LONDON -- They've been blamed by denizens of some local communities for migraines, tinnitus, heart attacks and hearing loss. Their presence on the landscape has been likened to an alien invasion.
Are they really from outer space? Hardly. They're the wind turbines sprouting up like daffodils around the United Kingdom. But for some U.K. ministers, they're about as welcome as nettles.
Conservative MP John Henry Hayes, minister of state for energy at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, thinks the liabilities introduced by wind power far outweigh their virtues. A few weeks ago, in a statement leaked to a daily paper, he declared wind turbines to be the devil's handiwork.
Alluding to a stanza from "Jerusalem," a William Blake poem and the unofficial anthem of England, Hayes vowed to "protect our green and pleasant land" from the advance of the wind turbines.
His boss, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Liberal Democrat Ed Davey, was unhappy about this blowback. Davey had previously ordered Hayes to strike the allegorical phrase from a speech he delivered at the RenewableUK annual conference in Glasgow, Scotland. RenewableUK is the United Kingdom's leading renewable energy trade association.
Hayes' sentiments have more to do with personal aesthetics than economics or interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Not only do the spinning blades ruin the landscape, but he implied they may interfere with radar reception on military aircraft -- a suggestion the military has yet to verify.
The row between Hayes and Davey is just one part of the political tempest over energy generation in what is arguably the windiest country in Europe. The United Kingdom has the potential to generate electricity to supply its energy needs from wind and then some.
Numbers that don't add up
Davey has since reaffirmed his department's goal to get 30 percent of all U.K. electricity from renewable sources by 2020 and, of that, 20 percent from wind. But some of the political terrain he must cross to get there is suffering from a case of acute NIMBYism (not-in-my-backyard outrage). Public opposition has stalled numerous wind farm projects already on the books.
To date, there are 4,035 on- and offshore wind turbines in operation in the United Kingdom and surrounding waters. The total average power produced for the past six years was about 17.7 million megawatt-hours, which translates into electric power for 5.3 million homes. The carbon offset is the equivalent of taking about 1.7 million cars off the road.
In the mid-Wales area Montgomeryshire, as in many parts of the country, these are not numbers that add up for local politicians like Welsh Assembly Member Russell George. His constituents strenuously object to onshore wind farm development. Local groups have stymied planning for five new wind turbine projects, calling for a public inquiry.
"Turbines hinder tourism," George said. If these projects go forward, 40 miles of pylons carrying 400-kilovolt lines will need to be built in areas of natural beauty. And, he said, the highway infrastructure doesn't exist to bring in heavy construction equipment. "Then there's the infrastructure needed to get that generated energy onto the national grid. Where will that come from?" he asked.
Data collected by local councils show that nearby Snowdonia National Park draws three times the tourism income that mid-Wales attracts, and the scenic park has 39 miles of high-voltage cable and pylons already spanning it.
Buddug Bates, a retired school principal, lives near Llanfair Caereinion in mid-Wales, where she and her husband, Mick, farm 200 acres. She says local politics trumps statistics. The Bateses have faced public intimidation for supporting wind energy.
"People here think any new infrastructure desecrates the countryside," she said. "There isn't a tourist trade here. There never was. It's a farming community. The only tourist traffic are caravans driving through on the way to the coast."
"You'd think this was the forest primeval," she added, alluding to Hayes' much-publicized statement. "That's nonsense. Farms, farming, people living here made this landscape what it was. And they'll continue to. Nothing stays the same forever. That's progress."
A project is becalmed
Buddug and Mick Bates' neighbor, third-generation farmer Gwyn Morris, and his brother farm 650 breeding ewes and 85 head of cattle on 247 acres of upland grassland. Recognizing that government subsidies to farmers operating on less desirable lands are being phased out, Morris, a pragmatist, began to research possibilities for harvesting the wind.
Morris set about obtaining permits to erect two 50-kilowatt wind turbines, one on his brother's part of the farm and a second on his own. He could generate enough power to run his own home and business, then sell the surplus back to the national grid.
After considerable difficulty, including reviews by the Countryside Council for Wales, the Powys County Council granted Morris planning permission to generate wind power.
But trouble began with the erection of the first wind turbine. A local agitator posted Morris' name and mobile phone number on a dedicated Facebook page, encouraging other anti-wind activists in Powys to call and harass him.
"I don't know whether it's fear of change, or envy or what," Morris said. Now he faces a new obstacle: The turbine system requires a single-to-three-phase power converter in order to tie in to the national grid. Although he paid Scottish Power months ago to install it, the local utility has yet to do so.
So his new wind turbine just sits there. Unlike his cattle, it produces no income. Morris has asked his regional Welsh assembly member, Liberal Democrat William Powell, to "rattle a few cages" and see what the problem is.
Who owns the wind energy?
Despite the local outcry in Wales, a poll sponsored by the Co-operative Group, the United Kingdom's largest mutual business, with more than 6 million members around the country, revealed twice as many people would support wind turbines within 2 miles of their home as would oppose it (49 percent in favor versus 22 percent opposed).
Age is a significant factor in the degree to which people support onshore wind: 64 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds said they'd support local wind farms, while only 10 percent would oppose them. People over age 65, though, are divided, 38 percent for, 34 percent against. Still, wind farms are six times more popular with the British public than is the prospect of shale gas development.
Paul Monaghan, head of social goals at the Co-operative, said opposition to onshore wind power seems to be the purview of a "vocal, politically connected minority." The poll also indicated that opposition dissipates almost entirely when wind farms are owned by and for the benefit of local communities.
Given the local ownership scenario, older age groups support developments near where they live. Sixty-one percent of people over 65 said they'd support a community-owned wind farm, whereas only 13 percent said they'd oppose it.
Back in Westminster, Department of Energy and Climate Change chief Davey reinforced his support for wind power, pointing out it is wind's very efficiency that made a 10 percent reduction in development subsidies possible. He added that there are "no reviews being done of onshore wind on the basis of landscape or property values."