3 Aug 2006

The Windy Nimbies: tilting at windfarms

If you are a fan of bizarre arguments, you’ll enjoy the cut and thrust of living in the lee of a proposed windfarm. I’ve long marvelled at the little wayside posters that spring up across the countryside to protest at some new wind turbine “bigger than Big Ben.” But it wasn’t until the windfarm business, Renewable Energy Systems, chose the next door parish to plonk a 13-turbine monster that I become aware of what a strange bunch the Windy Nimbies actually are.

I am really not that bothered what goes on in the countryside around me. It’s intensively farmed with cereals and lots of oilseed rape, which stinks the place out in April and May every year and makes most of us quite nauseous. We already have a line of huge pylons marching across the parish, so we are not exactly strangers to the concept of tall steel structures. The landscape is well-managed, for sure, but it is managed largely for the shooting of birds, which isn’t a pastime I care about. As a result, we certainly don’t have open access to the countryside and I certainly don’t feel precious about it in any way. If they want to put up a windfarm, good luck to them. Compared to what we already have, wind turbines seem pretty benign to me.

But that is not how the Windy Nimbies see things. No, they see each and every windfarm as a gross act of environmental vandalism. Their anti-windfarm campaign goes straight for the jugular, which in the countryside mean one thing. House prices. They announce in their newsletter that house prices fall by 20% in communities blighted by windfarms. It’s an extraordinary claim, the basis of which is an “authoritative” report by the RICS (Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors). However, if you read the report it says nothing of the sort. It was based on a survey of RICS members around the country and it asked them what, if any, effect windfarms had on house prices. Around 40% of respondents reported no detectable change, whilst the other 60% noticed a dip in prices when a windfarm proposal first surfaces, followed by a recovery once the windfarm is up and running and people realise it was all a fuss about nothing. No mention of any percentages anywhere. So where does this 20% figure come from? Certainly not from around here where the housing market remains as strong as ever.

The Windy Nimbies then go on to claim that this site (like every other site in England, no doubt) doesn’t have enough wind to sustain a wind turbine, let alone 13. Then they suggest that the windfarmers will be making vast profits from the development. If it’s the wrong location with too little wind, why have the windfarmers chosen it? And how will they make these vast profits?

Ah, they say, it’s all down to subsidies, “paid for by you and me.” Only problem here is that renewable energy doesn’t get any subsidies (unlike the owners of the “precious farmland” that they are about to “desecrate”). The economics of renewable energy work by the government forcing electricity suppliers to buy ever-increasing amounts of the stuff. Renewables are purchased at auction and the demand is kept high so as to encourage more producers to come on stream. It’s a neat ruse and it doesn’t cost the government anything. You could argue that as a consequence of this market rigging, we are paying a too much for our electricity and that the renewables obligation is a hidden subsidy. But you could counter argue that in reality we aren’t paying nearly enough for electricity emanating from gas and coal burning and that, compared to the taxes on petrol and diesel, electricity gets taxed amazingly lightly.

But their strangest argument concerns nuclear power. The Windy Nimbies claim to be “deeply concerned” about global warming, only to dismiss wind power as being ineffectual. Apparently both David Bellamy and James Lovelock, two odd-ball environmentalists, argue this point and their thoughts are trotted out as if to suggest that the whole green movement is against inland windfarms. Lovelock in particular argues that we should be building new nukes instead of wind turbines. It’s a cogent argument and maybe he is right. But do you really think they would be rejoicing if a nuclear power plant was being proposed two miles away? I don’t think so.

The next line of attack is to dish the dirt on the applicants. It turns out that the parent company behind Renewable Energy System, the Sir Robert McAlpine Group, has been carrying out work on some of Britain’s nuclear power stations. Hmm. So they aren’t as virtuous and green as they would have us all believe from their glossy brochures. However, the Windy Nimbies have already pulled the rug out from under their own feet on this one by having suggested that nuclear power is the future and is the sensible way to confront global warming.

So in summary, their case against the windfarm is that it will make too much money from too little wind, that it’s being built by a wicked private company secretly involved with our nuclear power programme, and that everyone knows that windfarms are too little, too late and that nuclear is the answer. Oh, and the value of my house is about to collapse.

And they want me to be frightened.

Which of course I am. Not by the prospect of large wind turbines pitching up on my doorstep, but by the knowledge that so many seemingly sensible people who live around here can get spooked by them.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent analysis, Mark. I think you are right on target.

    One other thing worth noting--a renewable energy purchase requirement means that wind companies have to compete to supply electricity, and that in turn creates a built-in limit to profitability.

    Good luck with your neighbors. I myself live in Vermont and am experiencing some of the same wonderment.

    Thomas O. Gray
    American Wind Energy Association