Centre for Alternative Technology
I was visiting a planning office in Sydney, and a scrap of paper pinned to the wall caught my eye.
It bore a short poem headed “The Awfulisers”.
|Every night and every day.
The awfulisers work away,
Awfulising public places,
Favourite things and little graces;
Awfulising lovely treasures,
Common joys and simple pleasures;
Awfulising far and near
The parts of life we hold so dear.
Democratic, clean and lawful
Awful, awful, awful, awful.
We all know what he’s talking about. There is a pervasive sense that as the GDP climbs ever higher, real fulfilment fails to keep pace, or even declines. More quantity, less quality. The beer for my local in Machynlleth is delivered in lorries bearing the slogan “Unspoilt by Progress”. Unspoilt by Progress! The very concept of awfulising has become such an accepted and mainstream part of our culture that copywriters can use it to sell beer.
Well isn’t it much the same with wind power? Government guidelines appear on planners’ desks. Entrepreneurs see business opportunities. Electricity de-regulation and subsidy arrangements combine to make wind power a paying proposition. Planning procedures are adhered to. The wheels grind. The result is the appearance of tall structures in clusters across the uplands of Wales and elsewhere. Democratic clean and lawful – but awful.
Let’s here the views of a thoughtful opponent of wind power in Wales, Martin Wright. He captures the dread sense of awfulisation rather well, starting with a disarming admission:
“They won’t affect my life at all. Perhaps I will hear them, but I can hear the main road, too. But it will deeply hurt me. The next generation will not have our sense of perspective. It won’t be able to stand on top of Plynlimon mountain and have an uninterrupted view to the Brecon Beacons. The likelihood is that the area will be industrialised by windfarms.
“At root these protests are about defending the principle of open landscapes, which will assume even more importance later. I would not like to see these landscapes lost through carelessness”.
This to me sums up the best of the anti-wind case, that something subtle, precious and intangible is being lost, ostensibly for grand environmental reasons, but actually to meet government targets and to line the pockets of developers. Terrible damage is done to little effect. Personally I share these concerns and I would much prefer that we never put such large structures in open landscapes. But I have come to the opposite conclusion from Martin Wright: that we must have wind farms, and lots of them. Why?
Let’s go back to the beginning. The climate change debate has been active for about fifteen years, and this is long enough for the trends in both raw data and interpretation to leave no doubt about the need for global limits on greenhouse gas concentrations. Let’s take this as a given. If you still don’t believe this, lucky you: you are off the hook and free to drive your SUV to anti-wind-farm rally without hypocrisy.
If the scientific consensus on greenhouse gas reduction is accepted, this translates into a reduction of UK emissions by about 80%, as quickly as possible. This is not easy.
The diagram summarises the situation. Today we depend on fossil fuels 90% to deliver all the services dependent on energy. By 2050 we are likely to have a greater demand for such services but by the terms of the climate-change consensus we are only “allowed” to meet about 15% of this with fossil fuels. That is a big gap to fill. What are our options?
There are three logical approaches. The first and most important is to reduce the amount of primary energy needed to deliver our amenities. The second is to use energy sources that emit less, or no, greenhouse gases. The third is a ragbag of what we might call ‘cunning plans’, mostly of truly Baldrickian daftness, aiming to head off climate change while maintaining business as usual in all other respects. But we must remain open to anything that might help. There is one cunning plan that might actually work, which entails capturing CO2 during the combustion process and storing it somewhere out of harms way, such as disused oil-wells. ‘Carbon Capture and Storage’ (CCS) as this is called, is expensive and only suitable in certain circumstances, but it will probably play some part in the story by 2050. Let’s assume that it could meet up to 10% of the gap, and that this cancels out the 10% increase in demand for energy services.
So much for cunning plans. That leaves us with a principal strategy of combining demand reduction with low-carbon supplies. Energy analysts generally agree that it is far easy, quicker and cheaper to attack the demand side than the supply side. We use less energy to provide the same level of benefits. The first 10-20% is not just cheap but actually saves money. The next 10% or so is more costly but still a bargain. After that it does get more difficult and expensive. As a result even the most optimistic scenarios envisage no more than a 50% reduction in primary energy input from today’s level. Let us accept this as a limit. This is important, because opponents of certain energy technologies like to argue that we don’t need them because we can always increase energy efficiency instead. This is a bogus argument. When we have factored in as much demand reduction as is credible, we are still faced with difficult choices of energy supply.
