Fanning the flames

What happens if you apply the precautionary principle to wind farms?

Vivian Moses

Topics Politics

On 27 July 2002, The Times (London) carried a major article on AEA Technology’s claims that a quarter of Britain’s energy needs could be met by building a complex of wind farms in the North Sea off East Anglia.

The scale of the proposal for the North Sea is staggering. Eight miles offshore, 40 wind farms would involve 15,000 turbines, each 300 feet tall. Whether the individual windmills would be mounted directly on the seabed or placed on one or more islands is unclear, as is the size of the area that will be occupied. If they are all put together, 500 feet apart, the total area might be something like 100 square miles.

There would be an enormous environmental impact with clear implications for human and animal health. There could be a risk to bird flocks, which could either collide with the rotating vanes or be thrown off course by unexpected variations in wind patterns.

In the lee of the site, the wind speed would presumably be much lower, energy having been removed to turn the rotors. What effect might that have on waves and water movements? And how would that affect fish and other forms of marine life?

The electric current generated, most likely at high voltage, would presumably come ashore via cables laid on the sea bottom. This could present a hazard to inshore shipping fouling the installations, as well as to marine organisms whose environment would be altered in unforeseeable ways and with unknown consequences.

Would there not also be a risk of high-intensity magnetic fields generated along the cables themselves, which might disturb migratory animals and have long-term effects on people living near the shore? After all, some scientists and commentators claim that overhead high-tension lines have contributed to a rise in cancer – maybe seabed cables would do likewise.

It seems there is an urgent need for extensive laboratory testing of all these risks before any such installations are built. It is extremely worrying that wind turbines are already operating off Blyth Harbour in Northumbria. Was a public debate held before they were put there? Were the local residents consulted – or was the decision made over their heads without offering them the chance to object?

The environmental risks are even more troubling. Building thousands of free-standing windmills in relatively confined areas off the British coast will have entirely unpredictable effects not only on the local ecology but also much further afield.

The local climate will surely be affected. With a projected cost of £20billion, you can be sure there would be no question of dismantling the wind farms if things went wrong. It would be too expensive, they would say; the commitment had already been made, the ‘the genie was already out of the bottle’. Besides, by then we would have dismantled so much of our conventional energy generation that there would be no way we could survive without the wind farms.

It is essential now – before it is too late – to insist that we don’t need such monstrous developments. More environmentally friendly ways will have to be found for generating energy, while we make absolutely certain that there is no harm to human health or to the environment from these wind farms.

Unless such farms can be shown to be absolutely safe they should never be built. At the very least, there should be a five-year freeze on such developments while more research is undertaken to prove their safety for human, animal and plant life.

Does this line of argument sound familiar?

  • Postscript, 8 March 2004:

It just goes to show how good scientists are at thinking ahead.
On 4 February 2004, The Times (London) published a piece by its countryside editor, under the headline ‘Call to test wind farm bird danger’. It reported that English Nature wanted to delay the development of a proposed wind farm at Shell Flat near Blackpool because it fears that the second largest flock of common scoter in Britain will be displaced. They must have read my article on spiked and started thinking….

Vivian Moses is chairman of CropGen, and emeritus professor of microbiology at Queen Mary University of London

Read on:

Chewing over GM food, by Professor Vivian Moses

Risk, science and society, by Professor Sir Colin Berry

The price of precaution, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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