And in the Green corner...
Are you for or against windfarms? Given the controversy surrounding windfarms in Wales, and indeed the UK, I’m guessing most readers had a ready answer. It would be interesting to know how many people, although perhaps quite well informed on the issue, responded uncertainly: ‘I’m not sure.’ Even more interesting would be to know how many gave a contingent answer: ‘It depends’. Having researched windfarm development in Wales over a number of years, that would be my own response: It depends on whether all relevant voices are heard – and heeded – in decision-making processes, and on how such processes are constituted; It depends on where the windfarm is proposed; It depends on who benefits, on who owns the windfarm, the power and any profits generated. And, on another level, it depends on whether as a society we’ve had the conversations about how we value landscape, wind, energy and, ultimately, the lives of others: Are these fit subjects for the market domain?
Not so long ago, I would have had a definite answer to my initial question at the ready. However, talking to people around Wales whose daily lives and livelihoods are wrapped up with windfarm developments and experiencing for myself the landscapes of proposed and existing windfarms, electricity sub-stations and pylon corridors has given me a new perspective: I’m delighted to say I am now much less certain! So, this article won’t resolve the technical, economic or aesthetic controversies surrounding windfarms. Given the passions fuelling the debate, I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind, either: That’s almost precisely not the point. Rather, I hope to provide fresh food for thought, whether you’re for, against, uncertain, or even contingent. If I had one wish, though, it would be to stimulate any of these responses in anyone who is indifferent! Because what we as a society decide about our energy future is one of the most vital questions we face, both existentially and ethically.
Global climate and local communities
Driving my interest is the observation that opposition to windfarms may constrain the potential of an effective means of climate change mitigation. Although support for wind power has vacillated unsettlingly as political factions wrangle, the policies of both the UK and Wales governments commit them to major cuts in carbon emissions. Morally too, you might think it is the duty of wind-blessed Wales to contribute to mitigating global climate change? On the other side of the coin, it is apparent that ‘community benefits’ do not equate with justice for all of the people impacted locally by windfarms. The predominant factor influencing people’s support or opposition to windfarms, at least throughout Europe, is visual impact. Crucially, though, opposition is not motivated by bald self-interest: Windfarm opponents cannot simply be tarred with the not-in-my-back-yard (NIMBY) brush and so morally dismissed. I’m not saying self-interest isn’t in play, but rather that it is more complex than that. What most motivates opposition is that, in one way or another, people don’t feel windfarm developments are fair; they don’t believe justice is being done. Between the global and local scales, the UK government’s ideological commitment to markets and a cheapskate predilection to pay bargain-basement prices to attain national energy security threatens both commitments to mitigate global climate change and the quality of life of local communities. As the moral philosopher Michael Sandel argues so compellingly, the logics of justice and the feral market are not compatible.
Looking to landscape
Key to conceiving justice on both the global and local scale - and so challenging national policies - is re-imagining landscape. In common with most people, I think, my idea of landscape derived from paintings: So, it was static, rural and, with the exception of the odd hay wain, devoid of human life and industry. What I realised researching windfarms was that, while landscape is certainly visual, it is also dynamic, changing in space and time; it is alive - the milieu in which people relate to each other and the world everyday; and so it can be invested with profound emotions. So, how should landscape be valued? What institutional arrangements would be suitable to making decisions about this vital, varied and relational aspect of our lives in which most of us invest passionately, especially feelings of dwelling and home?
The analytical strength of landscape is its power to open up issues of justice across local, national and global scales. Because landscape cannot be contained by parish, county or national boundaries, it allows us to look – and so begin to understand – beyond borders. Similarly, landscape cannot be claimed as the preserve of the present: it has a past and a future. Landscape represents both our tangible need for survival and intangible spiritual, emotional and psychological needs quintessential to human experience.
