OK, that’s it, I’m packing this blog in. All this time I’ve been ranting away, writing letters to politicians and essays to the public, submitting FOI Requests, commenting on planning applications and video-taping evidence of turbine malpractice; all with the aim of removing every single wind turbine from the UK and its waters.
All for nothing. You see, I’ve changed my mind.
I’ve found a wind farm I like.
OK, let’s not get carried away. Before I alienate all my fellow Wind Warriors (“Judas!” I hear them cry), I should make it clear that although I’ve just found a wind farm I “quite” liked, I’ve also come across some of the most egregious eco-destruction imaginable, so the hit is balanced, indeed outnumbered by numerous misses.
I’m not sure if I’ve ever mentioned Critical Thinking and Hegelian Dialetic in this blog before. Well, only about a trillion times… Today’s entry is all about critical thinking and grading the impact of the various wind farms I just encountered on a tour of Central and Southern Scotland.
As I have written repeatedly, I’m trying to get beyond the simplistic slogans that dominate many public pronouncements on wind energy: “Ooh I love the majesty of wind turbines. They make me feel hopeful that there is a future for humanity after all”. It’s amazing how many proponents of wind energy come up with almost verbatim clones of this comment template. It sounds like it derives from the John Lennon School of Political Discourse: “Imagine all the people, living life in peace” he wrote, in between drinking and beating Yoko. (Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of Lennon’s music, but I think even he would have admitted that utopian pop lyrics were more his forte than the practicalities of town and country planning).
I’m therefore not only ridiculing and lampooning the uncritical support for wind power based upon nothing but the vaguest and most nebulous of hopes and dreams, but also trying to introduce the type of quality control and gradation of real-life wind energy schemes that we see in every other field of human endeavour – from schools to hospitals to hotels to restaurants… How good is the service? If we compare similar companies, which ones perform the best, and why? Which ones are in urgent need of improvement? How can we drive standards up and put the rogue traders out of business?
In every other industry, we reward those who provide great value for money and we penalise those who are ripping us off. Why should the wind industry be any different?
For my part, I’m going to grade my findings from my Scotland road trip into three categories: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. In truth of course when it comes to wind turbines, the last two categories are virtually synonymous, and so I’ll modify the definition of “ugly” in this context to refer specifically to those ugly secrets the wind operators would rather keep hidden. Accordingly, a “bad” wind farm is one which looks, sounds and feels self-evidently awful, whereas “ugly” facts simply relate to the dark truths behind the glossy brochures and Lennonesque lyricisms.
As always, my modus operandi is this: a genuine need to travel (in this case for work), followed by a written description of my findings en route. Any wind turbines that catch my eye and affect my mood are researched and, if I feel strongly enough, contact is made with the relevant authorities to log my objections officially.
So let’s kick off with an example of The Good: a wind farm that actually exceeded my low expectations and appeared to be less offensive to the senses than I would have predicted. The winner of this award is none other than the huge Whitelee Wind Farm, the UK’s largest onshore wind farm, located a few miles south of Glasgow.
What made it better than expected? Well, the obvious, immediate answer is that, for a wind farm with around a hundred turbines, Whitelee is remarkably unobtrusive. There should be a fundamental assumption built in to all wind farm design that the public do not want to see these machines, and at least at Whitelee you really have to make the effort to get there. The contours of the land provide a natural barrier between the wind farm and Glasgow to the north. If you really want to see Whitelee up close, you have to follow the Tourist Attraction signs.
Tourist Attraction? Yes, apparently Whitelee is a huge tourist attraction, though I was the only person there on the misty Tuesday evening I inspected the site. There is even a visitor’s centre and a park (of sorts) dotted around the wind turbines, with paths, trees and even some lakes for good measure.
I like the transparency of this approach and found it refreshing, compared with the “Danger! Keep Out!” intimidating hostility of most wind farms. The calm atmosphere of the place transported me back in time to my very first dalliance with wind energy, way way back in 2002 when I chanced upon the Centre for Alternative Technology, deep in the mid-Wales countryside.
It’s amazing to think that in those days I’d have been wholeheartedly in support of wind technology. I’d like to think it’s not me that’s changed over the intervening 16 years – it’s the grim reality of wind energy itself that, having been given every chance in the world to prove its value, ended up upsetting far more people and damaging more landscapes than could have ever been imagined.
For a moment Whitelee took me back to the Centre for Alternative Technology, with its mission to inform and educate the public. It seemed more genuinely “hippie” somehow than the wind farms near me in the South Pennines, less corporate and brutal in its aesthetic, like the people involved aren’t just doing it for money.
Sadly, with the benefit of hindsight, this idealistic approach to wind power now seems quaintly dated and dreadfully misguided, a “retro-futuristic” relic of a bygone era, like an old episode of Tomorrow’s World. But as a tourist attraction, an interesting place to visit, it’s definitely unique. The Whitelee Experience gives an idea of what, in a parallel universe, wind power might have been.
Meanwhile, back on this planet…
One final reason why Whitelee seemed to exceed expectations is confirmation of a theory I’ve posited a few times, and what I experienced makes me feel even more strongly that size and scale are everything. Because wind turbines are by their very nature huge (the longer the blades, the more wind can be “caught” apparently – I know, I know, don’t laugh at the absurdity of all this!), they dwarf all the other elements of our landscapes and as a result tend to screw up our sense of balance and equilibrium.
