I talk to people on trains. I can’t help it. It’s because I struggle to be quiet for a long stretch of time, and chatting on a mobile phone while in public transit is the height of rudeness. So I strike up random conversations with strangers. My best ones have included a woman who turned her house into a soup kitchen during the miners’ strike, an Australian surgeon and kidney specialist, and now, just last week, a Danish PhD student. Random conversations are good – they get you thinking.
We were travelling through the countryside and a wind farm came into view in the distance. This was a talking point.
“Ah,” said my Danish associate, “turbines. Good to see. You British like to embrace green technology.” (This is all delivered with a better command of the English language than I will ever have). I nodded, although not entirely agreeing with the sentiment. “Denmark leads the way on wind energy. It is the future,” added my companion. Thus a wind farm debate was sparked (including later, as it happens, an elderly man from Warrington who also chipped in with his view).
I admit it I am a fan of wind turbines. This is partly because I have recently moved north to a place with both commercial and domestic wind energy working successfully. I like what I see. In fact, as I write, it is very windy and the small turbine outside is helping to power a battery which is, in turn, keeping the lights on and boiling a kettle. I am also a fan of wind turbines because I think they are good to look at, they add to a landscape rather than detract from it, and wind energy is a good opportunity for agriculture. “We can still do the food bit, by the way,” a wind farm suggests to me, “but fancy some energy from this land as well?”
Wind energy is important in Denmark, too, as I learn when I return home and research it. This much is obvious, with the Danish wind energy industry supporting 20,000 jobs and projected to cover 25% of power consumption by the end of 2008. Also, a huge percentage of Danish wind farms are owned by local turbine co-operatives. Perhaps the most important element is that wind farms are well liked in Denmark, which is more than can be said in the UK.
Wind power has divided opinion here, but it seems that times of economic uncertainty focus minds a little. For instance, the public may care lots about the different ways in which their food is produced in times of plenty, but some have a rethink when belts need tightening. Witness the reduction in sales of organic food and the rise of discount retailers.
I hope the same principle will apply for renewable energy. Things are changing quickly. Not only is the era of cheap food over, but so is the era of cheap energy. Concerns about wind turbines’ effects on bird populations, house prices, noise levels and on countryside aesthetics may become less important for public acceptability as energy costs and supply become a more pressing issue.
Climate change conversations have swiftly and rightly moved from ponderings on whether it is all a big con to head-scratching over what we are going to do about it. With an aim to have 20% of our energy from renewable sources by 2020, wind power has to be a big part of it. Some countries are ahead of us, so we’d best get a move-on.