Why are Wind Farms Like Marmite?

This week, wind farms and energy sources have crept back into the news thanks to the mild incompetency of a Tory MP (given the monotonous regularity of current Government incompetence you will be forgiven for allowing your eyes to drift elsewhere on the page, but bear with me). John Hayes, a Junior Energy Minister, sparked controversy by telling the press that “enough is enough” when in comes to wind turbines suggesting there would be a change in the government’s policy to build 4,000 more turbines by 2020. A change which the Prime Minister and his Energy Secretary have flatly denied. This could be dismissed as more coalition bickering, but it does raise and important question; why is our relationship with wind turbines so love or hate?

One of the greatest mysteries with wind turbines is that are opinions are seemly rooted in our own aesthetic preference in a way that is unparalleled in other energy sources or structures. This was brought to my attention when the BBC’s Arts Editor Will Gormpertz, a man who makes his living commenting on visual appeal and who is submerged in a world where appearance is everything, said “I think that power stations have a certain beauty to them. I think wind farms are pig ugly and should be banned for that reason alone”. A stark statement. Although I am sure he would not like to be taken entirely literally, he is not alone in thinking that the turbine’s look is of more importance than their environmental benefits. Personally I cannot agree with this argument, I am of the view that turbines look quite elegant and can add to the look of many otherwise barren and er, windswept places.

I am aware, however, that wind power has its flaws. It is argued that it is:

  • Unpredictable
  • Costly
  • Noisy
  • Unattractive
  • A danger to birds

But hang on a second. Birds are killed by wind turbines, but the number of birds killed by wind turbines is 0.01% of the number killed by power lines. Some people are affected by the noise of wind turbines, but the number of people effect is small and the effects are minimal. Wind turbines are more costly than fossil fuels but less costly than nuclear power.  Okay, I will concede that wind power is unpredictable but it would never be used as a sole source of energy and it might undermine the rest of my argument if I start to claim that British weather is reliable. I think you get my drift; there are negative to wind power, like anything else, but none big enough to condemn them.

It just so happens that I spent my half-term break in mid Wales which, as I am sure you are all fully aware, is site of the Centre for Alternative Technology. There are loads of interactive exhibits showing the various ways of harnessing energy from natural sources geothermal, wave, tidal, solar. But as you walk through a well insulated conservatory, marveling at the pleasant ambient temperature given the considerably parky-ness outside or  float up and down on a wind powered seat, it does make you wonder. Why is it that a center filled with so much innovative technology, that could make a difference to so many of the problems we have today, can be found in a disused quarry in the middle of Wales (not that I have anything against mid Wales, I had a very nice holiday, but it is hardly at the forefront of political influence)?

That leads on to another problem when it comes to solving environmental problems. The problem is so widespread it has it’s own acronym, NIMBY, which stands for Not In My Back Yard. A phrase used to describe people who agree with a concept in principle but don’t want it to happen to them. Many people think that wind farms are a good idea but when proposals are made to construct them nearby they feel that it’s not such a good idea. It works the other way too, some people strongly appose wind power but would campaign if a large, ugly power station that blasts out harmful particulates, was built downwind of them.

Perhaps that is the problem. The solution to our growing need for energy probably won’t be solved by some divine miracle or even an extraordinary scientific breakthrough. It will almost certainly involve that fateful word that we are not very good at in politics or on environmental issues. Compromise. Some people, somewhere will have to make some sacrifices, like their view, if we are going to continue to consume energy at our current rate, whichever energy sources we choose. This is one of the biggest issues facing our generation so its bound to be a little tricky. John Hayes is less than coherent on the subject but environment analyst Roger Harrabin sums it up quite succinctly,

Of the alternatives, offshore wind is very expensive; nuclear is controversial and expensive; wave power is in its infancy; energy efficiency is hard to achieve; coal is deemed too dirty and gas leaves the UK vulnerable to price spikes on the global market.

It’s not easy.

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One thought on “Why are Wind Farms Like Marmite?

  1. This was a good article. You consider both sides well. Though personally, as someone who’s getting pretty annoyed at the people who oppose new forms of energy simply on aesthetic terms, I would have raged a bit more at the selfish people.

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