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Could the countryside survive a green power revolution?

Friday 28 February 2003

Although country columnist John Sheard believes Government plans for "green" electricity are largely hot air, he still fears they might cause untold damage to the landscape

REGULAR readers will know that I am deeply suspicious of this Government's policy towards to the countryside - if, of course, it does have a policy at all. For five years, it has shown a complete lack of knowledge of how it works and even less understanding of what country people need.

But this week, the Prime Minister himself joined the spin doctors in trying to persuade the country that, within fifty years, we shall produce 60% of our electricity by wind- or wave-power.

And this, with present technology, is total nonsense unless we take one grievous step: we bury virtually every rural hillside under a blanket of windmills or ruin every seascape with mile upon mile of strange swaying floating breakwaters, also adorned with hundreds of propellers and God knows what else.

Wind Turbines - Chelker Reservoir
Wind Turbines - Chelker Reservoir

For once again, our lords and masters have fallen for PR perception, rather than factual science, and are going to phase out our atomic power stations which emit about the same amount of radioactivity into the surrounding atmosphere as a handful of coffee beans - for radioactivity is present in many naturally occurring substances.

Now I admit it may seem odd for a man who writes about the environment to be a supporter of nuclear power but, in this, I am merely being pragmatic: I much prefer this necessary evil to that of coal-powered production.

There has never been a single case of proven death caused by nuclear power plants in half a century of operation. Over that time, scores of miners have been killed or horribly injured - and we should never forget the school children of Aberfan buried alive under a coal tip avalanche.

I admit, too, that disposing of nuclear waste in an incredibly challenging problem. But, from a rural point of view, it is nowhere near as damaging as acid rain created by English coal-fired power stations which polluted not only vast areas of Northern England and Scotland but also huge swathes of Scandinavia.

However, Maggie Thatcher killed off the coal industry and now Tony Blair has condemned the nuclear industry. So, unless we go back to oil lamps and log fires (which might in fact be a very nice idea) where will we get our electricity in 2050?

At present, nuclear energy provides roughly a quarter of the nation's energy needs and wind-power less than 5% at an excruciatingly high cost. Present wind-power operators can only stay in business because they are given very high subsidies. Those are due to run out in the next few years - and critics believe that many operators will go out of business.

The Government is hoping that a massive increase in wind-power generation will bring down "unit costs" to reduce the bills. To do so, however, would mean a huge expansion so that wind farms would cover millions of acres of Britain.

And where will they put them? In the cities and the suburbs, where most of the voters live - and particularly the politically correct supporters of this particular regime whose views hold sway in Downing Street and Whitehall.

Not on your Nelly! They will go where the hills are, as far away from towns as possible and (sorry about the cynicism here) mostly in constituencies which return Tory of Lib-Dem MPs!

And where does that leave the Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District and the whole stretch of the Pennines from Derbyshire's Peak District to Hadrian's Wall? Welcome to half a century of waving goodbye to some of England's finest scenery.

Of course, many of us will be dead and gone by 2050. Tony Blair will be a footnote in history. Is it possible that this might be just another spinfest, with politicians making promises which they will never have to defend?

That's our best hope. But on present form, they could try the experiment in the next few years and do immense harm before admitting failure. By then, it could be too late...

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