If we can indeed reduce primary energy by 50%, that leaves 50%, with fossils filling about 20%, or 40% of the new supply requirement. What shall we do about the rest? That is where the real debate lies. We do know in principle how to do it, even with today’s technology. The answer is a rainbow combination of many kinds of sources originating in hundreds of thousands of different locations, at different scales and with widely varying generation patterns. This is shown in the diagram.
How is this mix to be decided? It is not straightforward. As soon as you begin to plan any kind of energy source you run into conflicts. There is a general demand from nearly all consumers that energy be supplied in unlimited quantities on demand, at low cost. This itself is going to be a tall order, but let us swallow hard and accept these as givens. The remaining arguments are environmental. There is no energy source that is free from some kind of environmental impact, and each particular kind of impact has forceful lobbying groups opposing it, as illustrated in the cartoon. What has not reached the level of common understanding is there is not just one environment out there, but several, each with quite different moral and social qualities. Because they have all been dumped into the conceptual bin labelled ‘environment’ there has been no end of confusion in the debates. The cartoon summarises the pressures from all sides.
Let’s clarify this a bit. For opponents of wind farms ‘the environment’ is the visual and cultural one. For opponents of nuclear power it is human health and safety. For opponents of tidal barrages, and possibly biomass plantations too, it is the effects on habitat and wildlife. Notice that none of these can be easily mapped onto or traded off against any other. They represent different values. The Climate Change camp is a special case, because runaway climate change could drastically affect amenity, and human health and natural ecology-but not yet. This lobby group is essentially defending the interests of future generations, while most of others are thinking in a shorter time-scale.
These different environmental value-categories are codified in the table here, and various energy sources are ranked according to their impact in each category, per unit of energy produced. There is scope for a lot of argument over detail here, but the basic pattern is probably robust, that is, that different classes of energy technologies tend to cluster in particular categories of environmental impact.
Notice immediately that demand-reduction measures (often named “Rational Use of Energy” or RUE) have little impact in any category. This, and their relative cheapness, is the reason why they have to be the cornerstone of any sustainable energy policy.
The fossils of course have the largest impact in the category of climate change, although they can score badly in other categories too..
No energy technology is notably bad in terms of routine or occupational health risks, but it is in the area of very low probability but very serious accidents that nuclear energy has its largest potential impact. Gas depots could explode, dams can break, but nothing quite compares with the remote possibility of a Chernobyl-like event, possibly as the result of terrorism, in a densely-populated country.
In contrast, most of the renewables are very ‘safe’ and with minor ecological effects. Their impacts are nearly all in terms of visual and amenity values, mainly because their low energy-densities make very large, or very many, capture devices necessary to contribute serious quantities of energy.
This last is what we might call the ‘awfulisation factor’, and all the renewables suffer from it a bit, but on-shore wind has it in spades. Nothing else comes close to the awfulisation potential of wind farms. There is nowhere to hide wind turbines, and economies of scale mean pressure to make them yet bigger.
How are we then to make choices? One approach is to rank these environmental impact categories in some kind of merit order? If we have to choose, which should take precedence? I would like to propose this order:
- Climate change
- Ecological damage
- Catastrophic risks
- Routine health risks
- Visual/amenity impacts
It seems rather obvious to me that in the most general terms, climate change should come at the top of the list, followed by serious impacts on habitat and biodiversity. These after all are the aspects of sustainability that are irreversible. Once positive feedback loops in the climatic system have been triggered, a runaway warming would probably impossible to stop. Once unique habitats are lost they are hard to reconstitute, and with respect to individual species, as conservationists like to say, extinction is forever.
Where should the risks of very serious accidents come in the ranking? Some would say they should rank high, others would argue that some risks are necessary and it may never happen. It is the pattern of risks and benefits differentiate nuclear and the renewables. Nuclear is good when it’s good, and absolutely ghastly when it isn’t. It would appeal to gamblers, especially of the kind that play with other people’s money. RE is simply rather irritating all the time. It would appeal to the kind of dull clods that take umbrellas with them and buy insurance policies. There is a genuine political debate here.
