This talk of wind farms is so much hot air

  • Date: 26/07/10

It is always a joy to travel around the most beautiful parts of Britain, particularly those wild and mountainous counties that make a special appeal to our national sense of romanticism and the picturesque. But for the past couple of months, reason has made that pleasure all the greater. At last, she has resumed her throne; the lunacy of the Blair/Brown years seemed to have ended. Those madly turning whirligigs of wind farms cannot be expunged from the landscape, but their number, I imagined, could not increase. The Tories were too sensible for that. Our hilltops would no longer be defiled by the rumble of construction lorries, pouring concrete by the cubic kilometre to make foundations.

The wind policy had been pure Blairism. Wanting to cut a dash on the world stage, he signed Britain up to impossibly demanding carbon reduction targets, knowing that he would have long ceased to be prime minister by the time they needed to be met. He then reviewed the options. Green technologies that would deliver huge amounts of generating capacity, like tide and wave, would require Treasury investment. Clearly, with Brown harrumphing around Number 11, they were out. And not even Alastair Campbell could spin nuclear to advantage. But wind farms could be encouraged through a stealth tax on our energy bills, combined with an ingenious trading mechanism in the shape of renewable obligations certificates, or ROCs. Bingo. Wind it was. No matter that thousands of turbines would be required to meet the target, or that winds don’t always blow when the National Grid needs them most. The public could see that something was being done. It would only find out later that it had been duped.

David Cameron went a deeper shade of green, cycling to work and putting a windmill on the roof of his London house – a fatuous gesture, given that urban chimneys do not catch enough breeze. Still, it showed where his heart was, and voters knew he had abandoned the Nasty Party attitudes of Mrs Thatcher’s energy secretary, Nicholas Ridley, who believed that planning should be subservient to the free market.

Yet it was also obvious by the time of the election that the Tories had seen the looming crisis in energy security, as Britain was forced to rely increasingly on gas supplies from unstable regimes in Russia and the Middle East. It seemed that we were about to embark on a rapid programme of building nuclear reactors – a decision that should have been taken 10 years ago, for the clock is ticking. A nuclear power station begun today will take a decade to come on stream. But at last we would get on with it. As the French know, nuclear is the only means of providing enough clean energy to sustain our lifestyles at their present level, with some to spare for the boom in population which will take us to 70 million by mid century. The election came just in time.

But one forgets: the election gave us a Coalition, not a Tory, victory. Energy policy is in Liberal hands. Through all the long years that they were remote from power, the Lib Dems could be as green as lettuces, and limper. If they imagined that Britain would become a nation of yurt-dwelling Hobbits, it didn’t matter – they would never get power. But now Chris Huhne has got his hand on the light switch.

Earlier this year, the Aslet family was left scrabbling for candles when the power went; fortunately, we had been Wise Virgins: friends who are energy analysts had predicted that power cuts would be on the way. One wouldn’t want the experience, grimly reminiscent of the 1970s, to be repeated. Yet Huhne wants more wind, not less; he’ll cut the subsidy for nuclear.

The Liberal fear of nuclear is as irrational as their fear of GM crops. And for heaven’s sake, is Huhne saying that wind farms aren’t subsidised? They are, through higher energy tariffs and ROCs (energy companies need to buy them if they don’t meet their renewable targets). I applaud individuals who, in the countryside, erect domestic-scale windmills to power their homes; if the economics and practicalities work, they’re making a wise decision. But to rely on wind as a major power source for the nation is barmy.

The Lib Dems’ woolly-hatted idealism reminds me of the placards reading “Capitalism is dead, there must be another way” displayed by the protesters camping in Parliament Square. It represents a fine British tradition. But sense has to reassert itself some time. The loonies have been cleared out of the square; Mr Cameron should do the same with his Cabinet.

Clive Aslet is editor at large of ‘Country Life’.

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