Peter Harper’s Response to Rob Collister’s cri de coeur Regarding Wind Farms

By Peter Harper

Centre for Alternative Technology

Machynlleth, Wales


Dear Editor

While I appreciate the sincerity and good intentions of Rob Collister’s cri de coeur regarding wind farms in May/June Resurgence, I would like to present another view. The debate, unfortunately, is far more complex and more anguished.

The issue of Resurgence in which it appeared was dedicated to the question of climate change. Arguments on this issue do continue, but with every passing year the experts reach greater unanimity, and the furrows in their brows get visibly deeper. They are extremely concerned, and increasingly prepared to say so.

What does this mean for us in the UK? Physically, it probably won’t be that bad during this century. There will be more floods, droughts and storms but we are a wealthy nation with large technical and political resources. We’ll cope. The really bad effects are likely to be in societies more vulnerable to climatic extremes and in most cases less able to defend themselves. There will be desertification in China, loss of snow-melt water-supplies in the Andes, Pacific islands overwhelmed by hurricanes. The paradigm case is semi-permanent flooding of lowland Bangladesh, probably killing millions, displacing tens of millions, and destroying thousands of square kilometres of unique habitat. Bangladesh represents a part of what appears to be an unfolding global tragedy, possibly outranking the effects of the 20th century wars. Let us refer to this widespread potential tragedy, in inverted commas, as “Bangladesh”.

We all know that the causes of “Bangladesh” are basically carbon emissions; that as a world we are emitting too much carbon, mostly CO2 from energy use. Resurgence readers will doubtless know that the average UK citizen emits five times more CO2 than a globally sustainable ‘fair share’, and will agree that this situation is indeed, not fair. Most readers, being comfortably-off, will have a personal carbon-emission level of at least this amount, and probably much more. Most of us will accept a large measure of personal responsibility and will feel we ought to take steps at least to move things in the right direction, either by personal lifestyle choices or by support of certain energy policies.

Paradoxes abound here. If all Resurgence readers reduced their emissions to zero it would not amount to much, because there are too few of us. The same is true of the whole UK: since it only emits 2% of global CO2 emissions, it makes little difference on its own. Nevertheless we all understand that each country should do its bit, and indeed each citizen. Furthermore the setting of examples, both by avant-garde individuals and households, and by progressive nation-states, is going to be extremely important in bringing about a rapid transformation of the world energy scene. Again, I would expect readers readily to agree about this.

This is excellent, but few of us realise just how difficult it is going to be to ‘come off’ cheap fossil fuels. In practice it will probably be very hard for the great majority of British people to change their lifestyles radically, certainly in the crucial next 50 years. The initiatives will have to come from the government, with a certain amount of compliance, albeit reluctant, from the populace.

Pretty well all energy analysts agree that the grand solution has to be a pincer movement between reducing the need for energy, and supplying that reduced need with an increasing proportion of non-carbon energy sources. Reducing energy demand in all sorts of ways is the cornerstone, but it gets harder and more expensive as you go on, and few analysts have come up with a convincing picture of how we could manage with much less than 50% of the current demand for energy.

The exact figures do not matter; let us say we have done everything possible to improve energy efficiency and it has halved demand. We are ‘allowed’ to meet about 40% of the remaining demand with fossil fuels (that’s our sustainable and fair share) and we’d need most of that to run the transport system. That leaves 60% to find from non-carbon sources, 100-120 gigawatts-worth. This is a lot!! Now remember, we are not only trying to meet our moral obligations to “Bangladesh”, we are also trying to set an example: “This is what Britain is doing: you should do likewise”.

Non-carbon energy sources available include nuclear electricity and a wide range of different technologies generally lumped together as ‘the renewables’ because they are based on natural flows of energy driven usually by the sun. Energy analysts nearly all plump for a ‘portfolio’ approach in which many different types of energy combine to give a reasonably economical and reliable supply. It’s obvious really: nuclear providing a solid base load of say 30%; the intermittent renewables (like sun, wind and wave) doing about 20%; the ‘firm’ renewables (like geothermal, tidal, biomass) doing 20%; and the fast-to-respond and ultra-reliable fossils filling the cracks and making up the remaining 30%. In combination with various other supplementary technologies such as carbon sequestration, hydrogen production and fuel cells, these could deliver a reliable and sustainable energy supply.

