8 October 2010
On 10 June I attended a meeting at Chittlehampton Village Hall, North Devon, held to inform local residents of the implications of a proposed development for a Wind Farm at Summermoor, just to the North of the village. I wanted to be there as I am deeply concerned about the effects of global warming, the way that continuing use of fossil fuels is contributing to this and the long-term detrimental effects of the nuclear power industry. The meeting had been organised by three local parish Councils, Chittlehampton, Swimbridge and Filleigh, all of which would be affected by such a development.
Three ‘expert witnesses' had been invited to address the audience. Bob Barfoot from the CPRE North Devon, spoke first, saying that all available appropriate wind-farm sites had been taken up years ago and now sites were being used that caused endless problems by being sited too close to dwellings, bringing noise, visual impact, shadow flicker, and tv and radio reception interference; there was also potential disfigurement of the landscape through transporting components to and from site. Planning approval delays brought blight on house sales and other problems.
Second up was Phillip Bratby from Rackenford, introduced to us as a physicist who had worked in the nuclear industry. He consistently maligned all forms of renewable energy with the possible exception of Geo-thermal, giving wind power the lowest rating of all, with regard efficiency and cost. He completed his resumé with a thumbs-up for nuclear, on grounds of both efficiency and cost and recommended that we all read ‘The Wind Farm Scam' by John Etherington, and ‘Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air' by David McKay.
Third was Michael Hulme, an individual from North Tawton who has been fighting a legal battle against the installation of 9 turbines at Denbrook, close to his home. Mr Hulme who, on first moving to North Tawton some years ago, had been greatly in favour of renewable energy and was keen to see the windfarm installed, painted a very convincing picture of the noise nuisance suffered since the turbines had been up and running. He described how statistical data on noise, used to support developments, were based on mean averages: whereas the overall decibel level was relatively low, there were in fact frequent periods at which the level rose considerably, but the averages failed to register the fact that noise disturbance was created late at night and in the early hours of the morning through the turbines operating at high altitude. Sleep was thus regularly disturbed. A printed handout to attendees of the meeting and a short video clip shown, supported the evidence that noise nuisance, in spite of official statistics suggesting a very low level of disturbance, was in some cases unbearable. I personally felt a very real sympathy for these people. Nevertheless, I also had the feeling that, properly managed, this problem could be overcome. Discussion after the meeting with friends suggested that advancing technology was enabling cut-out of the noise disturbance caused through wind at high altitude.
In short, none of these witnesses had anything positive to say in favour of wind farms. All were biased, whether justifiably or unjustifiably, in their own way, and there were no speakers putting the case in favour of the turbines. The Swimbridge Councillor then read out a letter from Allen Petchey, who has a business in the parish but was unable to attend the meeting. Mr Petchey put the case in favour of wind turbines and of renewable energy in general, though it should be noted that the letter was read with a weary overtone, which did not support the more positive, solution-driven attitude of the writer.
The audience was then given the opportunity for questions. What became clear during the course of the meeting was an overall feeling of impotence and anger, in the face of local farmers or landowners prepared to sell land to the developers who would then be the sole beneficiaries and profit makers from the enterprise. Questions like "who is the real enemy?" asked by a man who felt that all the local farmers who could potentially sell land to the developers should be written to individually, to ensure they knew the strength of local feeling against the proposal, made one feel that one was in the middle of the Salem witch hunts. Another observation which ran something like this "we are not here to discuss the merits or otherwise of wind energy, we are here to fight this development" seemed to express the feeling of many, as it received much applause.
Recently, a similar scheme has been proposed and approved at Fullabrook Down, near Barnstaple, in no small part due to the supportive evidence and commitment of the North Devon Green Party. Despite the initial vehement opposition of the local communities, the area around Marwood and West Down now stands to make considerable financial profit from the community fund set up by the project company. This enterprise was briefly mentioned in passing but without particular enthusiasm. The whole tenor of the Chittlehampton meeting was that this monstrosity was to be defeated at any cost.
The reason I write this letter (article) is because I think the whole issue of on-shore wind energy is being completely mishandled and this is potentially disastrous. As MPs and government ministers you are aware of our requirement to reduce carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions significantly within a matter of months. Wind power is one of a whole raft of renewable energy options which can help us do this. If you have read the Offshore Valuation Report, produced by the Public Interest Research Centre, you will be aware of the huge potential for off-shore wind energy production, but this simply cannot be implemented fast enough, despite recent success stories, such as the Thanet Array virtually completed and the Atlantic Array recently given the go-ahead. As such, on-shore sites are vitally necessary, even if only in the short term, to help fill the energy-gap which experts suggest are but a few years away. Wind turbines are basically available ‘off-the-shelf' and are designed to be ‘decommissioned' relatively painlessly and cheaply after 25 years. I am not alone in suspecting that within that time-span, on-shore wind will have been superceded by other technological and, let us hope, less divisive means of clean, ‘free' electricity generation.
It is essential that Government ensure that guidelines are read, listened to and understood by both those organisations that have the financial resources to invest in wind energy schemes and by the local communities who they will be sited. Positive public attitudes are vital. We will get nowhere if local communities feel they are being exploited; if they have little or no control over procedures and management; if their concerns about noise are going to be overridden, and if they can see nothing in the project of benefit to themselves. Of course, we all know that the turbines will produce energy and this is to the good, but the profits/benefits are perceived to be going elsewhere. I understand that scholars in the field have been researching the psychology underlying public attitudes to environmental improvements, such as Patrick Devine-Wright whose ‘Public Engagement with Renewable Energy: From NIMBY to Participation‘, will be published in July. David Cameron has been making much of the need for us to work together in the spirit of community and the greater good. Nowhere can the need for regulation and overseeing, for restraining and correcting potentially exploitative development and for supporting more local management and control be greater.