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Windpower revisited

February 14, 2004 12:00 AM
By John Gordon in Challenge

John Gordon worries about the opposition to wind turbines and argues for community ownership as the way forward

Windpower, once espoused only by fringe groups, is now firmly centre stage in national energy policy. So aren't we all happily heading for a cleaner greener energy future in which wind turbines in very conceivable shape and size, from 1kW portable turbines erected in gardens to the massive proposed 67.5 mW farm at Whinash in Cumbria, increasingly become part of our landscape?

Well, perhaps not. This article argues that windpower's prospects may be much more problematic than sometimes assumed; that it's saleability depends crucially on much greater overall government policy coherence; that much greater public involvement, notably through community windfarms, is essential and that such farms should be more vigorously promoted by Liberal Democrats.

Windpower is different. Many find wind turbines attractive. The sight for example of the huge 1.5 and 1.8 mW Swaffham turbines in mid-Norfolk suddenly looming on the horizon as they drive South raises the spirits and fires the imagination of many of my Norfolk friends - and has the same effect for many Londoners driving North.

But, as the Russian proverb goes, 'In taste and in colour there are no comrades'. For many, wind turbines rouse equally strong negative feelings: they are ugly, intrusive, unwelcome and unnecessary.

In the wider world this is mirrored in divisions in the green movement For instance, Greenpeace and FOE are strongly pro-windpower, WWF and RSPB support slightly less wholeheartedly, CPRE - the main guardian of the English countryside - hesitates in the middle while their (independent) Welsh sister the Campaign for the Preservation of Rural Wales (CPRW) lead the opposition in Wales. Large numbers of local campaigning conservation groups are springing up to oppose specific windfarm projects (eg, Friends of Eden, Lakeland and Lunesdale Scenery - FELLS - to oppose Whinash). Supporting them is Country Guardian, the national anti-windpower group.

Public opinion is divided. Poll after poll shows windpower as the citizen's favourite form of renewable energy while, by a large majority, last autumn Country Life readers voted windfarms 'The Worst Eyesore in Britain'.

Press coverage is mixed, but unsurprisingly 'preserving our national heritage' arguments are common. For example, in a Times article last October entitled 'Like Philistines We Desecrate our Landscape' Simon Jenkins eloquently attacked the government's betrayal of its historic duty to protect our landscapes and its sell out of the planning system to pro-market forces which could lead to Britain becoming ringed "with a necklace of turbine parks". At a deeper level, Peter Ackroyd's suggests in Albion, his recent survey on the origins of the English imagination, that "in England reverence for the past and affinity with the natural landscape join together in mutual embrace".

A major battle, to be understood perhaps at least as much in terms of symbol, identity and aspiration as of energy policy, is still being fought and the outcome is uncertain. Opponents of windpower are tapping into deep emotive feelings which we ignore at our peril.

So opposition threatens our prospects for a clean green energy future? Don't worry, the government says, changes in the land use planning system are on their way which will make successful opposition much more difficult. The proposed 'reform' of national planning policy guidance will greatly reduce local input into decision making on projects deemed to be of national importance - including presumably large wind farms.

Additionally the government now propose 'a specific set of national planning policies that address the particular circumstances of renewable energy'. Its proposals, set out in Draft PPS22, impose a duty on local authorities to promote and encourage renewable energy, to develop criteria for assessing applications which are as positive as possible and to minimise and justify any grounds for refusal. When implemented these should make it much easier for even relatively controversial proposals to be agreed.

Liberal Democrats will undoubtedly find much to welcome in draft PPS22, including the setting of local targets for renewable energy generation regularly reviewed and revised upwards. But, like the fourth century Christians when the Emperor made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, they should beware as well as rejoice.

The political reality is that windpower cannot be imposed from above, especially through a planning system which denies local communities a proper voice. People need to be persuaded that it makes a real contribution to addressing a major threat and, wherever possible, that they themselves will benefit from it. If not, as Simon Jenkins warns, wind turbines could become a much disliked symbol of overcentralised state power and of careless despoilation of the countryside in the name of development rather than cherished icons of local pride and of a saner healthier future. If so, nothing would do more to give nuclear power a popular boost or turn people off taking global warming seriously.

In other words, public opinion is crucial and can only be won over if battle is joined on a far wider front. How then can we engage more deeply and effectively? It would be exaggerating to talk about a national consensus on this issue, but there were serious discussions, which I had the honour to chair, reflecting a wide range of opinions and interest groups (including local government, NGOs, academics and business representatives) held in the run up to the Johannesburg Earth Summit under the auspices of the UNEDUK National Committee and part government funded. These highlighted three closely-related areas where we should be pushing far harder for radical change in the government's approach.

