Green or greed: spot the difference

Withiel can expect little help from its MP and Cornwall Council executives in its fight to preserve the parish in the face of relentless encroachment from wind turbines. Dan Rogerson MP effectively stonewalled every request for a reconsideration of the subsidies that are driving the spread of turbine towers across Cornwall, while Cornwall Council’s Adrian Lea made the case for more development while turning a deaf ear to any balancing argument.

Both men were very keen, however, to repudiate the Dingle Brothers, whose 250-foot turbine on the Bodmin bypass has been built without planning permission and in defiance of a ‘stop’ order from the Council. The Dingle Brothers are a very poor advert for the turbine lobby, and expose the underlying reality of wind turbine handouts. The Dingles can expect to make up to £400,000 a year from the turbine, equivalent to the surcharges on the electricity and gas bills of 4,000 Cornish families, while producing very little of real value and making a negligible contribution to the fight against global warming. Whether their turbine is legal or not according to Cornwall Council’s rules, it’s still a scandal.

A well-attended Parish Council meeting in Withiel village hall on January 4th was kicked off by Adrian Lea, manager of Cornwall Council’s Natural Resources Team, who gave an exposition on the Council’s guideline document ‘The Development of Offshore Wind Turbines in Cornwall’. This is effectively a road map for developers who want to build wind turbines and is about as helpful to developers as it could possibly be, while offering no advice or hope to those who do not share the council’s religious fervour for wind. It is clear from reading the lengthy ‘how to’ document that more consideration will be given if you’re a bird or a bat than if you’re a local resident.

Mr Lea produced a map of ‘fuel poverty’ – defined as having to pay more than ten percent of income for light and heat – which is particularly acute in Cornwall. He claimed that wind generation could reduce fuel poverty in Cornwall by making people less reliant on gas, and said that Britain needed to make its energy supplies more secure by relying less on imported fossil fuels.

But with almost all of his arguments, there were gaping holes in the plot. Fuel poverty is made worse by the enforced payment of surcharges on electricity and gas bills to pay for the £100 billion the government has decreed be spent on wind power. That money finds its way into the pockets of middlemen, agents and landowners who can afford to buy turbines. As to energy security, wind power provides none whatsoever.

Pat Malone pointed out that for every wind turbine built, there has to be an equivalent amount of conventional generation to back it up. This is because wind power produces electricity when it’s not wanted and generates nothing when you most need it. “On December 7th 2010, a cold, still winter’s day, the draw on the National Grid was 60,000 megawatts,” he said. “Of that, wind power produced about 200 megawatts. So 99.7 percent of Britain’s power had to be generated from conventional means. And even if we’d carpeted the entire country with turbines, they wouldn’t have produced any more. It will ever be thus.

“These conventional generator plants must be kept running even when the wind blows because they can’t be started and stopped at the whim of the wind, but they were never designed to produce power other than at a virtually steady rate. According to independent studies, accelerating and decelerating them to balance wind power can produce more CO2 than the wind turbines save.”

The scale of prices for wind turbine power was labyrinthine, he said, but at the extreme ends of the scale it was possible for a turbine owner to produce power that would normally retail at £35 and sell it to the Grid for £800. In a stark illustration of the mess the government was in over wind subsidies, the greatest amounts were paid for producing nothing at all. Under the system of ‘constraint’ payments, owners who produced electricity when nobody wanted it – for instance in a gale at 3am – were paid up to £800 a megawatt hour to dump it.

Furthermore, the Grid was not envisaged as a two-way system and there are major problems with forcing electricity into it which greatly reduce the effectiveness of wind power. Bringing the Grid up to standard will add billions more to bills.

Was it any wonder that so many landowners are pitching in to get a piece of the action? Apart from the applications for four turbines in Withiel parish, applications are being made for the Wills Brothers farm in St Breock, Basil Farm at Altarnun, Polsha Farm at St Tudy, Condolen Farm, Tintagel, Trelethick Farm, St Mabyn, two at Michaelstow, one at Moons Park Farm, Delabole, and one at Lidcoat Laneast, Egloskerry. And this is just the first wave. As more landowners wake up to the vast profits to be made, Cornwall faces being swamped with a forest of steel towers.

