Don't Panic

Could We Come to Love Wind Farms?

This week, confusion has grown over plans to build more onshore wind farms in the UK, after Energy Secretary John Hayes seemingly retracted comments made about a moratorium on building [additional] onshore turbines. The move comes amid widespread opposition to the pledge - made by previous Prime Minister Gordon Brown - which would see the UK shell out £100bn on ‘renewables’ by 2020.

The problem, say opponents, is as much about natural beauty as the actual amount of energy the turbines produce. The pro-wind farm lobby have framed the conversation in terms of their ‘capacity’ - that is - the amount of energy they can produce working at 100 per cent. In reality, output from them averages at 25 per cent per day.

But the issue of beauty is the most emotive one, which is why it has become a voter touchpoint for the Right.

It should come as no surprise that the reason for the government’s dithering is internal wrangling between coalition partners. In a week when former Tory minister Michael Heseltine has criticised the government's failure to create growth, the issue of this emergent sector has been highlighted. Heseltine claims Cameron needs to ‘set out a definitive and unambiguous energy policy’.

Additionally, the timing has been particularly disruptive. Investors gathered at the RenewableUK conference in Glasgow to discuss the future of the sector with uncertainty about what the government’s policy was.

There’s no question that renewable energy has a big future, but after the recent FirstGroup fiasco - where the government reneged on the awarding of a train operation contract, with a £40m taxpayer bill - ministers and civil servants are wise to refrain from putting pen to paper just yet.

But with over 2,500 onshore turbines already built, will we learn to love wind farms? 

The question is tricky, especially when taking into account the most similar superstructure to pepper the British landscape - pylons. Despite having adorned the countryside for over fifty years, Brits remain reticent over their aesthetic value. Little wonder when they are such monstrous towers of wrought iron practicality, that seldom pay attention to their surroundings. Even their more innocuous little brothers, telegraph poles, fail to curry favour with the public at large.

Therefore when considering whether Brits can actually grow to love wind farms, we must look further afield, at structures that have indeed had l attention lavished on their design - such as cable cars.

Like pylons, cable cars frequently find themselves jutting out of the most picturesque locations, basically decimating the inherent natural beauty of the site. However, unlike pylons, these structures have been approached in a range of different ways and with a variety of different designs.

One needs only to admire the futuristic Tignes ski lifts or even Israel’s Masada cable car, which has been sensitively matched to its desert surroundings.

Again, the approach here needs to be about the framing of the conversation. If I were in government, I’d commission some popular artists to submit designs for a relatively uncontroversial wind farm - whether it be the shape of their placement, or the individual design itself. Only then would the aesthetic discussion start to gain positive momentum.

In Portsmouth, when the council announced that we were to spend millions on a viewing tower, naturally the public were pretty hostile. However, when the top three designs were revealed, and the people of Portsmouth were invited to vote, this enfranchisement meant suddenly the conversation had shifted from ‘if’ to ‘what’. If the government are serious on delivering their 2020 obligations, they need promote this style of negotiation.