The owner of Lower Waldridge Farm (Mr Jeremy Elgin) in the county of Buckinghamshire, Near Aylesbury, is proposing to put a wind turbine on his land that will generate electricity for the National Grid. This has stirred up highly organised and vocal opposition that is passionate, and fixed in it’s view. For the protestors, it is instantly a question of right and wrong, a gut reaction, and emotional.
We have lived with power pylons striding for hundreds of miles across the countryside through beautiful areas, but wind turbines have a way of stirring people up.
This is a pleasant part of rural England, about 3 miles west of the steep scarp of the Chiltern Hills that descends to Aylesbury Vale and the River Thame (a tributory of the famous Thames). The Hills are densely wooded, and a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, but at Waldrige, the valley is fairly flat and intensively farmed, and all the forests have been removed over centuries as the land is very fertile. The area dotted with villages and hamlets some of which are very ancient and pretty, and the people are mostly quite well-off, and unlike much of the country, property prices have not dropped very much. This is Middle England in every sense and they have voted Conservative ever since voting was invented.
The People And Their Attitudes
From an environmental perspective, peoples’ attitudes and behaviours vary according to what is being considered.
Villages and their surroundings remain lovely because the residents look after them and protect them from most forms of development, although the exception is a tendency to fill in gardens and open spaces in villages with new buildings in order to make money. It is not uncommon for someone to fight a planning application down the road only to put in their own planning application a while later. However, things do not happen that actually change the overall appearance of the place because opposition is quick and effective. The focus is on keeping appearances prim, pretty and tidy: buccolic is name of the game around here.
Regarding the land, people are ambivalent: they like nice views (that’s partly why they move here) and the peace (although they drive everywhere, often in larger 4 WD vehicles and don’t support public transport or cycling very much), and many of them like to walk on the many footpaths that cross the farms and villages for leisure. However the farmers do farm the land intensively with mixed attitudes to wildlife, pesticides and good land management. The focus tends to be on convenience and profit (see earlier blog, “A Walk In The Countryside”) such that most remaining hedges are subjected to machine flailing that is crude, industrial and deadly, and fields are croppped right to the very edge rather than leaving a strip for birds and bees.
However, when it comes to the immediate physical environment, most people are true conservatives: they like a traditional English countryside, and many, including farmers, work hard to preserve it.
When it comes to the Global Environment, things are far less clear, and the truest countryside conservationists become arch sceptics when it comes to issues like global warming, species depletion and population. Flying to remote corners of the planet at the drop of a hat is simply part of life’s fun for the well-off, and it is astonishing how far people feel they have to go for a good time. Any journey that can be is taken by car, and the supermarket is the source of food, unless it is a nice piece of steak from the posh butchers, and my recent forays into increasing cycle and walking paths found little support. Regarding domestic or business energy use, the main motivation for increasing house insulation or installing solar panels is to save money, and a local gentleman proudly told me that he had installed some panels as the yield is good, but he is a cynic about the environment.
That being said, many people like to be able claim their part in ‘Saving the Planet’, which can include being quite good at recycling rubbish, not using too many chemicals in the garden and managing domestic energy use. However, my mother had a favourite Scottish proverb that could often be applied: “The path to hell is paved with good intentions.”
The Proposal In Question
The landowner is proposing a single wind turbine on his farm situated in the field below. It will be operational for 20 years.
The main details from the turbine website (http://lowerwaldridgeturbine.co.uk/) are:
- One turbine of a maximum ground to tip height of 102.5m (336ft).
- The turbine will generate in excess of 1.5 million Kilowatt hours of electricity annually. This is enough to power in excess of 320 homes.
The proposer has done a lot of research and spent money on consultants who have produced data that indicate that the carbon cost of creating and erecting the turbine will be covered within a very few years, and thereafter it will contribute to reducing the UK’s carbon emissions. He will make money out of it, but declares himself to be deeply concerned about our environment: he has already has installed solar PV panels and plans to buy an electric car.
The residents of the local villages of Ford and Dinton are very concerned (http://www.dinton.org/WindTurbineAll.pdf) and a very vocal protest movement has started up, with large banners being erected around the area (see above). They maintain that:
- The turbine will not be energy efficient and will take a very long time to pay for itself.
- If this goes through, then it will open the door for many more, and the landscape damage caused by one (which is considerable in their view) will be multiplied many times.
- There will be a problem with noise.
- Propertly prices in the area will plummet.
Leaders of the two sides are neighbours, and are remaining very civil, travelling around and lobbying local councils and residents together.
My view of the facts
I went to visit Mr Elgin at the farm and saw the proposed location, and came to the conclusion that it is a project worth supporting.
The reasons that this proposal has arisen are as follows:
1. Mr Elgin sees it as a business opportunity that also accords with his larger concern about the environment, and in particular energy in the UK.
2. The UK Government is committed to delivering 20% of our energy through renewable means by 2020, so is subsidising suitable installations and requiring local authorities to add to energy generation through wind turbines.
3. Mr Elgin has researched the viability of a turbine at this location and points out that he would not be prepared to invest the very large amount of money, time and effort required in the project if it were not worthwhile both financially and environmentally. Whether wind turbines and other current renewable energy generation schemes are the answer to our country’s long term energy problems is another question and not relevant here, as both the National Government and the land owner have decided that wind has a part to play in low carbon energy generation.
The farm is adjacent to the village of Ford, and close to Waldridge Manor, but the turbine will be at least 500 metres from any residence. It will be much taller than any other structure in the area, so will be seen from roads and some houses, and visible from several kilometres. Whether it will be an eye sore will largely be a matter of personal opinion: I rather like them.
It is extremely doubtful that anyone would hear any noise whatsoever from the turbine unless they were on the nearby footpath, a long way from any dwellings.
He is monitoring wind speeds in the exact location and has found that there is ample wind to keep the turbine working at an efficent rate, and this is backed by solid data gathered by engineers over an extended period of time. (This can be found at http://www.enercon.de/en-en/59.htm)
Personally, I don’t think that a turbine, even a tall one, in such a position would cause property prices to plummet at all, let alone to the extent claimed by the protestors. I do, however, understand how people come to believe the worst and support the protest, especially as they have nothing personally to gain by it. Some would say that they might well become financial losers as the subsidies are paid of increased energy bills for users and the economics of this are beginning to bite in Germany and other countries. However, this is not Mr Elgin’s problem, and he is only attempting to do what the Government wants, and is willing to support.
How to find a balance?
- Will the turbine pay it’s way and perform as predicted, repaying it’s carbon cost in a reasonable time?
- Is the landscape damage significant in this place?
- Must we get used to these on the landscape in order to produce energy without the carbon emissions?
- How much will local peoples’ lives really be affected?
Only the first of these questions has a ready answer, if one is willing to accept the research that has been done and data produced by experts, which suggests that turbines in this area are a viable proposition, and the pay-back should be rapid.
The remaining questions are much more difficult to answer, and engender conflict between environmentalists and the general public (sadly these remain separate entities, see http://www.doug-kennedy.com/2009/08/death-to-the-environmentalist-one-environment-one-humanity-one-survival/), and between environmentalists with different perspectives. In putting up wind turbines, we are continuing to industrialise the countryside, adding to the power pylons, roads, HS2 railways, housing etc., and that cannot be a good thing. But anything that reduces our country’s carbon emissions, and reduces our reliance upon coal and gas must be worthwhile.
The big answer is to find ways of using less energy, which has huge global implications on lifestyles and population, and these do not help at this corner of England. Mr Elgin is doing his best to communicate what he is doing and why it is worthwhile and we can only hope that the debate that continues sheds light rather than doubt and confusion.