Wednesday 29 June 2011

Tilting At Windmills

Some of you may have come across the phrase “tilting at windmills” before, an idiom used to describe the fighting of a futile or unwinnable battle or the attack of an imaginary enemy. Derived from Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote, the hero sets out to fight injustice through chivalry and tackles a group of windmills in the mistaken belief they are ferocious, long-armed giants.

Some of you will also be aware of the current mania amongst UK Governments to pepper our countryside with wind turbines. In fact some of you may well have been involved in planning meetings for schemes in your local area; I know I have – a proposal that would have seen a dozen turbines erected close to a neighbouring village. At 125m in height – that’s about 410ft in old money – they would have been visible for a radius of 50 miles. And we already have a 10-turbine installation only a couple of miles down the road.

Whilst it remains true that we need as a nation to look carefully at the different ways in which we can generate the power we crave, the “current thinking” as far as Government is concerned seems to be that only wind power can provide the solution. So committed are they, it would seem, they have virtually stopped looking at any viable alternatives. The Scottish Parliament, in particular, has a massive commitment to wind.

The Government might have a winning argument if the reasoning – I hesitate to use the word “logic” here, because logical it ain’t – behind this commitment were sound. But it would appear not to be. Power output figures seem to have been over-estimated and the “green” credentials of the subsequent electricity conveniently overlook the very “dirty” manufacturing process.

On top of this, no amount of wind farms can provide the power we need. Turbines cannot operate if the wind is too light, or too strong. At best, they can only provide a top-up at peak times – we will still need a huge commitment to nuclear or fossil fuel generation to provide the lion’s share of our electricity. I believe that in order to replace the power generation of a single coal-fired powerstation it would require a wind farm covering an area the size of Greater London.

However, it’s not the spurious reasoning for the blinkered pursuit of wind energy that is my main beef. What really makes me very sad and not a little angry is the way our wonderful wild places are being sacrificed in order to practice this flawed experiment. There are now great swathes of mid-Wales and the Scottish Highlands that are either covered in turbines or from where they can clearly be seen or are subject to planning applications for wind farms. Apart from the turbines themselves, access tracks leave great gashes across the hillside, visible from miles away.

As a former student of life sciences, I am always suspicious of those who trumpet the over-simplified “green” stance (a one-dimensional view considering only the carbon cycle) as opposed to the much more complex “environmental” argument (which, as well as the carbon implication, examines the full impact of the proposal on the local ecology, looks at the visual and noise pollution created and at the wider effect on the human geography of the area in question), the difference being that I cannot imagine a single environmentalist who would countenance the desecration of our countryside in this manner – these sites risk being damaged forever.

A real concern at the moment is the sheer number of planning applications being made. The Scottish Parliament in particular seems happy to condone this behaviour from the power companies, so much so that applications are springing up all over the place.

Take the Cairngorms, for example, one of Britain’s most important landscapes and renowned across the world for the uniqueness of it’s habitats. In 2003, this area was designated as a National Park – the largest in Britain – to confer a degree of protection on this very special place so that it could be managed and worked to both protect the environment and the economic benefits to the local community from sustainable tourism.

Now, the adjacent Monadhliath Mountains – themselves a unique wilderness area – are currently undergoing 8 planning applications with a total of 444 turbines proposed, many of which would be visible from the Cairngorms. Although local groups and interested parties will campaign against these applications, sooner or later some are going to get passed. So as well as the damage caused, visitor numbers to the National Park will likely plummet, harming the local economy, too.

What makes me so mad is that if it were proposed that such schemes were sited by St. Paul’s Catherdral, for example, or Stonehenge, there would be a national outcry – and rightly so. So why should it be any different for our wild places? There are precious few left and, as any true environmentalist will tell you, once the character of these areas is compromised, they will never be the same again. I also believe that many walkers feel the same at heart, too.

It seems hugely ironic, then, that in a book first published around four centuries ago about a man and some windmills and a sense of injustice that it could echo with such resonance down all those years. Yet here we are. However, this is not a futile or imaginary fight. We must fight, too; the difference being we must win, to safeguard our most special places for generations to come so that our children and their children after them can experience the same feelings of awe and majesty that we have been able to in the past.

If you are interested in finding out more about what is happening and how you can help, please visit Alan Sloman's Blog Here for much more information.

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