Being heard and heeded
At the heart of controversies over windfarms is participation, which does present problems conceptually and in practice. Social justice hinges on everyone concerned having an equally effective voice. In May 2011, in reportedly the biggest demonstration rural mid-Wales had ever mounted, around 1,500 people protested against large-scale windfarm developments at the Senedd. Protesters carried placards critical of Technical Advice Note 8 (TAN 8), the planning policy which directs windfarm developments to designated areas. Jonathan Wilkinson, Chair of Montgomeryshire Against Pylons (MAP), told the media: ‘The very first thing they (the Welsh government) need to do is engage with local communities - it’s something they’ve completely failed to do: Get talking to us’. Even at the consultation stage, critics argue that TAN 8 discounted many dissenting responses because they were ‘negative’ expressions of emotion rather than the ‘constructive’ rational representations prescribed. Moreover, participation is not merely a matter of being heard, people’s view must also be acted upon. As my hill-farmer father used to enquire, checking I knew my jobs for the day: ‘Did you harken? And did you heed?’
Then, once a windfarm is proposed, it typically falls to the developer to decide who participates in ‘community liaison groups’. This seems a dubious practice: Communities with an interest in a landscape, such as ramblers, are likely to be excluded from such processes on the grounds of not being local residents; Participation may be limited to local councillors and economic regeneration organisations who, critics claim, are often seduced by the financial lure of community benefits and so fail to represent dissenting voices.
As problematic as local participation already is, however, windfarms are also the concern of nations seeking energy security and people impacted by climate change around the world, now and in the future. The arguments of citizens from frontline climate change states such as Tuvalu, Maldives and Bangladesh would be sure to challenge parochialism in debates about windfarms in Wales. Welsh communities impacted by extreme weather events associated with climate change may also want to have their say. Can communications technology help ensure that everyone concerned has an equally effective voice?
Recreating public spaces
Even Welsh wind power’s staunchest advocates find it difficult to defend TAN 8, particularly vis-à-vis public consultation. Thereafter, public meetings about windfarms tend to be poorly informed, aggressively adversarial, and so unproductive. There’s no feedback mechanism to policy-makers which could influence how justice is perceived and practiced. Alternatively, public meetings attract only one side of the argument and so only reinforce prejudices. Such meetings are also unproductive. Democracy does not gain from either close-minded conflict or exclusive consensus. Clearly, we will not be able to resolve our competing views about all aspects of windfarm development to everyone’s complete satisfaction: Such perfect justice is unattainable. What we can do is learn to communicate better and work together to reduce injustice. In this, we need a much greater awareness of how public space is created and how arguments therein are made and received. Good facilitation, transparent reporting and effective feedback are crucial. Even though arguments over windfarms may be incommensurable and irresolvable, if we can improve our political processes and increase the number of people who have an effective voice, then we will surely boost our collective sense of justice being better served, which in turn strengthens social cohesion and so is to be celebrated.
If all this is all too theoretical, take the example of the proposed pylon corridor to carry power from a number of windfarms along the Vyrnwy Valley in Montgomeryshire. Advocates and opponents may not be able to agree about the windfarms, but why can’t National Grid run the electricity cables underground? Burying the cables would not mean everyone concerned would agree justice had been done, but injustice would surely have been reduced. Too expensive or not technically feasible is reportedly National Grid’s standard refrain. But can that be so in every case? And isn’t a pylon corridor cheaper because it has become the stock technology: Isn’t there a stultifying path dependence? Even if the initial capital investment of under-grounding was greater, how much difference would it make to the unit cost of electricity over the twenty-five or so years of the life of the windfarms? Economics aside, we should also ask if financial costs and benefits are the be-all and end-all of how we value the living landscape of the Vyrnwy Valley, or of any place.