The Hendra turbine in Withiel is an example of an agency turbine. Because Cornwall Council has the worst record in England for resisting turbine invasion, carpetbaggers from Scotland are going from farm to farm here offering payments of £10,000 a year to landowners to allow turbines to be erected. The middlemen will take care of everything – planning, acquisition, erection, connection to the Grid, maintenance and banking the handouts – and send an annual cheque to the farmer.

Mike Biddick, one of those who had been approached with an offer but had turned the Glasgow company away, asked how much they could expect to make. Adrian Lea said a 50kW turbine cost about a quarter of a million pounds to put up, and could expect to cover its costs in seven years. This is thought to be slightly conservative; five years is touted in some circles, pitching revenues at £50,000 a year per turbine.

The turbines planned by John Piper and John Drake, however, are being paid for by themselves. Under questioning from Mike Biddick, John Piper – who chaired the meeting – confirmed the £250,000 cost and the seven-year payback. Subsidies are guaranteed for 20 years.

The biggest hole in Cornwall Council’s story concerns how it intends to stop turbine proliferation when it believes it has gone too far. Council documentation says ‘cumulative impact’ will be taken into account on a case by case basis and may place an eventual limit on the number of turbines. But the idea that the council can agree to one landowner’s turbine but reject his neighbour’s is simply untenable. The first refusenik will whisk them into court, and will definitely win. Once the ball starts rolling, Cornwall Council will be powerless to stop it.

Concerns were expressed that while the Withiel turbines were invisible from the homes of those who were making money out of them, they were very close to the homes of their neighbours. Joe and Rita Dixon are badly affected, having the new St Breock Downs development to the west of them, John Drake’s turbines to the east and John Piper’s to the south. Giles Forrester, whose home is within 250 metres of Drake’s turbines, asked Adrian Lea whether there was any set distance that turbines must be kept from other people’s homes. Mr Lea said there wasn’t; 50 metres might not be too close if there was a hill in between.

Simon Coy pointed out that when turbines disintegrated – and there were many examples of this happening – debris could be thrown for hundreds of metres. Adrian Lea said he presumed the government had looked at the risks and found them acceptable. Simon Coy questioned whether presumption was adequate.

He also pointed out that the spread and proliferation of these turbines illustrated a complete lack of joined-up thinking on wind power. “The massive turbines on St Breock Down will produce vastly more power than all of these individual turbines,” he said. “If instead of putting up six turbines on St Breock Down they were to put up seven, that would replace sixteen of the turbines they are sticking up against other people’s garden fences.”

Dan Rogerson MP acknowledged there were concerns about turbines and agreed that wind was not the answer to all out problems, but gave no undertaking that he would press for any change. His grandmother lives in a council house in Bodmin and pays the surcharge on her electricity bills, he said, but it was a small percentage of the overall bill. (It’s said to be between £100 and £125 per family per year). The level of feed-in tariff would be reviewed if things were getting out of hand.

And so the meeting broke up. It is clear that as an energy strategy, wind turbine subsidies are a blind alley, born of political panic and nurtured by profiteering. Given the need to fund research into genuinely secure and sustainable energy, wind power feed-in tariffs represent a scandalous misuse of £100 billion, which is being steered into the pockets of the rich at the expense of those who can’t afford it and have no say. The problem is particularly acute in Cornwall where a dogmatic MP and a quiescent council make us easy marks for the profiteers who get up-country engineers to put foreign-built turbines in beauty spots like Withiel, and charge us ten times over for the privilege of putting up with them. The Coalition is already in a dire mess over solar power handouts, and seems intent on making all the same mistakes with wind.

Will sense prevail? If it does, it risks coming too late for Withiel. Three planning applications go before the Council’s planning committee on January 18th. We will fight them, but if they go through we will be living with the consequences for the rest of our lives.