Routine health risks rank lower on account of the particular horror attached to mass accidents. A technology that kills 100 people every year is technically no less dangerous than one that kills 10,000 every hundred years, yet we take greater steps to avert the latter. Nevertheless it seems intuitively correct that in broad terms risks to life and limb should rank above amenity, appearance and cultural values..
To sum up this part of the discussion, when we unpack the complex of values commonly lumped together as ‘environmental’, we find they break into fairly coherent elements. Some things are more serious than others, Some impacts are irreversible. Some are intrinsically unjust. The renewables, by and large, cluster into the amenity-impact category, which in any reasonable judgement, should give way if in conflict with graver values. Furthermore, amenity impacts are nearly always reversible in principle. Windmills can be taken down, dams removed, biomass plantations re-sown. This goes a long way to ensuring fairness across generations.
Then there is the question of fairness within the present. Who pays and who benefits? In the case of fossil-fuel burning we are all uncomfortably aware than the high-end users are getting a disproportionate share of the benefits, while others, mostly in developing countries, are likely to bear a much larger proportion of the environmental costs. One unsung feature of the Renewables is that the environmental costs are more or less restricted to the locality of generation, and cannot be exported. In other words, the society that gains the benefits also incurs the costs. This ensures fairness across contemporary societies.
Therefore, in filling the supply gap, the strong presumption is in favour of a mix of renewables. Could this work? I do not have space to demonstrate it in detail, but by moving to a more distributed generation model, and making full use of both the electricity and gas grids, a effective energy system could run on 20% of the current fossil component..
Two questions remain: how do we get there, and where does wind-power fit in to the picture? The next graph shows a possible transitional state in 2025. Here, on-shore wind is given a much greater share both absolutely and proportionately than in 2050. Why?
The reason is an aspect of global fairness that I have not yet discussed. The UK emits something like 2% of global CO2 emissions, and it is obvious that even if we reduced this to zero it would not help much. The problem has to be tackled globally through international agreements. Such agreements are very difficult to put together on account of deep mutual suspicions. It is essential for the nations with the greatest freedom of manoeuvre to take a generous lead. Of any given UK energy policy, it makes more difference how it will play in China and India, than how much it might reduce our own emissions. What are the policies we would like to see pursued in the developing world? Surely not nuclear? Even if a case could be made for revived nuclear generation under the well-regulated conditions of Europe, few would favour rapid development of nuclear power everywhere. The risks of all kinds, political, medical, economic, are too great. A nuclear-dominated strategy in the UK will give the wrong signals and make international agreements more difficult.
We should take a lead in showing the kinds of pathways that would work on a world scale. Of course the details are different in each country, because the available renewable energies are different. Each country, each region, should play to its strengths and attempt to meet the national targets for reduction of carbon emissions, or even to become a net exporter of renewable energy. This must happen quickly for the appropriate international messages to strike home. The UK must therefore develop its indigenous resources without delay. As it happens, Britain has Europe’s largest resources of tidal power, wave energy and wind power. It has already developed its hydro capacity and has modest resources of biomass, solar and geothermal. Of all these, only one is mature and ready to roll: wind power. The others will all take decades to research and deploy on any scale
Serving to save the planet, for every possible ethical and geopolitical reason, I cannot see how we can avoid a massive expansion of the wind programme. That this is a practical possibility is simply illustrated by the rate of deployment in Germany, with a much poorer wind regime that that of the UK, to 16GW installed capacity, relative to our 1GW.
And Wales? The same argument applies, but with much greater force. Every region has to put into the national – and international – pot what it is best placed to give. Wales has wind. It must give it.
I have come some way from the sentiments expressed at the beginning. Recall that I personally do not find wind farms an asset to the Welsh landscape. I regard them as a regrettable necessity.. Is there any possible mitigation of this awfulisation? I have found many little mental tricks that ease the irritation. Let me share some with you.
