A mighty wind

Lone Hawthorn bush at Torrin, Skye

Photograph by Keith Brame

As new turbines continue to appear across the Scottish landscape, why is there still no agreement on the efficiency of wind farms and how Scotland’s wild places should be protected from such encroachment? Andrew Mazibrada investigates.

Global economic crisis and climate change – both are sufficiently emotive and compelling issues to spark vigorous debate. They make us sit up and take notice, either because they affect us directly or we assume they will do so in the future. And as both are so complex and insanely technical, we turn to experts to ask the questions for us, and provide answers. The problem is that the questions being asked – and the answers given – are often skewed by political and commercial self-interest, leaving us none the wiser as to the genuine issues, let alone what to do about them.

Renewable energy is billed both as a financially superior alternative to ‘traditional’ forms of energy and as a way to slake our insatiable thirst for power without harming the world in which we live. Good for the economy, kind to the environment – so, what’s wrong with that? At first glance, nothing at all. But, for many, question marks remain over whether some types of renewable energy offer the cure-all we are being promised. All too often, emotive arguments, jargon, fancy graphs and alarming statistics hide the real question: whether renewable energy, and in particular wind energy, is a truly efficient solution.

Yet, there are those fighting a rear-guard action, with a determination to undermine some of the arguments for renewable energy in order to protect our wild spaces. But are they right, or is their agenda equally self-serving? As John Muir once said, the goal should not be “blind opposition to progress but opposition to blind progress”. Getting the starting point right is difficult when competing interests muddy the waters.

Scotland’s wild land

The pace of renewable energy developments around Scotland has picked up rapidly in recent years, with wind farms, in particular, now a familiar sight in many parts of the country. And there is likely to be much more to come, with several large-scale installations having recently been approved – including a vast wind farm at Muaitheabhal on the peatlands of Lewis – and what can fairly be described as a deluge of new applications in the planning process. Alarmed by what they see, opposition groups have sprung up at an exponential rate. The outdoor community, in particular, has seen which way the wind is blowing and doesn’t like it at all.

Muaitheabhal visualisation
Photograph: Mick Blunt/JMT

Still smarting from the Scottish Government’s approval in 2010 of the Beauly-Denny 400kV transmission line – a 220km column of giant pylons running through some of the Highlands’ most cherished landscape – outdoor charities, industry bodies and local communities are now making much more of a concerted stand against the encroachment of wind farms. The message is clear: Scotland’s natural landscape is its most precious resource of all and once it’s gone, it’s gone.

Losing the battle over Beauly-Denny led wild land charity the John Muir Trust (JMT) to launch its Wild Land Campaign – at its heart, a fight for better protection of the UK’s remaining areas of wild land through appropriate statutory designation. The campaign also calls for a reassessment of what Head of Policy Helen McDade has described as the UK’s “irrational and damaging energy policies”.

Meanwhile, the Mountaineering Council of Scotland (MCoS) – the representative body for Scotland’s mountaineers and hill walkers – has called on the Scottish Government to establish a nationwide policy to prevent wind farm applications being made in the most important mountain areas. “The sheer scale and number of recent onshore wind farm applications is staggering,” comments David Gibson, MCoS Chief Officer. “It represents the industrialisation of landscapes that form a uniquely important part of Scottish culture and identity. It is hard to imagine how developers can claim to care for the environment while making applications to build in some of these beautiful and sensitive places.”

“The outdoor community has seen which way the wind is blowing and doesn’t like it at all”

As Gibson explains, during a period of just two weeks in July, MCoS was made aware of six section 36 [over 50 MW] wind farm planning applications and scoping proposals, between them proposing 235 turbines, up to 150 metres in height, all in largely undeveloped countryside.

The organisation has now drawn up a manifesto – since supported by other bodies such as the Cairngorms Campaign, North East Mountain Trust and Munro Society – that states its position on onshore wind farms. While not opposed to them as such, MCoS argues that no technology can be described as truly green if it damages the very environment that it intends to conserve. The overall message, says Gibson, is that by respecting the interests of the countryside, Scotland can become a world leader in clean energy best practice as well as its actual generation.

Meanwhile, some local communities are enlisting the support of famous names to add weight to opposition campaigns. Most recently, Ferintosh Community Council in Morayshire announced the support of renowned Scottish climber Hamish MacInnes in backing opposition to plans by Falck Renewables to erect 17 turbines, each 126 metres high, on Clach Liath, part of the Ben Wyvis massif in Easter Ross.

“This is another attempted industrialisation of our invaluable Scottish mountain landscape and is the first I am aware of on the outlier of a Munro,” says MacInnes. “As someone with a life-long love of Scotland’s high places I am appalled at this application which, if successful, will set a highly undesirable precedent.”

