The aristocrats cashing in on Britain’s wind farm subsidies
By Robert Mendick and Edward Malnick
They are among the nation’s wealthiest aristocrats, whose families have protected the British landscape for centuries. Until now that is.
For increasing numbers of the nobility – among them dukes and even a cousin of the Queen – are being tempted by tens of millions of pounds offered by developers to build giant wind farms on their estates.
An investigation by The Sunday Telegraph reveals how generous subsidies – that are added to consumer energy bills – are encouraging hereditary landowners to build turbines up to 410ft tall on their land.
With controversy over onshore wind farms growing, the role of the landed establishment in fuelling the ‘scramble for wind’ will alarm opponents.
They claim wind farms are blighting the countryside while failing to deliver a reliable supply of electricity despite the cost.
Latest figures show the amount of electricity generated by UK wind farms actually fell last year because of the lowest average wind speeds this century.
However, supporters say a network of wind farms will guarantee Britain cheap, sustainable energy in the future.
The turbines being hosted by the landed gentry are almost always many miles from the aristocrats’ own homes. The Duke of Gloucester, who lives in an apartment in Kensington Palace in London, is hoping to build a wind farm 85 miles away on his ancestral estate in Northamptonshire, which he moved out of in 1994. Each turbine could earn the Duke, who is the Queen’s cousin, up to £20,000 a year and possibly much more.
It comes as Sir Reginald Sheffield, David Cameron’s father-in-law, whose baronetcy was created in the mid 18th century, admitted last week he earns as much as £350,000 a year from eight turbines on his estate at Bagmoor in Lincolnshire.
In a letter last week to the Spectator magazine, Sir Reginald protested that he did not own the turbines on Bagmoor farm and that his estate received only a “modest income” amounting to “less than one tenth” of £3.5 million.
Calculations by an energy think tank suggested Sir Reginald could be receiving about £120,000.
The Duke of Roxburghe has angered locals – including the neighbouring Duke of Northumberland – after winning a lengthy planning and legal battle to build 48 turbines, each about 400ft high, on unspoilt moorland in the Scottish borders.
Construction work began about two months ago with the building of a road 10 miles long through previously pristine countryside to reach the wind farm site.
The Duke, who is worth about £100 million, will reportedly earn as much as £2.5 million a year from the deal although a spokesman, who declined to discuss the actual amount, said that figure was not accurate.
One industry expert said a more realistic figure was in the order of £720,000 a year.
In the course of the 25-year lifespan of the wind farm at Fallago Rig that could net the Duke anywhere between £18 million and £62.5 million.
The details of the deal struck with an energy company remain confidential although The Sunday Telegraph understands the Duke’s earnings are performance related – in other words the more the wind blows the more money he will make.
One industry expert estimated Fallago Rig could generate about £875 million income over the next quarter of a century for the Duke and his commercial partner North British Windpower.
Half that sum is in the form of a consumer subsidy, introduced by the last Labour government to encourage renewable energy projects, and which is added on to household electricity bills.
The turbines will not be visible from Floors Castle, the Duke’s ancestral home about 25 miles away.
The Duke of Beaufort, who is worth £120 million, is trying to build 19 turbines on land near Swansea – about 100 miles from his family seat at Badminton House in Gloucestershire.
The turbines could generate around £285,000 for the Somerset Trust, which runs his estate. A spokesman last week insisted the Duke of Beaufort would not gain personally from the wind farm.
Meanwhile Earl Spencer, brother of Diana, Princess of Wales, is planning 13 turbines on his Althorp estate, each of which will be more than 410ft high.
The Earl of Seafield, who owns over 100,000 acres making him Britain’s seventh largest landowner, has eight turbines on his land in Banffshire generating rental income in the region of £120,000 while the Earl of Moray receives, according to one industry expert, in excess of half a million pounds a year from 36 turbines near Stirling in Scotland.
Jeremy Dearden, the Lord of the Manor of Rochdale, a title that once belonged to Lord Byron, was given permission earlier this year for five turbines to be built on Todmorden Moor in Lancashire. Mr Dearden, who lives in New Zealand where he has a farm, stands to earn in the region of £75,000.
A spokesman for Coronation Power, the energy company which rents Mr Dearden’s land, said: “When the wind farm enters operation, we will pay the landowner an annual land rental fee based on a percentage of total revenue generated by the wind farm. This figure is based on industry standard fees.”
Dr John Constable, director of the Renewable Energy Foundation, a think tank critical of the subsidies for onshore wind farms, and who calculated wind farm income for The Sunday Telegraph, said: “Many of these landowners must know, deep down, that the subsidies are a national scandal, but easy money on this scale would tempt a saint.”
Sir Simon Jenkins, chairman of the National Trust but speaking in a personal capacity, said: “The level of subsidy available to landowners to put up these turbines is out of all proportion to the public benefit derived from them and the temptation to ruin what is usually outstanding landscapes is overwhelming. It is a crime against the landscape.”
According to local opposition groups, the Duke of Gloucester made farmland close to Barnwell Manor, his former home in Northamptonshire, available to the highest bidder, entering into an agreement with West Coast Energy, a company based in north Wales.
West Coast Energy failed to return calls last week while Buckingham Palace, which handles media inquiries for the Duke, said it was a matter for West Coast Energy.
Peter Stephens, 74, a retired engineer fighting the development, said: “The Duke lives in Kensington Palace and doesn’t care if it’s spoiling our view. These turbines will be in the wrong place. This has been a completely unchanged vista since the 16th century and he wants to ruin it.”
John Elliot, Barnwell’s estate manager, rejected claims that the Duke is absent from the site. Mr Elliot said: “He turns up regularly to the estate. He is a very proactive landowner.”
The landowners point out that wind turbines not only help to reduce carbon emissions but also benefit the local community while helping to maintain expensive, centuries-old estates.
Sir Alastair Gordon-Cumming, a seventh baronet, who runs the Altyre estate near Inverness, who has been given planning consent for 29 turbines on his land, said the wind farm was the “most exciting thing to happen to the estate” for more than 70 years.
According to industry experts, the wind farm will generate income of about £18.5 million a year, half of it as subsidy. A spokeswoman for the Altyre estate refused to say how much money the estate would receive from the deal but industry experts estimate earnings of more than £400,000 a year, based on a going rate of £15,000 rental income per turbine.
The spokeswoman added: “This wind farm will be built on a huge swathe of hill land which is otherwise redundant, has no value, no income potential, and suddenly by being able to put a wind farm on it … that will enable him to sustain and maintain the estate for the benefit of the wider community.”