The drawbacks of wind power

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Yesterday, a public inquiry opened at Shap, near Penrith in Cumbria, that will have to consider an ostensibly straightforward question: should the biggest wind farm in Europe be built at Whinash on the edge of the Lake District National Park? While the inquiry is quite specific and permission would apply only to this site, the conclusion it reaches could have significance for the future of wind power in this country.

Yesterday, a public inquiry opened at Shap, near Penrith in Cumbria, that will have to consider an ostensibly straightforward question: should the biggest wind farm in Europe be built at Whinash on the edge of the Lake District National Park? While the inquiry is quite specific and permission would apply only to this site, the conclusion it reaches could have significance for the future of wind power in this country.

Nor is the question as straightforward as it might seem. Pitted against each other are two sets of people with essentially the same objective: protection of the environment. They both agree that wind provides one of the most ecologically-friendly ways of generating power. They also agree that, among all forms of renewable energy, it is especially suitable for our windswept British Isles. And they agree that Britain should do everything it can to boost the proportion of electricity generated by renewable sources and meet our targets for reduced carbon emissions, as agreed at Kyoto.

The question is cost: not primarily the financial cost but the damage to the landscape. Is the clean power that would be generated worth the undoubted damage that 27 wind turbines would do to the landscape? Supporters say it is; opponents argue fervently that it is not. And there is clearly right on both sides.

Wind farms have to be built on high ground. The land in question is outside the national park and hardly pristine, having already been scarred by the M6. But it is still a landscape of great natural beauty. Some planning applications for wind farms have been contested by individuals motivated by little more than nimbyism, but this does not seem to apply here. Opponents say that Whinash, while not strictly within the national park, is too precious to be spoilt by gigantic turbines and all the infrastructure they require. The 67 megawatts the farm would contribute to the national grid is a fraction of what a conventional power station would produce.

This, however, points to a drawback of on-shore wind power. It is expensive, not especially efficient and, although clean to generate, it pollutes the landscape visually and with noise. Yet it is the form of renewable energy that is most advanced in this country and is among the cheapest in start-up costs. Offshore wind power, like tidal power, is a more complex proposition.

Whatever decision this inquiry reaches, there is good reason for the Government to encourage greater diversity of renewable energy sources and consider formulating broader planning principles for wind farms. Had both measures been in place, the Whinash proposal might never have reached the drawing board.

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