Elsewhere, the Save the Monadhliath Mountains campaign group is fighting to prevent the building of a large wind farm at Allt Duine near Kincraig on the very edge of the Cairngorms National Park – an area that many would assume to be safe from such development. This particular proposal (the subject of a public inquiry in October) has been submitted by RWE npower renewables, and involves 31 turbines, each at a height of 125 metres. Again, the message from what is a broad-based coalition of concerned parties is that it is not against renewable energy in principle, but rather industrial-scale development in outstanding areas of wild land.

And it is not just a fear that Scotland’s wild places are being eroded, but that they are being eroded unnecessarily with a slavish devotion to a misleading mantra that wind energy production is effective and its carbon footprint a negative one. The Wind Farm Action Group (WAG), a particularly active online resource centre for opposition to wind farms in the UK, is “…convinced that wind power is not a technically legitimate solution, does not meaningfully reduce CO2 emissions, is not a commercially viable source of energy and is not environmentally responsible”.

It’s a bold statement given the purported expert opinion to the contrary but is one that is supported by a wealth of what seems equally expert opinion and reasoned arguments casting serious doubt on the efficacy of wind farms and their supposedly green credentials. According to WAG, and despite repeated requests, no adequate response to their seemingly legitimate questions has yet been given by the Scottish Government.

So where does this leave us? Clearly, groups such as JMT, MCoS, WAG and others have a vested interest in keeping Scotland’s wild spaces free of wind farms. A widespread incursion of turbines into the Highlands in particular would virtually destroy the landscapes that hundreds of thousands come to enjoy each year, and at a time when tourism is increasingly important to Scotland’s rural communities.

“I have worked on films and provided climbing back-up support on many filming projects over the years in the Highlands and fully appreciate the value of our mountain areas,” added Hamish MacInnes in his objection to the Clach Liath proposal. “They also have an ongoing monetary value well beyond the short-term profits associated with wind farms and are a resource that must be protected from totally inappropriate developments.”

Policy and practice

It is clear that the development of wind farms (and renewable energies generally) in Scotland involves a difficult balancing act, but as Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) outlines, the direction of travel is clear: “Scotland has one of the best wind resources in western Europe, so the Scottish Government has identified wind energy as being very important to meeting the renewable energy generation required under the Renewables Obligation (Scotland). As a result, the scale of renewable wind energy development is likely to be substantial over the next few years and this could bring about major changes to our landscapes and have significant impacts on Scotland’s nature.”

In 2010, SNH reported that the extent of land in Scotland unaffected by any form of visual influence (development activities visible from any single vantage point) declined from 41% in 2002 to 31% by 2008. By the end of 2009, it had declined further to 28%. According to its own findings, SNH says that “the most significant contributor to this decline is the development of wind farms, a consequence of their prominence and extensive visibility and siting in rural locations with little or no previous development”.

But renewable energy is considered an increasingly important part of Scotland’s economic, social and environmental success and, as such, SNH supports the development of onshore wind farms and recognises the many benefits they bring. However, it adds, “their cumulative impacts on the natural heritage need to be carefully considered to ensure that these are acceptable”.

“The development of wind farms in Scotland involves a difficult balancing act”

Brendan Turvey, Policy and Advice Manager for Renewables for SNH, goes further: “We have to balance the benefits of renewable energy with the impacts the developments have. We view climate change as the single greatest threat to our natural heritage. Wind farms are an important part of the move to a low carbon economy. In some cases wind farms have an impact on our nature and landscapes, but so do all other forms of energy generation.”

To date, SNH has objected to around a third of wind farm applications, either based on the character or sensitivity of a landscape, its recreational use, or the potential impact on vulnerable wildlife. As the Scottish Government’s advisor on nature and landscape, its objections carry weight – and where it does object, it is usually accepted – but the reality is that SNH cannot object too often. One argument is that it must adopt a balanced approach lest it lose credibility. Yet some opposition groups say that SNH is not objecting enough.

JMT also believes that wholesale objection dilutes the impact of the message that Scotland needs its wild spaces. Since 2003, the Trust has opposed fewer than 20 development proposals for renewable energy – all of which posed what it saw as a significant threat to wild land.

Body of evidence

Raising awareness and distributing information might be the opposition camp’s most powerful tactic at this stage, with the internet as its weapon. Already a growing body of online material casts doubt on the effectiveness of wind power (see Further information).