The first is to remind myself that my views are subjective, ‘constructed’ as social scientists like to say. Surveys show that 80% of the population of the UK are in favour of wind power in general, and that support for a wind farm goes up after it is constructed. And some people positively love wind farms. The distinguished Welsh politician Cynog Dafis recently remarked that, “The only problem with windmills in Wales is that there aren’t enough of them”. And he was not talking only about the economics: he finds them graceful and inspiring, a scenic asset to the landscape. Why should the aesthetic sense of the antis be given more weight than those of the pros?
Historically, we loved industrial structures as signs of progress, and this seems to be true of all populations in the early stages of their modernisation cycle. A first world war pacifist poster shouts “Smoke from Factories, not from Guns”. Even in today’s Europe, there are no protests against wind power in Spain, even though there are five times as many as in the UK. Our rather mincing landscape values are a recent minority creation. I find it helps to know this.
I also like to remind myself that the Welsh countryside, and indeed the whole UK, is entirely artificial: not a scene of nature at all. It is in fact industrialised, and it is rather arbitrary what we have decided to embrace or reject. One might find that the view is spoiled by modern farm buildings, by harshly geometrical blocks of forestry, by roads and by transmission lines and TV relay stations, cellphone masts. There is no wilderness, no wild habitat unaffected by people. All of it is made over, owned, controlled. It still looks pretty good, and we have learned to ignore, or live with, the older elements of the ongoing industrialisation. New ones are found jarring at first; then, curiously-I have watched this with some fascination myself-they shrink month by month, year by year. They never go away entirely, but they become less intrusive.
A more radical approach to retooling one’s inner aesthetic would be to embrace the ‘Technological Sublime’. There can be sensitive machine placing and daring and dramatic windfarrm siting. Wind farm engineers and planners could learn a few things from the new approaches to forestry replantation, or even from landscape architects!
Another way I ease my loathing of windfarms is to remind myself that they have only one serious problem: they look awful, at least to me and a fellow minority of aesthetes.
It is common among anti-wind protestors (as it is with anti-nuclear protestors) to dig up every bit of dirt, real or imagined, and throw it at the hated object . But most are fabricated non-problems: Do they damage wildlife? As much as any other constructions in the countryside might. From time to time an individual bird might get whacked and killed by a blade, but this is hardly going to affect the health of a population, which is what counts in biodiversity.
Are they noisy? Early ones suffered from gearbox whines. No longer. Aerodynamic noise gets louder at high wind speeds, but so does the noise of the wind itself. As Martin Wright remarked, no noisier than a road. Are they “inefficient”? Since they only put out on average a quarter of their rated capacity, that can be described as inefficient. But they generate 50 times more energy than a field of trees or rapeseed on the same area. Should we perhaps ban plants as inefficient?
Do they “take a huge amount of energy to create”? All that steel and concrete…yes it takes energy to manufacture and install wind turbines, but the ‘energy cost’ is paid back in under 6 months, better than any other energy technology.
They do not generate all the time so need permanent backup from conventional sources. The UK electricity system is built to cope with enormous fluctuations of demand and could cope with up to 20% wind input without any special measures. They do not contribute to energy security. On the contrary, it’s our wind, and nobody can take it from us or interrupt the supply. Distributed generation systems are immune from sabotage or terrorist attacks. Much more secure.
They generate so little in the national system that they make no difference. Wind power starts from a very small base, so at first its contribution is small, as was that of nuclear power in 1957. To generate a lot you have to have a lot, which is the point of this article.
They only generate profits for outsiders. Of course, if insiders will not invest in them. Sign up to green tariff electricity. Start your own wind development company. There are several examples in Wales where local people have done exactly this.
But here is the real sugar for the pill: There is no need to keep them. For the reasons I have explained, it is imperative to install wind farms all over Wales very quickly – although even I might draw the line at the national parks! Consider them, however, as a stopgap. As the new and mightier renewable technologies come on stream, we can progressively remove the worst of the onshore turbine clusters. Let’s think of it like what happened in the war. The ‘landscape’ disappeared under barbed wire, airfields, training camps, tank traps, ammo dumps; but we didn’t mind because we knew we would get it all back after the war. That is why I foresee, recommend, demand even, that on-shore wind plays such a strong part in 2025. I propose that we borrow the Welsh landscape for 50 years for reasons even more momentous than war. And later, it shall be restored.
These are the reasons why, although I hate wind-farms, I think there should be more of them.