Windfarm Wars: Filming the renewable energy debate in Devon

Tuesday 24 May 2011, 13:32

Jeremy Gibson Jeremy Gibson

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When I convinced the BBC to commission Windfarm Wars, call me naive, but I had no idea it would take seven years of my life to deliver. And doubtless most of the people we've followed with the camera over all those years didn't figure their lives would evolve this way either.

And, over that time, the whole question of how the country best provides for its burgeoning energy needs in a sustainable way has, quite simply, become more and more tortuous. Toxic even.

Windfarms divide opinion like few other topics. They are beautiful to some, eyesores to others.

Rachel Ruffle from Renewable Energy Systems, standing by a wind turbine.

They are free sustainable energy or expensively inefficient. They desecrate the landscape, or they protect its future existence.

For a filmmaker treading into this minefield, the antagonism between incoming developers and the local residents they seek to convince can be most difficult to negotiate.

Renewable Energy Systems, or RES, first put forward their plans for a windfarm in Devon in 2004.

It would be sited four-and-a-half miles from the northern edge of Dartmoor National Park, in the shallow valley of Den Brook.

I started as the film's executive producer, largely office-based, but with a director and small team on location.

But, seven years later, I had become the sole production member the budget could still afford to have on location, shooting on my own to see the story through - and the windfarm had still not been built

Early on, we were lucky enough to gain access to all sides of the Den Brook dispute, from developers RES, to landowners and protestors alike, and to the council and council planning committee.

As the story went on, and on, over the years, this access widened to include lawyers and barristers, expert witnesses, and the planning inspectors involved in public inquiries.

Maintaining everyone's commitment and involvement over the long years of the process demanded confidentiality and tact.

Each side had to trust that we would not tell the other things that only we knew.

Windfarm Wars was originally commissioned as a single film - an observational documentary. We would follow whatever happened, wherever developments took us.

By the time the commission fell into place and the director of the first film, Olly Lambert, arrived in Devon, RES had already held their introductory exhibitions, where they showed the residents of the nearby villages what the windfarm might look like and where it would be situated, and answered their interests and concerns.

Feelings for and against the windfarm were already running high.

It's difficult to gauge the true feelings of a whole community. One of the ways is to go by those who have bothered to write letters to the council.

When the closing date came, the council had 402 letters and 3,000 questionnaires in objection and 31 letters in support.

We roughly assembled the material as we went along but each time a viewing with the BBC had come due, it was apparent that a chapter may have finished - but the big story was still unresolved.

Luckily they had the vision to keep running with it. Eventually it became a four-part series. BBC channel controllers have come and gone while waiting for it to materialise.

At times, as long waits for the next part of the planning or legal process had to be endured, it was tempting to wrap up the project, but I wanted everyone involved in the whole process to know it was being documented very publicly, and that it would be seen through to the end.

Bash and Mike Hulme, who were campaigning against the wind farm, outside their cottage in Devon.

And, as concerns about global warming, reduction of carbon dioxide emissions and the security of energy supplies became more and more acute over the years, the project gained in significance, and just had to be seen through.

What emerged is what I hope some people will see as a unique social record of how one of the nation's key dilemmas has unfolded in the early 21st century.

The four films unravel as a narrative story, and while viewers think they may know where they stand initially, a fair few may well change along the way.

Windfarm Wars will no doubt raise tempers, and for some of the many people who've taken part it will be difficult viewing - not least to see how we've all aged through the process.

Perhaps it will be difficult too, because all sides may need to confront and acknowledge mistakes, to review how they could have done things better.

For many, it's clearly been a journey that's taken courage, commitment and faith in the search for what each perceive to be the truth - the best way forward for the good of all. There may be regrets.

I hope, though, that the end product of the process of documentation has been usefully revealing and thought provoking, and that it will, in time, repay the commitment that many gave to the project. We'll see - soon enough.

Jeremy Gibson started as executive producer and also worked as series producer of Windfarm Wars.

Windfarm Wars is on BBC Two on Fridays at 7pm until Friday, 3 June. The first two episodes are available in iPlayer until Friday, 10 June.

For further programme times, please visit the upcoming episodes page.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I really enjoyed this, one of those hidden programs that is far better than the mainstream stuff on bbc1.

    The only thing that confuses me is how its going to end, I cheated and googled the project after the end of the first episode to see what happens, and still cannot figure out if its going ahead or not. Maybe it will be like Lost and we will end with a hatch in the ground!

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Having participated throughout the filming of this revealing documentary series, I can only say "well done" to Jeremy Gibson and his team for producing such a watchable, accurate and impartial record. The characters and events are allowed to speak for themselves. Some truths are out.

    Curious, though, that the developer has already started to put out defensive videos. Perhaps they were surprised at what an objective vision actually looks like, and can't credit that this is how they seem to others.

