“Look at the energy efficiency of this.” John Zamick, 57, stands beneath a single wind turbine in a field near Swindon. “I stand here in awe. This is unbelievable magic. It’s money from thin air.” “Thick air,” says his colleague, Bob Carnell, 60. Unabashed, Zamick continues. “That tower is 40 tons of steel. But it’s an eggshell. It’s 10mm thick at the top, at the bottom, 20mm.”
Zamick’s company, DistGen, has six turbines in the UK and is raising crowdfunded investment in order to finish another one, in Cumbria. Shortly afterwards, we cross a door marked Danger of Death, into the turbine itself, a tiny round room full of grey boxes, that looks like an advert for joining the army. “I don’t think you’d be in this business unless you’re a true believer. And I am a believer. But I came from an engineering and business background. I’m not a hippie.”
Onshore wind energy in the UK is bracing itself for the enaction of promises made in the Conservative manifesto. It’s possible that the Conservatives are bracing themselves, too, having conceivably not expected to have to follow through on them. There were three relevant pledges: one was to end the renewable obligation subsidy scheme a year early, with the intention of putting a stop to any new turbines; another was to have more local say in the planning of renewable energy; and a third was to prioritise renewables at the lowest possible cost. Those first and last promises are explicitly contradictory, since onshore wind is the cheapest renewable. It’s impossible to prioritise and shut it down at the same time. But the middle promise is a little vexed also, since it was made with the apparent conviction that people don’t like windfarms, especially the people who live near them.
“We think it’s great,” says Jane Girling, from the nearby pub, the Bull, in Hinton. “It makes me feel optimistic just looking at it. It gives me hope for the future.” “I know that some people like it and some people don’t,” says Richard, the pub’s proprietor, diplomatically. Has he ever heard anyone arguing about it in the pub? “Oh no,” he says forcefully. “Nobody ever talks about it.”
The untold story of the wind industry is how much energy it produces. You hear a lot about peaks of supply to the grid (one time when it was really windy last August, wind met 22% of the UK’s’ energy needs; in Denmark, they sometimes have to turn their turbines off because the grid can’t handle it). But the magic of which Zamick speaks is when you conceive of a single turbine in terms of how much energy it can supply to the houses around it. “This is a 40m tower. The rotor is 52m. The tips create a swept area, and you calculate the energy from that area, which is pi r squared.” (This is more detail than I asked for, but now I know it, you must know it.) It amounts to 18m kilowatt hours per year, enough to meet the energy needs for a one-mile radius around it. “I think they’re ugly in large numbers,” says Mr Rushbrook, also in the pub. “But I don’t mind that one. I didn’t even notice it had gone up. And we can see it from our garden.” “It does make you wonder why there aren’t more of them,” Carnell says. “When you think of climate change, and local generation for local use, the economic benefit of generating within your own economy, and de-stressing the grid … ”
Carnell’s a very mellow person, unlike Zamick, who is reaching the end of his patience with energy markets. “All large-scale generation goes abroad. With most fossil fuels, you’re paying for the fuel abroad and you’re shipping the profits abroad. Distributed energy is a form of democracy.” Wind money, especially smaller projects which can be crowdfunded, they call “sticky”. The farmers get £20,000 a year; the parish gets a lump sum when it’s first built. The servicing is done locally. And yet councils are extremely chary about giving permission: the planning application for Swindon was originally turned down because it was near an iron age fort and a burial barrow. Five people at the Bull shake their heads in disbelief; the landscape already has two sets of pylons, the larger ones almost as high as the turbine, stalking across the hills, and the M4 ploughing past about 200 yards away.
“I see five lobbies driving the Tory party,” John Zamick declares, in his most straightforward “I’m an engineer, not a hippy” delivery. “The oil and gas industry, who want fracking to get the money. The car industry, allied to oil and gas. The business lobby – their driver is that they don’t care where energy comes from, it’s just got to be cheap. The shire Tories, who are all about preserving an idea of the countryside. And the city, who see the money that Wall Street has made out of fracking.”
“I don’t know what the practicalities are,” Mr Rushbrook concludes. “I think there are too many subsidies.” But Bruce Davis, who runs Abundance, which does the crowdfunding for wind turbines (full disclosure: I have interviewed him before, for a piece on alternative finance) points out that subsidy is just a different word for the government funding that goes into all energy forms – to oil and gas in tax breaks, to nuclear and solar in differently-structured subsidies. A government could, if it wanted to, invest in wind as though it were a fossil fuel, and give the developers a tax break for building the turbines, rather than a feed-in tariff for selling the energy. It wouldn’t be cheaper. “But if you drive it with tax incentives,” Davis says, “you bring in the wrong kind of money. They don’t care about becoming long-term producers of green energy. They’ve made the money with the tax break.”
“The lobbies don’t just lobby for what they want,” Zamick says. “They lobby actively against us.” (I’ve heard this from very senior figures in solar as well). “It’s a bit like the benefits bill. The emotions are out of all proportion to what it actually amounts to. Why are there these anti-wind statements, when there could be no statements?”