If one wanted a clear example (out of many) where ideology trumps common-sense in Cameron’s Tory party, you couldn’t do better than their latest knee-jerk reaction against onshore wind turbines. They are a significant and fast-growing source of electricity in the UK and by far the cheapest source available to provide the low-carbon energy to meet Britain’s mandatory target of 15% of all energy consumption to come from renewables by 2015. Cameron appears to be floating the idea of including in the 2015 Tory manifesto either a cap on onshore turbines’ output or lower subsidies to make it harder or even impossible to operate them or tighter planning restrictions to prevent them being built. This crackers. To meet the legally binding target it would then be necessary to build more offshore windfarms or more nuclear power stations, both of which are far more expensive. Electricity from offshore turbines costs over 60% more than that produced by onshore turbines, whilst the new nuclear station at Hinckley Point C (if it is ever built at a cost of £14bn) is expected to produce electricity at twice the current price. Is Cameron mad or simply the cat’s-paw of his more wacky backbenchers?
So what are the arguments of the Tory energy dinosaurs? First, they say that the subsidies given to onshore windfarms make them too expensive. In fact, households paid £9 in 2013 for this purpose, which is just 0.7% of the average dual-fuel bill, and polling shows subsidies at this low level have majority support. Moreover green energy receives far lower subsidies than the nuclear or oil and gas industries received in their early stages of development.
Second, a lot of bigwigs in the Tory party complain that wind turbines disturb the view across their estates. Did they similarly object to electricity pylons? And are they aware that several of their kindred have claimed hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money for the privilege of being able to site turbines on their land? Some people, including in most cases me, believe that turbines have a certain elegance about them provided they are sensitively placed. Reaching agreement on this requires local communities to be properly and genuinely consulted about proposed locations till a reasonable consensus can be reached. Better still, the turbines should be owned by local communities as in Germany, not by large and deeply unpopular energy companies or by the landowners on whose land they are built.
Cameron’s policy instead of winding down the current green levies – “cutting the green crap” in his own words – which fund the energy saving and low-cost renewables that will more than anything else lower household energy costs in the long term, is frankly barmy. Cutting off your nose to spite your face, even for blatantly short-term electoral reasons or to keep his out-of-control backwoodsmen quiet, was never a good policy for people in trouble, least of all for prime ministers.