Go with the wind

Giant wind farms ruin the countryside. So, why not build your own personal turbine in the garden, or on the roof? Clare Rudebeck reports
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Jerry Stephens's garden boasts camellias, cherry trees and two Shetland ponies in a paddock. His 19th-century home, set in rolling countryside near Wigtown in Scotland, seems untouched by the modern world - except for the 6.5-metre-high wind turbine he's installed in the paddock.

Jerry Stephens's garden boasts camellias, cherry trees and two Shetland ponies in a paddock. His 19th-century home, set in rolling countryside near Wigtown in Scotland, seems untouched by the modern world - except for the 6.5-metre-high wind turbine he's installed in the paddock.

The ponies don't seem to mind, but they are in a minority. Wind turbines are dividing the green movement. An inquiry has begun into whether 27 giant turbines, each 115 metres tall, should be installed on the edge of the Lake District National Park at Whinash.

Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace back the plan, but the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the National Trust are vehemently opposed. The conservationist David Bellamy says the wind farm would be "big, ugly and hugely damaging to wildlife".

But Stephensdidn't think twice. "People object to all sorts of green energy proposals on the grounds that they will destroy the beauty of the countryside, but if we don't find an alternative to fossil fuels we will destroy everything: countryside, people and all," he says.

The turbine is silent except for a swishing sound in strong winds, says Stephens. It requires almost no maintenance. In fact, "flicker" is its most irritating quality: "If the sun is shining through the blades into your house, it can be quite annoying." Inmates at Whitemoor Prison in Cambridgeshire complained of the same problem, and the offending turbine will be stopped in early morning.

Stephens's neighbours - and local planning authority - proved more amenable. "I got planning permission in six weeks," he says, "and the feedback has been nothing but positive. I've had plenty of people knocking on the door asking about it, especially farmers who want to heat their sheds."

However, there's a hill between Stephens's land and the nearest village, Bladnoch. When he applied for permission five years ago to install a turbine at his previous home in the Lake District, the response was less enthusiastic. "It took 18 months to get planning permission," he says. "And a couple of neighbours were a little sniffy, although they didn't complain officially."

For maximum output, a turbine must be as exposed as possible to catch all the available wind. "That usually makes it very visible," Stephens says.

The anti-wind farm group Country Guardian questions whether these domestic turbines are value for money. "We have no problem with homeowners generating their own energy," says Ann West, the vice-chairman of the group. "However, wind turbines only operate for about 24 per cent of the time. So if you have a small one, I imagine it would have a very tiny output. It would be very difficult to justify the expense."

Stephens bought his £6,000 turbine five years ago. It powers an immersion heater in his home, saving him up to £400 a year. It will take him up to 20 years to recoup the cost. But for Stephens, fighting global warming is more important than cost-effectiveness.

From this year, it will be possible to install a turbine even if you don't have a garden. Two Scottish firms have developed cheap turbines that can be installed on a roof, and which will pay for themselves in five years. Both models - the Swift and the Windsave - will be on sale by the end of the year.

The Swift is being developed by Renewable Devices of Edinburgh, which is receiving 200 to 300 enquiries a day about it. The £1,500 Swift will be available by the end of the year. It cuts household carbon emissions by about 1.6 tons per home, and generates £300 worth of energy, each year.

"When it's windy, you use energy from your turbine mixed in with energy from the grid," says Charlie Silverton, co-director of the company. "The energy from the turbine comes in on your side of the meter, so you don't have to pay for it. The Government will also give you 4p per kilowatt hour (kWh) generated through renewable means, amounting to £80 per year."

Simon Macfarlane, a trade union official, already has a test Swift on his roof. His block of flats in Bow, east London, is a ZED building - zero (fossil) emissions development - designed by Bill Dunster Architects.

Two metres high and wide, the device is far less obtrusive than Jerry Stephens's turbine. In Bow, neighbours would be quick to complain about noise pollution, but Macfarlane insists he's had no trouble. "We've had lots of people admiring it. There have certainly been no complaints," he says.

Bill Dunster, the block's designer, hopes that one day we will all have a wind turbine on the roof. That will dismay people who believe that our skylines are already too cluttered with satellite dishes and aerials. But, Dunster says, this would be a small price to pay. "The micro-generation concept - each house generating its own energy - means you don't have to build new power stations. With the help of solar panels and new-generation wind turbines, a city can become its own power station."

He, too, has a windmill on his roof - a Windsave, the Swift's Scottish rival. The Windsave, costing £1,000, is 1.7 metres across. Dunster expects it will meet half his home's electricity needs, with the rest provided by solar panels. The Windsave, available from June, feeds the electricity it produces directly into the ring main of the property.

But bigger is still better. While the Windsave has a top output of 1kW and the Swift 1.5kW, another company called Proven Engineering Products, which supplied Jerry Stephens's turbine, can supply a 6kW model for homeowners.

One happy customer is Peter Leutner, who lives on the North Downs near Canterbury, Kent. Three years ago, he decided to install one of Proven's 6kW turbines at the bottom of his paddock.

There was initially some local opposition to the 15-metre-high turbine. "People were most worried about possible noise," Leutner says. "But it doesn't make any noise. They were also concerned about birds flying into it, but I have never seen that happen."

Once permission was finally granted and the turbine installed, calm returned to this corner of rural England. "We get two types of comments on the turbine," Leutner says. "The sceptics come along and say, 'Is that it?' And when there's a power cut, people ask us why our lights are still on."

The options

* Town

A roof-top wind turbine.

The model: Swift ( www.renewabledevices.com)

Cost: £1,500 plus VAT

On the market: This autumn

Output: 1.5kW

How long will it last? 20 years

The model: Windsave ( www.windsave.com)

Cost: £995 plus VAT

On the market: June

Output: 1kW

How long will it last? 10 years minimum

* Country

Consider a larger turbine generating more energy than the roof-top models. Your biggest hurdle will be obtaining planning permission, while neighbours and conservationists might not like it.

The model: Proven WT2500 ( www.provenenergy.com)

Cost: £7,290 including installation, plus VAT

On the market: Now

Output: 2.5kW

How long will it last? 20 years or more

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