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Monday, June 4, 2012

Giving power to the people can solve the wind farm stand-off

 Seven people in 10 want more wind farms built across the countryside to meet Britain's energy needs – despite a high-profile political backlash which jeopardises their future.

The Treasury is considering cuts of up to 25 per cent in subsidies for on-shore wind farms after intense lobbying from countryside campaigners and rural Conservative MPs.

Critics claim that the turbines – many built in picturesque places – cause significant noise pollution and would be economically unviable without such large government handouts.

But a ComRes poll for The Independent reveals surprisingly strong public support for wind farms: 68 per cent of the public believe that new wind farms are "an acceptable price to pay" for greener energy in the future.

Younger people are more supportive than older, with almost 80 per cent of those aged between 18 and 44 backing wind farms, compared with 59 per cent of those aged 45 and over.

The findings will encourage the Liberal Democrats, traditionally greenest of the three main parties, who are determined the Coalition does not falter in its drive for more renewable energy.

The Conservative party failed to get a majority in 2010 and, with the economy tanking, the prospects of reversing that in 2015 look shaky. So when 100 backbench Tory MPs wrote to the prime minister in February, demanding "drastic cuts" to support for onshore wind, they got noticed. They clearly feel opposition in the shires is damaging their chances of re-election, meaning Osborne's attack on the subsidies makes political sense. The fact it does not make economic sense seems to matter less to our finance minister.

There is undoubtedly deep and growing unhappiness about local wind farms in some places: strong opposition has trebled to 21% since 2010. The sense of invasion by outsiders is legitimate and a very powerful force, but has also led to unfortunate gales of nonsense being peddled about the supposed uselessness or expensiveness of wind power. But elsewhere, the winds of change have been altogether gentler.

In Germany, 20% of all electricity comes from renewable energy and over 65% of the turbines and solar panels are owned by individuals, farmers and communities. Bringing power to the people, at the expense of unpopular utility companies, has delivered overwhelming public acceptance. In the UK, less than 10% of renewable energy is owned locally. Over 90% is owned by the big energy firms, seen as untrusted giants dumping turbines into the countryside and taking the proceeds out.

Community ownership is transformative, according to Lord Adair Turner, chair of the government's official advisers, the Committee on Climate Change. "Rather than looking at a wind farm and saying 'that big company dumped it here to make profit', people look at it and say 'that's ours and I get some profit from it'," he told me in March. "As a result it turns out aesthetic perceptions are deeply subjective and you say 'I rather like it' rather than 'I rather dislike it.'" You can call that a "bribe" if you like, as influential Tory MP Tim Yeo did on Monday, or you could call it "sharing the benefits".

There are two paths forward. Either Cameron and Osborne, pressed hard by their Liberal Democrat coalition partners, can meet the nation's wishes and - to some extent - those of their backbenchers by fully backing wind power, while ensuring far more communities see the benefit and that the planning system continues to reject bad developments.

Or they can continue their retreat from the promise of being "the greenest government ever" and hope that secures them just enough support from the minority opposed to wind power to squeeze them into government in 2015. Which path will they take? The answer is still blowing in the wind.
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