    One can only hope that policy and decision makers will watch and take note; and act to right the wrongs being perpetrated without due consideration.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Indeed the term “toxic” springs to my mind. Green isn’t working, it has become toxic in a number of respects:

    The utopian dream of wind has turning into a dystopian nightmare. Divisive a threat to landscapes and energy security, expensive (already cost us £2billion) adding to fuel poverty. The John Muir Trust’s report on “Wind farm research concludes they are not a fit and proper solution to: the perceived need to cut carbon emissions, the growing demand for energy security, and will have significant human, environmental and economic impacts.”

    Also green jobs growth is not sustainable, because for every 1 new green job created 3.7 jobs will be lost in the real economy and carbon dioxide taxes will cause “carbon leakage” – the export of British jobs to countries without carbon dioxide taxes. Evidence of this is the export of 1,200 TATA steels workers jobs and the threat to the 600,000 workers in the energy-intensive chemical industry. Not a vote winner!

    The ‘Green Deal’ has also gone pear-shaped, the E3G report stated that proposed retrofit of housing to be more energy efficient will cost £15,000 in loans at 8% and will not save on energy costs, it would not be worth the trouble! Even if the loans were 0% and the household gained a 35% energy saving they would be worse off by £2,777 over 25 years. The report concludes that the public - quite rightly - would reject the ‘Green Deal’.

    Why do we only find this out after the policy has been announced?
    I am reminded that the dictionary definition of a green person - is gullible.

    And let’s not over look the fact that carbon dioxide taxes and green subsidies will increase the average energy bill from £1,215 to £2,500 per year or more. This regressive tax will increase the price of food, clothes and travel, which especially impacts on our rural communities.

    The Times stated that 5.5 million households or 21% of the 26 million British households suffer fuel poverty – spending more than 10% of their monthly income on energy bills.

    Last February, overnight temperatures fell to minus 10, and this winter temperatures fell in some parts of the UK to minus 23. Being cold in the home increases the risk of strokes and heart attacks. So much for global warming!

    There are now 20% more cold related deaths in winter. Resulting in an average of 30,000 excess winter deaths across the UK. That is around 250 excess deaths per day. The current policy will only make the situation worse for those on low-fixed incomes. The reality is we should stick to fossil fuels in the short to medium term and develop better alternatives to wind and solar. We have time - and over 250 years worth of shale gas on our doorstep let’s use it. Conclusion - green = toxic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    As someone who has had to complain dozens even a hundred times regarding their totally biased covering of the global warming "debate", I will be very interested to see how much push this failed concept by blatantly suggesting that global warming is a huge problem that needs to be solved.

    The facts are that the "science" only supports a fraction of the suggested warming (the rest is pie in the sky speculation). The facts are that there is no indication of a rise in extreme weather events worldwide. The facts are that there is no CO2 signature of sea levels. The only supporting "facts" remain Arctic ice retreat by about 3% over a relatively short period (since satellites) and anecdotal evidence ice was just as scarce in the early 20th century. And glacier melts ... which has been happening since the last big and little ice ages.

    Given the compelling evidence against this global warming nonsense, I will watch with interest to see any actual balance on this subject (Note: the BBC are legally required to be unbiased and to give us all the evidence even if the "scientists" keep trying to deny us the evidence and by e.g. ignoring Freedom of Information law.)

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    FayKT: "Also green jobs growth is not sustainable, because for every 1 new green job created 3.7 jobs will be lost in the real economy".

    Back around 2000 I tried for about a year to get the Scottish Parliamentary Renewable Energy Group (a cross party group of the parliament) to look at the economics of wind energy. Having researched the area, it was obvious to me that this sector would create very few jobs. I wrote many letters to MSPs to the paper, but for one simple reason it never got discussed by this cross party group of the parliament: IT WAS RUN BY THE WIND LOBBY!

    I've never had the misfortune to see how other cross party groups run, but how any democratic institution could allow its parliamentary committees to be run by wind lobbyists seems like the basist form of corruption. It was also rumoured that the person running the wind lobby group in Scotland and the committee had bought up all the best wind sites for their own profit. OK, it was only a rumour and one I cannot substantiate. But did anyone ever investigate? Did the BBC do anything when I wrote to them?


    And, I can remember attending a meeting when the Scottish Civil servants actually asked a room full of people with a business interest in wind farms: "what level of subsidy do you think we should set". The impression I got was very clearly that they would set the level at whatever the room suggested. I was horrified at the time when I was intending to work in the sector. Now that I've learnt global warming was a total con based on a small bit of science and huge bit of .... "economy with the truth", it amazes me that they were allowed to get away with this.

    Almost literally you could say the renewable energy policy was dictated to the government by the wind lobby. No wonder it was such an abysmal mess and so disliked by anyone who was affected (including most of those in the room as little of the financial benefit flowed to anyone in manufacturing ...the only people to make a fortune were a few wind farm developers and rich landowners)


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