A climate terrorist’s take on wind farms

I sometimes go for a charge (i.e. a walk, a ramble) over some hills in the south of Glasgow. The view can be spectacular. The city of Glasgow to the north, the Firth of Clyde to the west. But the grandest feature of all (ha, take that Ben Lomond) is Whitelee wind farm.

There are 215 wind turbines in Whitelee and they look fantastic. If they’re all working full stint, their owner says, they’ll generate enough electricity for around 300,000 homes. There are about 1.5m homes in Scotland. So just this one ‘wind farm’ is really packing a massive punch. Seeing those turbines makes me think ‘why don’t we have more?’ I regularly fly from Glasgow to Dublin (I’m a climate terrorist, if ever there was one) and look down on large sections of the Scottish west coast where it just seems sensible to locate many more wind farms. Then there’s the coastline. Roll ‘em out, I say. They don’t ruin the view, so far as I’m concerned. And central to my take on wind farms is that I’m just a big fan of import substitution. I’m especially drawn to the idea that the peoples of a place – Scotland, Ireland, wherever – can actually generate substantial amounts of electricity from the wind, this free renewable resource, and thereby reduce the amount of money they must send abroad to import commodities such as natural gas, oil, or coal. Ireland, for example, although its wind sector has expanded considerably (and globally ranks well on a per capita basis), still imports billions of Euros worth of energy. Even the UK, which has its own gas sector, imports huge amounts of natural gas, mainly from Norway (a ‘nice’ trade partner, perhaps) but also Qatar (a not-so-nice one?). Although it probably still makes more economic sense to import these forms of energy, and no doubt is necessary given the relatively immature stage of development of the renewables sector, the case for wind farms still seems very strong to me. So why don’t we have more? Why aren’t more of us drawn to this? Why don’t the peoples / governments of every place go on a massive wind farm binge – sure, there’s been a lot invested already; but so much more can be done – and end their reliance on fuel imports, at least to a much fuller extent than they currently are?

A big factor might be scepticism about (or opposition to) wind farms, not least regarding their (purported!) ugliness. I don’t get that at all. But then, I don’t need to live near any wind turbines. Maybe there is a case for reserving certain rural areas – the Cairngorms in Scotland, say, or the Wicklow mountains near Dublin – and keeping them turbine-free? And a case, too, for rolling them out with a bit more ease elsewhere? That’s a relatively straightforward proposition in many parts of rural (desolate, cleared, only-fit-for-deer) Scotland, although it’s harder in Ireland which is still very much a lived-in countryside.

But another factor in all this is that wind farms are only becoming part of the landscape due to market-based calculations. And the rub here is that, if my view is despoiled and the only people who gain materially from that today – even if over the long-term we might conceivably all benefit from reduced CO2 emissions – are private investors (i.e. those who own the stock of Scottish Power, who run Whitelee; or the shareholders of Siemens or GE, who make turbines), few of whom I’ll ever meet (and many of whom, no doubt, will go on to donate their accumulated wealth to politicians who refuse to do anything about climate change), then maybe it’s much harder for me (or many others) to support the rollout of the sorts of massive wind farms we / the planet might actually need(s) to see.

As such, the contemporary case for renewable energy such as wind farms, is intimately bound up with the strained relationship between the public and the market – that is, with turbine manufacturers, their economies of scale, profits; with political economy, policy decisions, state aid, subsidies; with stories in the business sections of newspapers; with loads and loads of market encounters based on calculations about how the spaces all around us are going to be altered to address climate change, of course, but yet also because there’s serious money to be made from altering our spaces to address climate change.

It’s plain to point out, then, that relations between the public and the market are fundamental to climate change debates. My place, your place, the landscapes we look out upon, our experiences of the world around us (even our future as a species?) – – all are shaped by ongoing profit-maximizing calculations filtered through the lens of lenders and investors in far away stock markets who control the conduits that end up delivering (or not) a wind farm here or there.

And although plenty of economists will make the case that the market will (or, at least, can) address climate change, it seems there is also a strong case to be made for viewing the market as a major obstacle, especially when the public still have a say in how their land(scapes) should function or appear. Perhaps, therefore, a controversial (in the context of the market’s taken-for-granted dominance today) but sensible proposition might yield democratic deliberation regarding ways of establishing public control over the renewables infrastructure we will need to address climate change. If citizens actually owned wind farms (even if the private sector was involved in producing, erecting, and operating them under license from citizens) and could see immediate-term reductions in their energy bills (and perhaps also equity in the form of improved public services), as well as develop a sense that there could be long-term planetary benefits, perhaps more of us would support the roll out of wind farms.

The ability of wind turbines to generate cheap electricity is on the rise. Quite dramatically so. Maybe this shift will filter through to energy consumers and will be enough, on its own, to see wind farms attract greater popular support (although tempered by the threat that energy prices could rise once again; the price of wind power is one thing, what suppliers can charge consumers to buy it is quite another).

But the case for public (or perhaps in some places, community) ownership of renewable energy infrastructure seems to me to be the missing link in seeing firmer support emerge for these contested but necessary entities called wind farms. If we knew it was ours, if the benefits stayed with us here in this place (wherever ‘this’ place is), perhaps wind farms would be just that little bit more popular (and therefore more viable). In short, maybe public ownership is what’s needed to cool the planet.

Alistair Fraser


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