May 18, 2002
Imagine dozens of wind turbines on Welsh slopes. Just how green would the valleys be?
Plans to build Europe's largest wind farm have divided environmentalists, writes Mick Hume
The turbines were not turning, just standing about, as if unplugged. Then the breeze picked up a bit and they gave us a wave. Standing among the towers as the great blades chopped the air overhead, shadows swooping across the grass, I felt an irrational urge to duck.
Half an hour to the south-west of Carno, on the uplands of Cefn Croes in the Cambrian mountains, there are plans to create Europe’s biggest wind farm: 39 wind turbines, each more than 100m tall — the equivalent of another column standing on Nelson’s shoulders — and almost twice as high as the ones we stood beneath at Carno. The area where they are to be built is beautiful enough to have been nominated as a national park. Yet Brian Wilson, the Energy Minister, has indicated that he will endorse the proposal with no public inquiry.
Lurking just behind the Cefn Croes scheme is a still bigger proposal to build 165 wind turbines, up to 120m high, across hilltops surrounding the Camddwr Valley.
In the Welsh-speaking heartlands of Owain Glyndwr country, still ringed by the castles of English kings, protesters talk of wind turbines “raping the Welsh countryside” and of Welsh people being “cannon fodder”.
In a House of Lords debate on Cefn Croes, the Bishop of Hereford compared erecting such “monstrous” wind turbines to the Taleban’s destruction of the 2,000-year-old statues of Buddha in Bamiyan. “There are lots of wind turbines in Germany,” he said later, “but most are in lowland areas that are already industrialised, where they can be more beautiful than chimneys or pylons. But I am passionately opposed to putting them in places of real beauty. It’s an environmental benefit, bought at an entirely unacceptable environmental cost.” Martin Wright heads the campaign against Cefn Croes; he already lives under eight small wind turbines. “I don’t particularly mind them. But at that size they are no use to anybody. The next generation of turbines is three or four times bigger.”
Wright and his fellow campaigners insist they are in favour of renewable energy. “But these stupid toys are about profit, not sensible planning,” he says. They are scathing about the involvement in the scheme of the disgraced American power giant Enron, and they accuse the Forestry Commission, on whose land the wind farm is being built, of being “more interested in making money from turbines than growing trees”. Ceridigion county councillors who voted in favour of Cefn Croes ignored their own planning officer’s recommendation to reject the scheme.
Yet other locals support wind farms, including farmers who have allowed turbines on their land for a few thousand pounds in rent. “These things split the community,” says Brynmor Morgan, a hill farmer, “and set farmer against farmer.” Wind farms have also divided the green movement with both supporters and opponents claiming to be the true defenders of the environment.
Geoff Sinclair, of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales, is the antiturbine lobby’s expert. “When wind turbines came on the scene, we, too, started thinking they must be a good idea because they’re green and we’re green,” he says. “Then we realised how bloody big they were going to be, and in what huge numbers.”
The new wind farms battlefield is an area that some call the green desert of Wales — an undulating plateau deeply eroded by fine valleys, some with wooded hillsides or topped by waterfalls. Overlooking it is the mountain Plynlimon (“five peaks”). “If you walk up Plynlimon,” Sinclair says, “you’ll see wind farms in every direction, except for where they want to build at Cefn Croes.”
As we stood looking across the Camddwr Valley, he pointed out ridge after ridge, stretching miles to the horizon, where 165 turbines would stand, each 120m tall. “It’s not really a wind farm, more a regional turbine ranch.”
On all sides of the debate, the slender white giants have become powerful symbols. For protesters, they represent the sacrifice of the countryside. For New Labour, they are evidence of its credentials as a Government that cares about sustainable development (even if, in practice, we have to get our electricity from elsewhere, including, whisper it, from nuclear power).
As a townie at heart, I tend to favour development over conservation. In our urbanised society, where you can drive for hours through empty countryside, we could surely use redundant farmland to build badly needed houses and still have more than enough left on which to holiday, hunt foxes and grow all the GM food we need. But erecting giant wind turbines across far-flung Welsh hills surely has little to do with energy production or economic development in the 21st century.
Economic development has always been about raising efficiency through concentrating industry in more productive farms and factories. Yet we now seem bent on the opposite: re-industrialising the landscape with machines whose inefficiency is as striking as their appearance. This looks like post-modern primitivism coupled with eco-fashion statement.
* Department of Trade and Industry www.dti.gov.uk
Towers of power or a load of hot air?
As part of its commitment to tackle climate change by reducing emissions, the Government wants renewable energy to provide 10 per cent of our electricity by 2010 and 20 per cent by 2020. Wind power is targeted to provide around 5 per cent by 2010; it currently provides 0.4 per cent. The Government has heavily subsidised the development of onshore and offshore wind. There is also a hidden subsidy that will oblige electricity companies to buy 10 per cent of their power from renewable sources at a guaranteed premium.