Greens fight greens in Wales's war of the wind farms

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The Independent Online

The wind that cuts across Denbigh Moor, a stretch of wild and desolate Welsh moorland a few miles north-east of Snowdonia, seems to be a permanent feature of the landscape.

David Williams, the owner of small engineering company in Bangor, believes that wind could provide both free energy and local jobs. His firm, Cambrian Engineering, is the only one in Britain specialising in building towers for wind farms. He has ambitions for two major schemes on either side of Denbigh Moor, at Pentrefoelas and Tir Mostyn. "Wales just has great wind resources," he said. "It's absolutely appropriate for us."

But not everyone agrees. Wind power has now become the focus of a bitter controversy in Wales, fomenting a feud between people who should be natural allies.

On one side stands the Welsh Assembly's environment minister, Sue Essex, and the Assembly's nature conservation advisers, the Countryside Council of Wales. Against them are ranged environmentalists and companies such as Cambrian, who accuse the minister and her advisers of blocking every major wind farm scheme that has been proposed since the mid-1990s.

All seven projects, including Pentrefoelas and Tir Mostyn, have been "called in" by the minister on the grounds that they could ruin the landscape. The projects, which would cost £120m to build, have now been delayed for months for planning inspections or public inquiries ordered by the Assembly.

Wales once led the way in wind power and, eight years ago, approved what was then Britain's largest scheme, consisting of 103 very small turbines. But that momentum has ground to a halt. A few small schemes have since been approved, but none of the large ones has yet been given the go-ahead.

A highly critical "strategic study" on renewable energy, commissioned by the Welsh Assembly, suggests that this attitude is undermining the Government's ambition to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent by 2010. Handed to ministers three weeks ago, it states baldly that there is a "compelling" and "irrefutable" case for Wales to increase dramatically the number of renewable energy projects.

But wind power firms such as Anglesey Wind and Energy are threatening to leave Wales for more fruitful countries such as Scotland or Germany. Cambrian Engineering laid off 18 workers after Pentrefoelas was "called in" last year. Welsh firms have already lost several million pounds in development costs.

The firms' gloom was compounded last week when Europe's largest wind energy company, the Danish firm Vestas, announced it would build its first British factory in Scotland. Tom Pedersen, the Dane who will run the factory on the Mull of Kintyre, said Wales had a reputation for being hostile to wind power; his firm had not even considered investing there.

The Countryside Council of Wales insists its objections are based on a desire to preserve the landscape and a tourism trade worth £2.2bn a year. "If there were too many wind farms, visitors would want to go to a more pleasant landscape elsewhere," said Malcolm Smith, the CCW's senior director.

Sue Essex, the Welsh environment secretary, dismisses the firms' complaints. She said she has personally called in only three proposals and is "totally committed" to supporting renewable energy schemes. The central question remains, she said, the "issue of location".

Such arguments only exasperate David Williams: "We're talking about preserving the environment with a big E, not just the landscape that these people go on about."