Clear air turbulence on Britain's hills: The right solution for greener energy has been wrongly applied, says David Nicholson-Lord

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Stirling is not noted for its breeziness, but the British Wind Energy Association, currently holding its annual conference there, has probably had enough of cold draughts for the time being. The association, founded in the 1970s by a group of pioneers who saw in Britain's surfeit of south-westerlies a potentially limitless source of clean, green energy, has had many of its highest hopes realised. Unfortunately, some of its worst nightmares have also come true. Against all the odds, in a nation suddenly hungry for renewable energy, the proponents of wind power are on the defensive.

Over the past year, the public image of wind energy has taken an extraordinary battering. There are around 400 turbines in Britain, making up about 30 wind farms which supply enough electricity to the national grid to meet the domestic needs of 230,000 people - roughly 0.2 per cent of the country's electricity.

This is an unspectacular proportion but, given the long history of neglect of renewable energy by governments addicted to coal, oil and nuclear power, it ought to be a cause for celebration. Instead, there is widespread discontent.

From Cornwall to Bronte country, the appearance of gangs of 100ft turbines on previously uncluttered skylines has dismayed local residents and angered amenity groups. They have been labelled 'lavatory brushes in the sky', discovered, in some cases, to be an unexpected source of mind-sapping low frequency noise, and have also achieved the remarkable feat of enlisting in the conservation cause Sir Bernard Ingham, Mrs Thatcher's former publicist, and more recently a consultant to British Nuclear Fuels. Sir Bernard's newly established Country Guardian pressure group is one of wind power's most vociferous opponents.

Ostensibly the argument is about landscape - which, given the subjective ways we view our scenery, threatens to make it irresistibly complex. Are turbines 'picturesque'? Do they 'fit in' to gaunt clifftops or rolling upland vistas? Some people answer yes to both questions - turbines have been likened to giant daffodils - and there is evidence suggesting that familiarity with turbines may breed acceptance, even affection. And, of course, their ancestors - the small fat ones with sails - are now seen as attractive additions to the landscape.

Yet for all the rhetoric about making rural areas productive and the grumbling about city newcomers with preconceived notions of Arcadia, we remain an overwhelmingly urban society and increasingly seek in the countryside the opposite of what we find in the towns. We do so, moreover, for compelling reasons of spiritual and psychological health. Such a society wants its countryside 'natural', and however that term is defined, it does not encompass wind generators. If it comes to a choice between a mountain and a turbine, the mountain ought to win.

Opponents of alternative energy, who include the nuclear industry, would like us to believe that landscape is the main issue. The wedge driven by wind power through the environmental movement - setting ramblers and conservationists at odds with groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, which still support wind power - has already weakened the lobby for greener energy policies. But the impact on the landscape, though important, is merely the most visible symptom of an underlying ill. Put simply, wind power is the right technology applied in the wrong way.

The Government believes in free markets except where it decides to rig them. Either by regulation, subsidy or price fixing, many of our energy and utility markets - gas, electricity, water - are rigged, and wind power is no exception. In 1991 ministers imposed a Non Fossil Fuel Obligation (NFFO) on the newly privatised electricity industry, a measure chiefly designed to ensure the survival of a grossly uncompetitive nuclear industry, but also encouraging the growth of renewable energy. The NFFO is financed by a tax on customers. It adds 0.2 per cent to electricity bills: of revenues thus generated, 98 per cent goes to nuclear power and 2 per cent to renewable energy sources.

The result, nevertheless, has been a Californian-style wind rush. The subsidies drew in big new commercial money. On top of the 30 projects in operation, another 1,200 are said to be on the drawing board. But the market rigging has been maladroit - it disproportionately favours the windiest sites, which are often the most conspicuous and the most beautiful. And in the scramble for quick profits, many of the original ideals of the green energy pioneers have been abandoned or

forgotten.

You do not have to be a Luddite or a Marxist to acknowledge that technology carries implications beyond the technical. The early dream of many wind power enthusiasts was that, like the wind and water mills of earlier times and like many other renewable technologies, wind energy generation would be local and small scale, fostering community self-reliance and diffusing both power and economic potential.

Whether you agree with such objectives or not, those with long memories will recall that the Government once professed to share them. Nuclear energy, by contrast, is a centralising technology which concentrates power, diminishes local autonomy, exposes users to the caprice of distant managements and unions and brings with it security problems, increased surveillance and private police forces.

Wind power had - and still has - the potential to be a liberating, decentralising force in a ludicrously over-centralised state. The wind boom of the early Nineties, however, has seen that potential hijacked by powerful corporate interests, many of them ignorant or careless of such possibilities. Not surprisingly, many communities have asked: 'Whose wind farm, for whose benefit?'

It need not be so. In Denmark, which obtains 15 times more of its energy from the wind than Britain, wind power has been introduced more successfully, largely because most of its turbines are owned by local co-operatives and produce energy for local needs. Belatedly, the British Wind Energy Association is asking its critics to help draw up guidelines for new projects that will emphasise community involvement and consultation. But if wind power ends up as nothing more than an additional entry in a multinational company's end-of-year accounts, much of its original, radical potential will have been lost.

(Photograph omitted)

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