The Great Wind Debate
It was billed as the Great Wind Debate, hosted by Jonathan Dimbleby and held at Dartington Hall last Monday, and it delivered a fair hearing from reasonable sounding advocates and critics of on-shore wind power. It was in “question time” format with each speaker allowed an opening statement, with questions from the moderator and from the floor steering the direction of the debate. The question: “Can the UK achieve its targets for onshore wind energy in view of resistance applied at local planning level?”
The event was a collaboration between the Totnes Renewable Energy Society (TRESOC) and Schumacher College and aimed to raise awareness in the local community. The overall tone of the evening was civil, each of the speakers made their points and rebuttals with respectful language apropos the dignified setting. Over 160 people paid £7 or £8 to have their opinions supported and reinforced by the speakers and very few, perhaps only one, actually, went home disappointed – an angry man from a nearby village promoting thorium reactors and hydraulic fracking.
On the pro side were Matt Partridge, a wind power developer and member of the board for Renewables UK, a trade association, and Godfrey Boyle, professor emeritus of renewable energy at Open University. They each made convincing points about the need for on-shore wind power, especially in the context of other renewable technologies and infrastructure. Government targets to reduce CO2 emissions and to generate a greater share of electricity from renewables simply can’t be met without more onshore wind. The usual technical criticisms about carbon payback, variability, etc, were easily dismissed. And the relatively minor development required for supporting wind turbines – concrete pads, etc. – are easily reversed once better technology comes along.
On the opposite side were John Constable from the Renewable Energy Foundation and Helen McDade of the John Muir Trust. Constable’s strongest moments came in his critique of government policy. In terms of pounds per CO2 saved, the feed in tariff and renewable obligation schemes, offer a poor return on investment when compared with energy efficiency and conservation measures. But while the panel generally agreed that was the case, the counter point was made that it does not dismiss the very long and successful history of government subsidies being used to promote the establishment of strategically important industries.
McDade’s arguments derived from the experience in Scotland. She described the reckless build out of massive wind turbines on peat bogs and in areas of wilderness and outstanding beauty. Peat bogs are sensitive and endangered ecosystems, but in the context of this debate, they serve an important function as carbon sink. Building on peat bogs potentially releases more CO2 into the atmosphere than would be saved by a wind turbine. These arguments were accepted and stipulated by the entire panel – there are many places that not appropriate for wind turbines. Her best moment, perhaps, came when she suggested that the wind power industry be nationalised, which received some applause and nods of agreement from most of the panel.
Toward the end of the evening, a show of hands seemed to indicate that very few minds were changed on what is clearly a polarising issue. Roughly two thirds remained in favour of on-shore wind, and about a third against, consistent with a study partly funded by Renewables UK and quoted by Partridge.
The biggest applause of the night was sparked by a comment from member of the audience suggested that every town and county should take responsibility for generating the power they consume, overcoming NIMBYism and the social injustice borne by those communities who must live every day with the consequences of coal and nuclear power.
The last question of the night struck right at the heart of the long term implication of debates such as this, “what will our grandchildren say?” Jonathan Dimbleby delivered an eloquent response and the night’s most memorable moment.