But it’s going to take a long time and a lot of money. Even the improvements in efficiency and energy consumption will take time to implement. Do I hear “Bangladesh” nervously clearing its throat? Yes! Indeed, speed is important. We must get on. Unfortunately the only two fully mature non-carbon technologies available now, are nuclear and on-shore wind. Each has its own special environmental impacts and implacable foes. Where do we go now? Shall we give up?

Personally, I cannot see any way to avoid the moral obligation to compare the environmental impacts of nuclear power and wind farms with “Bangladesh”, and to see where that leads us. Since the current polemic is about wind farms, let’s put them in the spotlight. What’s the worst thing they do? They destroy the pleasure we derive from historically-formed landscapes. This is not a negligible gripe. For some people the enjoyment of rural scenery is one of the pillars of civilised values, a treasure that has been built up over centuries. Hence the feeling of desecration, comparable (as Mr Collister’s letter noted) with the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamian. (In fact I am surprised that no-one has yet tried to blow up a wind-turbine. It would make a fantastic media coup.)

Personally I entirely agree that wind farms are an insult to delicate scenery. (In this I accept I am a member of a minority, in that surveys show that most people favour wind power and favour it even more after a local wind farm has been installed). But my personal preferences are surely irrelevant. As I lie awake at night wondering what we are going to do, I cannot possibly think that my aesthetic preferences, however strong, have any weight when compared with “Bangladesh”. Perhaps some artful moral philosopher will help me out here, but for the time being I cannot look any “Bangladeshi” in the face and at the same time oppose the siting of wind-farms wherever the wind blows. That would be morally intolerable. It would be saying: “Stuff you, and your family, and your community, and your nation, and your landscape and your heritage, and your regional biodiversity; stuff them all: my refined feeling for scenery comes first.” Sorry, I can’t manage that one.

But it is a bitter pill. How can we make ourselves feel better about windfarms? I have tried to comfort myself with the following rationalisations:

1) Since the UK produces far more than its fair share of current carbon emissions, and since its historical contribution to the problem has been even greater, isn’t there an element of poetic justice in its having to pay in coin that it holds particularly dear? Wind farms get you off a nasty moral hook. One might be aesthetically disgusted, but not morally disgusted. I find that a slight improvement.

2) For this very reason it sets a good example. It says to the world, “We take this problem seriously and we will take steps to internalise the environmental costs of our energy systems, in spite of great sacrifices”. The fact that wind-energy is so contentious and conspicuous actually reinforces our national stand and helps to turn the world around. Thereafter the UK takes the environmental impacts of its energy production upon itself and tries to resolve the conflicts within its own polity.

3) It does not have to be permanent. A windmill can be dismantled in a day, a wind farm in a month. The foundation pads and underground cabling might remain, but they are relatively inert. Their long term environmental impact is….well, I just compare it with “Bangladesh” and stop whingeing.

4) One can think of a medium term strategy in which the British landscape is ‘borrowed’ for 50 years to help prevent the appalling alternative of “Bangladesh”, while the more difficult, expensive and slower-developing technologies come up to speed. At which point the wind-farms come down (phew!) having been replaced by tidal barrages and tidal stream installations, wave-capture devices, biomass CHP-plants, geothermal heating and photovoltaic arrays on every building. This bears comparison with wartime values, where huge areas of the UK became airfields, tank-traps, potato-plots, firing ranges, training-grounds, ammo-dumps etc…and then we got it back later, admittedly with a few fingers missing, but nobody would dare say it wasn’t justified.

That does it for me. To campaign against a wind-farm would be dicing with the lives, livelihood and environment of millions in “Bangladesh”. I can’t do it.

As for Mr Collister, I suspect underneath he has the same ethical sensibilities as I do. Surely he would agree that we ought to pick up the environmental tab ourselves? Whom else would he prefer pay it? Surely we ought to take a moral lead in taking environmental burdens upon ourselves wherever we can. Ethically then, Mr Collister should try to encourage wind farms where he lives. Failing this, he should campaign for new settlements in Britain to be prepared for certainly thousands, probably millions, of environmental refugees. The Conwy Valley would be a nice place to start. Or perhaps he should initiate a debate among his neighbours about the need for a large nuclear complex on the North Wales coast. A good spot, plenty of cooling water and sound grid connections. Say a pair of 1.2GW PWR units would make a very useful contribution. What are you waiting for?.

In practice, the chances of nuclear power making a comeback seem extremely remote. It’s renewables or nothing, and time presses. Wind is with us now, and it seems to me that morally, “Bangladesh” compels us to embrace it, at least for half a century.