Reaping the (whirl)wind
Let’s turn to who benefits from windfarm development. Despite the claims for community benefits and economic development (see respectively David Clubb http://www.ynnicymru.org.uk/blog/powys-wheres-your-50-million/ and Cynog Dafis http://www.clickonwales.org/2013/05/sacred-landscape-and-sustainable-development/), I think it’s safe to say that who benefits most from large-scale windfarms are the developers, often one of the Big Six energy suppliers or associated companies. Many people believe developers benefit disproportionately compared to landowners and even more so compared to the communities of impacted landscapes. Others liken the harnessing of Wales’ wind by exogenous corporations and the export of energy to England to previous resource injustices such as the exploitation of slate, coal and water. Prefiguring a call for planning consents for major energy infrastructure projects to be devolved from to the Welsh government, even First Minister Carwyn Jones spoke of rural communities getting the ‘disbenefits of major infrastructure without the economic advantages high voltage power brings to city areas’.
There is certainly a case for national ownership of windfarms and also for state funding to facilitate community ownership of large-scale developments (a Welsh Development Bank?). Unfortunately, in December 2013, cuts in government subsidies to onshore windfarms, while reflecting their increasing financial viability, were a blow to smaller scale, community-owned developments and so to people increasing their knowledge of and control over energy generation. In his book ‘Reclaiming Public Ownership’, Andrew Cumbers looks to Denmark for models of how wind power can be developed without generating (sic) the divisive social tensions we experience in Wales. Mentioning Denmark reminds me of how we can look to the landscape of that nation, as well as to Germany and Spain, to counter arguments against the technical and economic viability of wind power in Wales: In those landscapes, wind power evidently works.
Conclusion: Re-evaluating value
At the outset, I said that my opinion about windfarm development would depend upon on where the development was proposed. That is not to say I agree with the automatic exclusion of windfarms from, say, National Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Indeed, such restrictions tend to morally reinforce opposition campaigns because they underscore that society considers windfarms to be blots on the landscape. My own ‘depends’ indicates that I think each case must be considered on its merits as it will mobilise unique communities of residence and of interest. There can be no one-size-fits-all formula for all time: If Wales accepted a pylon corridor through Snowdonia National Park from Trawsfyndd nuclear power station in the 1960s, what bearing does that have on the undesignated Vyrnwy Valley landscape of today?
I’ve argued that social justice as effective participation, economic justice as the fair(er) distribution of benefits, and spatial justice as the democratic organisation of public space should be central to windfarm development in Wales, arguments I would extend – at least - to all energy generation. Fundamental to this newly constituted debate must be questions about how we should value landscape, wind and energy when human lives and the biosphere depend on our decisions. At some level, we understand the limits to markets in this regard – why else as a society do we recognise fuel poverty and make winter fuel payments? Climate change means we must extend this understanding in space and time, to distant others and future generations. Earlier, I mooted the duty of wind-blessed Wales to contribute to mitigating global climate change. This is only our moral responsibility if that contribution is part of a genuine international effort, however. As things stand, this is not the case. The ethos of the pioneers of wind energy was to create an alternative to nuclear power that could be owned and controlled by local communities. Contemporary environmentalists have added global climate change mitigation to that ethos. But the ethos of national governments is dictated by attaining energy security at the lowest possible cost and the corporate development of windfarms is motivated by profit. In Wales, we have the worst of both worlds, with large corporations riding relatively roughshod over the concerns of landscape communities in the name of climate change mitigation while governments’ (lack of) transitional energy policies determines that no effective contribution to mitigation is made. The lack of political consistency means that the case of onshore wind development in Wales has become so bad that it is difficult not to conclude, in the wonderfully contradictory words of one person I spoke to: ‘That bird has flown; it’s a dead duck’. What fantastic opportunities we are missing, not only in terms of energy security and climate change mitigation but also democracy and economic justice.
Greg Dash, Aberystwyth University ‘Wind farm attitudes in Wales 'more complex' than love or hate’
2 November 2013 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-mid-wales-24776126
Michael Sandel’s 2009 Reith lecture ‘Markets and morals’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00kt7sh (see also ‘What money can’t buy’, published by Penguin)