Wind turbines are good for farms, you say

There are some actions you know are going to get a heated debate going. Striding into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and asking loudly where you can get a beer is probably one of them. So, too, is arriving at a Friends of the Earth rally in a Range Rover V8 with 12-bore and dead pheasants on the back seat.

So were we being a bit rash in engaging you in a discussion about the pros and cons of wind turbines for the first outing of our new Big Debate series? Quite probably, but we were keen to attract your attention (we certainly did that) and widen the already-heated debate on FWi (we did that too):

How did the voting go?

In the event, 2085 people voted on the website, the second highest number ever. That’s a little way short of the 2346 people who voted on the vexed question of whether big producer single farm payments should be capped, but still good going.

Roughly 61% (1272) of you voted for the notion that wind turbines were good for farming and 30% (813) against. Predictable, perhaps, given our readership and the fact we were combining a general and a personal question in one – first, do you think wind turbines are an efficient way of generating energy? And second, would you be happy to have one on your land?

Taking positions

Some of our regular forum-goers took us to task on this (incidentally, if you’re not familiar with on-line forums it’s as well to know that most people use nicknames rather than their real names. Saves embarrassment if you bump into the internet-savvy vicar next day).

“What on earth have wind turbines to do with farmers?” asked the amusingly-titled R Slicker. “You might as well ask: Are new houses good for farming?” Surely the real question is: Are wind turbines an efficient and clean way to produce electricity?”

There was an initial flurry of comments along the same lines, probably because the arguments for and against wind power have been bubbling hotly for months now among regular FWi users. But our purpose was to widen a debate that had been beginning to go round in circles.

As the weekend progressed, the postings got longer and scientific facts were being trundled into position like cannons on the eve of Waterloo. New people were joining the debate and the regulars were giving as good as they got. In fact, as one person put it “All the other pro and anti-wind forums must be deserted because everyone seems to be on FWi.”

To reproduce all the arguments and counter-arguments would require more pages (and be more baffling) than a Barcelona bus timetable, so here is a flavour of the debate as it unfolded.

Opening shots

A strong opening salvo came from Markw. “Government policy is currently in favour of clean energy production and wind farms are the fastest, cheapest way to produce it. There can be nothing left to add to previous comments.” A brave attempt to damp down the smouldering debate, but the wires connecting users to the FWi server were already humming.

MarkW was soon backed up by Bandidoz who comprehensively drubbed some of the other power sources being suggested as possible 21st-Century energy saviours. “In less than 20 years the availability of non-renewables is likely to diminish,” he said. “Nuclear is nothing like the panacea you believe it to be. Wave and tidal technology is still in the R&D phase and pretty much all hydro sites are already utilised. Of all the renewables, wind is the most developed technology and also has the highest energy payback.”

Would the anti-wind lobby let such confidence go unchallenged? Not for long. Here’s John e (actually Dr John Etherington): “For politicians to persist in the wind power lunacy, against evidence that that our security of supply is threatened, seems to me near to treason.”


Blackout bickering

John e also set another missile soaring into the sky in the form of the 4 November Europe-wide power blackout, which many believe was partly caused by the unpredictability that wind generation builds into national electricity supply systems. He’s also pretty sceptical of the ability of renewables generally to cut carbon emissions much. “The bottom line is that the government’s own forecast of the CO2 saving by all renewables in the 2010 target will be less than the emission from a single medium-sized fossil-fuelled power station.”

But he in turn was countered by He his-self, one of FWi’s most frequent contributors, who pointed out that that the power failure and instability in the grid was caused as much by the lack of a proper Euro trunk network as power coming from renewable sources.

Sound sources

There was a lot more to-ing and fro-ing along the same lines, with some very detailed technical arguments that you’d need to be an electrical engineer to understand fully. In fact it was beginning to look like a forum from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers or maybe even MENSA.

Time to talk to someone who actually has some turbines. Richard Palmer lives on a wind farm with 11 of them so he should know. “I read about the inefficiency of wind turbines but they are new technology and if they are invested in now will vastly improve over time.” This notion of “give us a chance to get the technology right” surfaced several times.

But Fwchloe, a big hitter for the anti camp, had a big list of doubts about wind turbines. “Is this industrial build good for farmland?” he (or she) demanded. “Are thousands of tonnes of concrete good for it? Is the noise conducive to a farmer’s – and his stock’s – well-being? Is the loss of friends and standing in the local community a price worth paying? Farmers are being ripped off by the wind developers. They stand to make £500,000 per turbine per year – the sums they offer farmers are a tiny fraction of that.”

Powerful points, but Bandidoz was ready with a point-by-point counter-argument and summarised thus: “When the routine power cuts begin, economic recession bites and house prices collapse, those concerns will feel like a walk in the park. And if you’re concerned about developers making a killing, set up a co-operative so that the whole community receives an income.”

A fair point, that was echoed by Malcolm McAllister: “If the hundreds of thousands of pounds they generate in business rates went to the local council and not to central government, local communities would have a truly significant financial benefit.”


Another area that the pro and anti camps were resolutely unable to agree on was noise. Here’s fwchloe again: “Modern turbines are definitely not silent in any conditions. The Vesta turbine manufacturer’s specification says that, at source, a turbine will generate 101-106dBA.”

And here’s AllyR: “To suggest that these turbines are running at over 100dBa is a bit far-fetched. I have been involved with wind farm applications where the maximum turbine noise is 55dBA. Compare that with a Q-cab tractor which is about 70-75dbA.”

Richard Palmer, who has 11 turbines, agrees. “The noise pollution is greatly exaggerated. I can’t hear them at all once I’m 100m away and it’s not that loud directly underneath.”

facts faxed

We had quite a few blog comments and faxes too, more or less evenly divided between the pro and con camps.

RJ Newton was worried that those widely-criticised farm subsidies were simply turning into turbine subsidies. And that they’re a bit measly too. “Out of subsidies of £235,000 a year, farmers can expect to receive between £7000 and £10,000 a year. Would you sell your soul for such a meagre amount?”

TJ and CM McCabe had some doubts about wind power, too, but thought that, on balance, they were a path worth pursuing. “We can’t do nothing. If pilot projects with turbines etc lead to something better, their use could possibly be justified. The best inventions aren’t always pretty at the start.”

So did anyone win the wind turbine debate?

No of course not. This seems to be a battle in which one side can beat the other in small skirmishes, but no-one can win the war as a whole. Both camps draw on a small army of experts and often-contradictory reports to bolster their case.

Someone called We Need the Facts bemoaned the biased nature of the information in his comments on the blog: “It is a great pity that all the input was from interested parties as opposed to some independent factual info.” A great idea, but who and where are the independent bodies that can provide such info? There might be organisations who are theoretically independent, but individuals will still have their own ideas. A wider role for the Consumer Association or National Audit Office, perhaps?

So what did our FWi debate achieve? It may not have produced the unassailable argument that silences all others for ever but it’s helped educate us all in a fiendishly complex area. So thanks to everyone who got involved. Though there was a little cattiness at times (you know who you are), the immense technical knowledge and passion of all who took part was genuinely impressive.

PS: farmerbill and one or two others who weren’t exactly bowled over by our choice of forthcoming Big Debate topics, please let us know what subjects you’d like to see aired. That goes for anyone else out there – please tell us what subjects get you hot under the collar.

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