Rather than struggle to integrate these monsters into our cherished landscapes, let’s find a handful of areas where we don’t even bother – we happily admit defeat and dedicate the land to wind turbines. But the deal is this: no turbines anywhere else outside these zones.
In a previous entry I referred to the M62 model – we’ve progressed from loads of narrow, windy highways across the moors to one giant superhighway (the old roads are still there, but only the Woodhead is still an industrial route, the rest pretty much just pleasure-driving routes now).
Whitelee is the M62 of wind farms. Well, it should be. I’d much rather have five or six Whitelee-sized wind farms in similarly well-chosen locations, than dozens and dozens of inappropriate smaller turbine developments.
The fact is that even a single turbine like at Jaytail Farm or Marsden Gate can have an appalling impact on a vast area. Far better then to install one mega wind farm per region (say: Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, England South and England North), each with hundreds of turbines, than to blitz the entirety of Britain with smaller developments.
A good computer analogy would be defragging the hard drive: our wind blight is too fragmented, corrupting the integrity of far too much of our countryside. Far better to shove all the wind turbines into a few designated partitions.
Now there is an ugly side to all the above. The biggest scare story so far has come from a local doctor, who has assiduously researched the theory that Whitelee Wind Farm might have polluted local water with carcinogens:
Also, sadly, in 2017 a turbine worker fell to his death in an accident at Whitelee. Although the human toll of wind power is low, and it’s never pleasant when someone dies, it nonetheless does give us a rare opportunity to take a closer look at the running of these operations, even if the turbines have to be stopped for weeks or months while investigations are carried out.
As for actual usefulness, well how well has Whitelee performed at its main job, generating electricity? Presumably it’s easy to see at the click of a mouse button exactly how much Whitelee contributes to our power needs?
Erm. I’ll get back to you with that when I can actually get hold of the stats. Don’t hold your breath…
All in all then, despite a few ugly secrets, on the surface I’d grade Whitelee as a (relatively) Good Wind Farm. Let’s now travel to Stirling to look at a Bad Wind Farm. Ladies and gents, I present the Braes of Doune Wind Farm. This is a travesty, one so self-evidently terrible that its impact even made the Daily Mail, though if I’m honest I’d bet money that the photo has been modified somehow to make the turbines appear nearer Stirling Castle than they really are (about five miles away). I don’t approve of bending the facts to prove a point, and in this case the stark reality doesn’t even need exaggerating. So take the Mail’s story as possibly based on a manipulated photo rather than an actual site visit, but that doesn’t mean the basic facts aren’t true. As always, do your own research. Nobody sued the Mail for libel over this story, put it that way.
Yet again there’s a secret ugliness to the Braes of Doune operation, swept under the carpet but exposed thanks to the hard work of these local activists. This detailed report makes very sad reading, but it’s the ugly truth about the horrendous environmental impact of the wind farm.
Finally, I stumbled across another fascinating case study of a wind farm, quite by chance. Just north of the stunning Campsie Fells there is another range of hills, not quite as high, called the Fintry Hills. Sure enough, this being Scotland, the presence of a wind farm in the vicinity goes without saying, but this one (Earlsburn) has a funny story attached (hilarious stuff!). The locals actually requested another wind turbine be added so they too could create their own “clean, green” energy. Ah, bless!
AS ALWAYS, the hopes, dreams and fantasies of the locals are reported in great detail when the scheme is launched, but then everything goes quiet and that’s the last we ever hear of it. Did it do what they hoped it would? It apparently made £140,000 in its first year (how exactly?), so only another £1,860,000 to go before the two million pound turbine has been bought and paid for in full! Fintry residents, I’m struggling to find out how well this venture worked. Anyone care to give me an update?
Just when all seems sweetness and light, sure enough there’s an ugly truth waiting to disrupt the celebrations: the death of another turbine worker, leading to serious questions about the Health & Safety of the operation. Turbine operators Nordex were ultimately fined for the H & S breaches.
On my previous visit to Scotland, I was gobsmacked by the sheer amount of turbines stretched along the sides of the M74, describing what I saw as an “industrialised shit-hole”. I’m happy to report that there are plenty of unblighted areas across the rest of the country, so the picture isn’t quite as bleak as I originally painted it. But it does need critical thinking and a general improvement in service delivery to ensure no more turbine worker deaths, no more water pollution, no more blighted communities, no more scandalous damage to our moors, hills and rivers.
My conclusion is that wind farms can be superficially either good or bad, but there is ALWAYS an ugly side, only sometimes it’s not immediately apparent.
I’ll finish today’s entry with one of the very best blog posts I’ve ever seen. Just when I think I might have misjudged the wind industry, I read an article like this and realise I was probably right all along.
PLEASE READ AND SHARE THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE:
“Unsettling numbers of environmentalists fail to see that wind turbines are enemies of nature posing as saviors…”
And finally, let’s timewarp back to 2002, when I, like many others, was full of hope for the possibilities of wind power. The Centre for Alternative Technology was an amazing place to visit. Even now I think their aims are largely fine. My problem lies with the unintended consequences of poorly planned and implemented commercial wind power schemes, and their emotional and psychological impact on humans, animals and wildlife. I’d like to think the cool cats at the CAT share my concerns!