Opponents of large-scale wind farms argue that fear of the climate change bogeyman overshadows any reasonable consideration of the true viability of wind power; that wind energy simply cannot deliver as we are told it can, with the result that we are losing our already dwindling areas of wild land for no good reason. And they do so feeling outgunned by commercial entities seeking multi-million pound contracts and a government looking for a simple sound-bite bottom line.

Both WAG and JMT cite a detailed 2011 report by Stuart Young, a semi-retired consultant engineer, which analysed the output of wind farms in Scotland between November 2008 and December 2010, using data from the National Grid. His report concluded: “[wind] cannot be relied upon to provide any significant level of generation at any defined time in the future. There is an urgent need to re-evaluate the implications of reliance on wind for any significant proportion of our energy requirement.”

“With 20MW or less output the contribution from wind is effectively zero”

Wind power is so intermittent, the report says, that “between November 2008 and December 2010 inclusive, a less than 20MW event occurred on average once every six and a half days and lasted for almost five hours” and, on average, wind turbines do not produce anything like their stated capacity. “With 20MW or less output the contribution from wind is effectively zero,” says Young.

Following publication of the report, JMT called for a more open, honest and informed debate about large-scale, industrialised wind power, while also reminding people what was at risk when such developments are located in wild land areas.

Opponents also seized upon a report in the Daily Telegraph in June 2010 that highlighted how, since electricity cannot be stored, wind farm companies have been paid thousands of pounds to stop producing electricity when the National Grid does not need it. According to WAG, that figure now runs into millions of pounds, all met by the consumer. It is this unreliability – and associated expense – that makes wind energy completely unsuitable as an energy source, say opposition groups.

As Helen McDade, JMT’s Head of Policy, puts it: “In the case of large-scale wind energy development, this level of scrutiny is increasingly demonstrating that the policies of national and devolved governments have been underpinned by wishful thinking, selective evidence and fragmented and inadequate planning processes.”

Yet, Brendan Turvey at SNH points out that wind power capacity and constraint payments are “… two completely separate issues which are often confused in the media debate. Intermittency is a fact of life for wind energy; when it’s not windy, you don’t generate. Constraints payments relate to the capacity of the grid to take electricity from a generator. They apply to all forms of generation, including coal, gas and nuclear.” Again the public is left wondering what the real answer is.

Think local

All this is not to say that wind power, per se, is unsuitable for Scotland. On the contrary, wind production absolutely has its place, according to JMT. “In sensitive areas, the Trust supports the development of small-scale, carefully sited schemes adjacent to existing settlements, which demonstrate that renewable energy may be sourced to benefit local communities without impacting on wild land. We believe that large-scale wind development should be placed preferentially on brownfield sites, near the main population centres.”

It also actively supports rural communities in their efforts to become more energy independent through the use of renewables technology. One of the best known examples of this in Scotland is the community-run Isle of Eigg, which now uses a small-scale system of wind and hydroelectric generators plus an array of solar electric panels to give the island all the power it needs.

“In sensitive areas, the John Muir Trust supports the development of small-scale, carefully sited schemes adjacent to existing settlements”

And similar inspiration can be drawn from overseas. In 1998, the idyllic tourist hotspot of Samsø Island in Denmark tabled a plan to be completely self-sufficient for its energy needs within a decade and was tremendously successful, garnering interest from all over the world. A report published by the Energy Academy in Samsø concluded: “100% self-sufficiency with renewable energy had been attained using local resources, at the same time totally removing the emission of the greenhouse gas CO2 and other air pollutants.”

Søren Hermansen, CEO of the Energy Academy in Samsø, says the real reason for the success of the project is the involvement of local people in the decision-making rather than a top-down process from which they felt detached. And local people continue to be involved in the day-to-day running of installations. The focus of the project was to “reduce costs and provide jobs” as much as be environmentally friendly.

Having visited Scotland and consulted on renewable energy, Hermansen feels a similar approach could work here – something SNH’s Brendan Turvey agrees with. “We speak quite regularly to many groups, including those opposed to wind farm development. We take their views seriously and welcome their engagement. In terms of individual applications, our local area staff are contactable and regularly discuss proposals with members of the public.”

It seems that the true effectiveness (and costs) of industrial-scale wind farms are very much open for debate and deserve further research. They are clearly not the panacea their proponents suggest, and we should be cautious before we destroy our wild spaces in reliance on them. Nonetheless, if rolled out on a local scale and with local people in the driving seat, wind power, like other renewables, can attract investment to and create jobs in rural communities without scarring the very landscapes that are Scotland’s most precious assets. Battle lines have been drawn.

About the author

Andrew Mazibrada is a freelance outdoor writer and photographer. He’s also a member of the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild and editor of Sidetracked, an online adventure travel magazine and resource centre.

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