National Trust inconsistent in opposing all wind farms while saying it supports renewable energy

(A version of this article was published on the Guardian web site on Friday 19th April) (All praise to the National Trust for its recently announced commitment to increasing the use of renewable energies at its properties. The promise to produce over half its power and heat from heat pumps, wood, solar and hydro-electric power by 2020 is a model for all organisations. But at the same time as cutting its use of fossil fuels it is actively opposing others who want to do the same on land adjacent to its own. And as the largest environmental organisation in the UK with four million members its overall influence on the development of renewable energy is not benign.

The Trust is currently fighting against 25 wind farm proposals close to its houses or landholdings. Its determined and (so far) successful opposition to four wind turbines within sight of the majestic Lyveden New Bield ruin in Northamptonshire is a good example. The four proposed wind turbines would be easily visible from the property. To many, this is reason enough for the National Trust to lead the opponents of the scheme in court battles. The problem is that the annual electricity output of this small wind farm would be similar to the National Trust’s total renewable energy production in 2020. In other words, all its heavily publicised efforts to improve its own energy performance are outweighed by its block on just one commercial wind farm. Overall, the wind projects opposed by the Trust – some of which are large farms substantial distance offshore – offer the prospect of several hundred times as much energy as it could conceivably generate from other technologies on its own land.

The National Trust owns 250,000 hectares, about 1% of the total area of the UK. A large fraction of this land is in windy coastland areas suitable for the development of wind energy. By its almost blanket opposition to the development of turbines, onshore or offshore, within sight of its landholdings, the Trust is slowing the growth of the UK’s lowest cost form of renewable electricity generation. It reserves the right to comment on proposed wind turbines that are up to 15 kilometres from the nearest National Trust property implying, one suspects, most the western coastline of the UK is within its purview. In fact it goes further:  the Trust’s list of wind farms that it is ‘keeping an eye on and/or opposing’ includes the offshore Celtic Array, which will be at least 19 km from the nearest part of Anglesey.

The number of days each year when this wind farm will be actually visible from rainy west Wales will be few. Nevertheless Simon Jenkins, the chair of the National Trust, has asserted an unqualified and almost feudal right to complain about prospective wind turbines that ‘blot the landscape when seen from our territory’. (Source: Financial Times, March 8 2013).

In contrast, the Trust itself regularly comments on the need to reduce the UK’s emissions. It recognises that climate change is likely to have more effect on its historic houses than other buildings, commenting that ‘The National Trust is already experiencing the impacts of climate change at many properties, such as flooding, storm damage, rainwater incursion, vegetation change and habitat changes.

So I asked the Trust why it rarely, if ever, actually supported wind development anywhere in the UK. It responded by providing details of just three applications that it had backed. The first was a Devon wind farm that was, in the Trust’s own words, hardly within sight of its land: ‘open visibility’ it said ‘is largely restricted to the very southern end of the park’. The others were similarly only just within view of the Trust’s properties.

More generally, The Trust told me that it did not have the resources to actively back wind developments. Like others, perhaps, I found this a strange comment from an organisation with an income of £400m a year, four million members and a clear awareness of the threats from climate change. It is prepared to throw huge sums at resisting wind farms it doesn’t like but won’t even write a letter to support even the most inoffensive developments.

No one should doubt the Trust’s own commitment to increasing the use of small scale renewables at its own properties. But therein lies the problem. Small scale renewables will never provide the amount of low carbon electricity that the UK is committed to generating by 2020. Wind power, particularly onshore, is quick to develop and relatively low cost. And it is effective: turbines provided 15% of the UK’s electricity during last Sunday and new output records are being set by the week. We urgently need the Trust to move away from its unthinking opposition to commercial wind power. Its moral influence in the UK is unmatched and a more rational view of the importance of wind is long overdue.