NIMBYS: The English and Wind Power

By Brian Witt


Driving towards my parents' house from Manchester Airport, through the rolling green fields of the English Midlands, something struck me.  Amid the hedgerows and quaint farmhouses, the little stone villages and Victorian industrial towns, something was starkly missing.  On this typically blustery December day, I saw barely a dozen windmills.

England is one of Europe’s best potential locations for wind power, and opinion polls show consistent support (often over 80%) for greater use of wind power.  Studies have even shown that each wind turbine built generates nearly £2 million to the local economy. However, while an English wind turbine generates almost 50% more energy than a comparable one located in far less windy Germany, the Germans have built more than 6 times as many wind turbines per square kilometer.

Equally windswept European countries, like Scotland, Ireland, and Denmark, have enthusiastically embraced wind power, realizing its potential to generate jobs and reduce dependence on expensive imported and destructive fuels like coal or oil. A recent agreement between the Irish and UK governments resulted in a deal to import wind-generated power from Ireland, at a cost of over 10,000 English jobs.  While less than a third of proposed English wind farms even get past the planning process, Scotland's devolved government plans on 100% renewable generation in the country by 2020, with wind destined to comprise a large share.  While the UK has less than 6,000 employed in the wind energy sector (despite having almost a third of the European wind power potential), Denmark, with a population less than a tenth as big, employs more than 20,000.

England has underutilized wind power, not because of an overly powerful fossil fuel lobby nor wide-spread climate change denial, but because of a culture of severe "NIMBYism." England has long had a strong NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) movement, an alliance of rural shire Tories and back to nature Greens motivated by a nostalgic romanticizing of a pastoral "Merrie Old England" that never was. NIMBYs are often in favor of renewable energy and supportive of efforts to fight climate change, just not if it changes a favorite view or casts a strange shadow. Whether in the pages of the deeply Conservative Daily Telegraph or the crunchy, organicGuardian, these "defenders of the countryside" proudly proclaim their NIMBYism as they protest any efforts to build onshore wind turbines and kick England's addiction to fossil fuels.

Up the River Trent from my parents' house, just south of the beautiful and historic city of York lies a gentle dale now called Megawatt Valley. Because of its location near the formerly immense -now exhausted-Selby coalfield and proximity to the industrial centers of northern England, three immense coal power stations were built in this small area in the 1950s. The largest of these, Drax, emits over 22 million tons of CO2 a year, more than the entire nation of Sweden.  The landscape for miles around is dominated by the massive chimney (over 850ft high), designed to disperse toxic emissions from the plant across miles of Yorkshire countryside.  Perhaps a wind turbine is not the most scenic addition to the English countryside. But surely there is something beautiful in the prospect of finally being able to tear down the chimneys of all the Drax’s dotted around England, with blighting not only views but the world's climate and the cancer rates of the surrounding districts.



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