ development of single turbines, independently granted planning permission (or not, as the case may be) despite being within a few hundred metres of each other, is a new issue. In each of the four applications received in Withiel to date, the turbine tower is invisible from the applicant’s home but towers over neighbours’ properties.


*Cornwall County Council has indicated that if ‘cumulative impact’ is to be taken into account, planning permission will be granted on a first-come, first-served basis. This represents a troublingly ad hoc approach to energy strategy. We seek a moratorium on all single turbine developments until a sounder national strategy has been established.


*Why is Cornwall is so egregiously affected? Turbines should be as close as possible to the end user to reduce transmission losses. Every tall building in London could carry a turbine tower; is Cornwall an easy target because our voice is weak? We seek a moratorium on all wind turbine developments in Cornwall until the rest of the country has had a chance to catch up.


*The dismantling of the 11 towers on St Breock Down presents an opportunity to replace claims for the efficacy of wind turbine generation with hard facts. A full accounting must be made of St Breock, with independently verifiable figures for actual power generation since inception which can be compared with similarly verifiable figures for the cost of manufacture and installation of turbines and associated equipment, connection to the grid, administration, repairs and maintenance, payments to the landowner, and cost of decommissioning and removal to produce a reliable figure for the cost of the electricity generated. There must also be an accounting for all subsidies received, including constraint payments. This is a chance to supplant propaganda with fact.


*The new turbine towers on St Breock are twice the height of the Bodmin Beacon and will dominate the Ruthern Valley in an intrusive new way. This industrialisation of the landscape will have long-term detrimental effects on tourism. Those who say that ‘eco-tourists’ will come to see them should remember the failure of the Gaia Energy Centre at Delabole, which closed in a season for lack of interest despite hundreds of thousands of pounds in council taxpayer funding.


*Government moves against those who have been claiming excessive subsidies on solar installations will at some point have to be replicated on Feed In Tariffs for wind energy, which in some cases attract subsidies several times higher than those deemed unsustainable for solar power. This may come too late for Withiel, as once they are erected these towers will stand for generations. A review of FITs should be carried out before more turbines are built.


*Targets for energy generation should not be divorced from reduction in CO2 output. Last year British motorists used almost 2 billion litres less car fuel than in previous years. In Withiel, where there is no public transport, the increasing cost of fuel has already forced many people to cut car use to a minimum. Nationally, the carbon saving dwarfs anything that could be gained from wind turbines, yet this forms no part of the government’s calculation on what must be spent on wind energy.


*Renewable energy projects with genuine potential are withering for want of investment. Tidal energy is predictable, reliable and offers vast amounts of power, yet the proposed South West Marine Energy Park will get nowhere without investment which is being squandered on wind turbines. Tidal power needs research money; the government has decided to contribute nothing to the Severn Estuary barrage. Wind energy subsidies must be diverted to more reliable and more promising renewables.


*The government should divert some wind energy subsidies to genuine community energy schemes such as that which is being researched and established for Withiel.