First, we need a coherent national strategy to address global warming. Government policy does not add up. Tony Blair and Jack Straw see terrorism, not climate change, as the greatest challenge of the 21st century. Delivery of public services has become the touchstone of political credibility. A welter of contradictory policies for economic growth, transport, energy and community development make nonsense of any commitment to joined up government.

Second, we need a communications strategy to match. The message is at present weak and lost in a sea of competing and usually contradictory messages. Starved of funding and of high level support it fails to impact on the majority of the population.

Third, we need a much more open, more participatory process. If individuals and communities are to be persuaded to question and adapt their aspirations, values and life styles to the challenge of global warming they will only do this in partnership with - primarily but not exclusively - national, regional and local government. Similarly local government can and will only engage fully if treated as an equal by Whitehall rather than simply told what to do (as in draft PPS22). This in turn means creating a framework bringing together action at national, regional and local level in which such partnerships becomes possible and every participant can feel part of a wider whole. At present, of course, our political system is as likely to deliver on this as Jeffrey Archer is to win the Booker Prize.

All this is for action at national level, and will take time and effort. In the meantime, however, Liberal Democrat councils can and should be more active in helping create facts on the ground, showing by practical example what can be achieved. Perhaps the most compelling case here is community windpower.

Normally, wind turbines are erected by commercial energy companies, usually in collaboration

with a local landowner or farmer, to take advantage of the relatively short pay-back time on the investment and high assured levels of return. Hence the current rush of applications and rapid growth in the number of UK windfarms. The problem is that it is one - usually London or foreign based - firm and one landowner who reap the benefit, while the perceived 'cost' in terms of visual amenity is borne by those living locally. Thus the original 1.5 mW Swaffham turbine has been so profitable to its owner Ecotricity that a second has just been erected. Good for the environment of course, but few if any benefits filter back to the town.

Community involvement can vary between minority local (usually individual) investment in a private windfarm together with a higher than usual degree of consultation with the developer to full ownership by a local cooperative. Getting local people involved in planning from the earliest stages, rather than treating them as late-stage outside obstacles to be overcome, also leads to much greater awareness of the underlying issues involved and - if all goes well - a positive commitment to get involved.

Windpower then becomes a symbol of collective engagement. A number of government funded agencies exist to help (notably through the Communities Renewable Initiative - CRI) and generous grants are available, notably under the DTI's Clear Skies programme. Returns obviously vary, but not untypically with grants factored in pay back times can be as short as 4-6 years and rates of return 8-12%.

Despite these favourable conditions, so far community involvement is happening on only a tiny scale in Britain (about 6 Mw out of 648 Mw installed capacity and 1060 turbines). Nor does much seem to be happening quickly to change this rather discouraging situation. Indeed, involved as I am in a possible project in East Anglia I sometimes have the impression that there are almost more government and quasi-government bodies out there waiting desperately for community initiatives to surface than there are community initiatives fermenting!

By contrast in Denmark, with 6,300 turbines, no less than 60% of wind energy is community owned (30% by cooperatives) including communal ownership of some of the biggest offshore farms. In the Netherlands, with 1,588 turbines and installed capacity of 910 Mw, 12% of capacity is community owned, mainly through cooperatives. There is no reason why we should not catch up, and many why we should.

Nor has the potential role of community windpower (and indeed other forms of renewable generation) in promoting the renewal of run down, often de-industrialised, areas yet been adequately explored. And to link energy and community regeneration policies could make a huge difference. The government is putting increasing resources (so called 'patient capital') into its Adventure Capital Fund to prime the growth of social enterprises. Why not use this channel to fund a series of community renewable projects in deprived urban areas, including windfarms on their outskirts, run by such enterprises? And why should Liberal Democrat local authorities not take the lead in facilitating this?

Liberal Democrats are rightly proud of their commitment to integrate the environment into all aspects of policy. They have been singularly innovative in terms of economic and fiscal policy and, perhaps to a lesser extent, of reform of government machinery. We now need a similar flow of creativity in the central policy making process to integrate the key components of the Party's energy, community regeneration and citizen empowerment strategies.

At the local level, anticipating central government commands to set and enforce ever more rigorous local and regional CO2 reduction targets, Liberal Democrat councils should be encouraging local communities to avail themselves of the many forms of support, financial and technical, available to help launch community renewable energy initiatives. And perhaps we should set a different form of target - the minimum proportion of renewable energy to be generated through community as opposed to commercial enterprise by, say, 2010. If the Danes can provide 60% this way is a target of, say, 20% so unrealistic?

John Gordon is a Trustee of CPRE London and active in a renewable energy project in Norfolk. Previously Ambassador to UNESCO, Head of the Foreign and Commonwealth Nuclear Energy Department and chief coordinator of UK government sponsored civil society multistakeholder preparations for the Johannesburg Earth Summit