Leading Article: No such thing as a free source of energy

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The Independent Online
GENERATING electricity from the wind seems magical, conjuring pollution-free power from nature. For centuries windmills pumped water or ground corn for our ancestors. Now their hi-tech successors, elegant towers with sweeping sails that turn to the gentle rhythm of the countryside, are - supposedly - saving us from the consequences of our voracious energy demands. And so this new generation of wind turbines has been granted some of Britain's most prominent sites to turn the idle breeze into usable power.

Yet the reality has been far from idyllic. Modern windmills - huge propellers on high towers - are being built in 'farms'. Scores of turbines per site have sprouted across the country in a couple of years. People in Cornwall and Yorkshire are shocked by these intruders on the unspoilt landscape which, for all their cleanness, are more visually obtrusive than nuclear power stations. Thanks to government subsidies, there has been a gold rush to create such farms. Hundreds of potential sites have been identified.

Nuclear power was initially regarded as a clean and cheap fuel, but disillusionment set in long before Chernobyl. Hydroelectric dams were originally seen as environmentally good: damage to the flood plains of the Nile valley and the displacement of African tribal peoples by the Kariba dam corrected that view. Even tidal barrages, as proposed for the Severn and Mersey estuaries, will harm wildlife that depends for food on mud flats. Now it has been recognised that the wind is not free.

Like the proliferation of roads, the extension of suburbia and the construction of industrial parks, the march of wind turbines across rural areas threatens to overwhelm the untouched beauties of Britain. There are appropriate sites for such developments, remote from houses and appealing landscapes, that would not cause such damage. The Government should identify these instead of allowing despoilation to take place on an ad hoc basis, and should explore offshore windmills which, though expensive, would catch the strongest winds and be the least unsightly.

The massed ranks of windmills that might soon be seen from Hadrian's Wall should persuade the doubters that all energy imposes costs somewhere. That should convince everyone to lag that boiler and switch off a few more lights.