For Peter Carruthers, even the name “wind farm” is an Orwellian attempt to make vast industrial developments sound cuddly, playing down the image of huge whistling turbines and encouraging the image of beaming farmers in wellies watching green energy being generated.
Living by the shores of Loch Awe in Argyll, Carruthers – who runs a bed and breakfast in the village of Kilchrenan – believes that the local economy is under threat from the invasion of the turbines, which recall the War of the Worlds more than Old MacDonald. There are seven “wind factories” in the pipeline, at various stages of planning, around the loch.
Now he hopes that the penny may finally be dropping for the Scottish Executive as it has performed a major U-turn in its wind power policy, warning that many applications are “speculative” and will not be granted, reducing targets for renewables, and announcing more focus for other kinds of green energy.
Carruthers said: “It has finally dawned on the Executive that they are going nowhere with this pursuit of wind farms as they don’t give anything like the supply of electricity promised. They are already yesterday’s technology. Far better to concentrate on something which will be more reliable, such as power from the sea.”
Almost unnoticed, ministers have changed their policy towards wind-farming, which up until now has emphasised onshore wind to the exclusion of almost all else and set ambitious targets for how much of Scotland’s power can be generated from green sources.
At a stroke, the Executive has lowered its estimate of how much electricity it thinks can be produced by renewable power north of the Border, and signalled that it wants to move to other forms of green energy. It is also considering new guidelines to protect landscapes from being damaged by large wind developments, including considering the “cumulative impact” of a large number of developments in a single area.
The change in policy is a major victory for campaigners, including Scotland on Sunday, who have argued against a headlong rush to cover large, scenic areas of Scotland with wind turbines in the hope that Scotland and the UK would be seen as “doing their bit” against global warming.
High-profile opponents include Professor David Bellamy, the environmental campaigner who is alarmed about the encroachment of wind farms on wildlife sites, and Sir Jeremy Isaacs, the former head of Channel Four, who has a holiday cottage close to a proposed wind farm on Skye.
Until now, the Executive has aimed to have 40% of the electricity produced in Scotland coming from green power by 2020. But that target has now been changed to 40% of the electricity needed in Scotland. The distinction matters because Scotland produces more energy than it needs and is a net exporter of power. The change in wording has reduced the amount of power Scotland must find from renewables by about 25%.
In addition, the new strategy will see far more regard given to the environmental impact of wind developments. That will mean that many of the current applications for wind farms are likely to be rejected. Ministers have already gone so far as to say that many are “speculative”.
Moreover, there will be more emphasis on other forms of renewable energy, such as offshore wind, wave and tidal power, and ‘biomass’, the burning of crops grown for fuel, such as tree saplings.
Nicol Stephen, the Minister for Enterprise and Deputy First Minister, said: “The Forum for Renewable Energy Development in Scotland, which I chair, considers that many of the current proposals for onshore wind development are speculative and are likely to drop out of the system.”
He said ministers had “made clear our aim to see Scotland’s renewable electricity generation targets being met through the development of a range of technologies and we will bring forward detailed proposals in order to achieve that aim.”
The talk of a “range of technologies” is crucial for objectors to the march of the wind farms. Critics claim that because the turbines only work when the wind is blowing at optimum speeds, they will never supply all the power needed. They argue that it would be far better to focus more on wave and tidal power which are not as variable.
Brian Wilson, the former UK energy minister, said of the changes in policy: “This is a significant redefinition and it is probably more realistic. Ministers face the challenge of making sure enough projects go ahead so that there is the capacity in the renewables sector to meet the targets. They are right, too, to emphasise other kinds of renewable power rather than onshore wind alone. ”
Even the pro-wind-power lobby, the Scottish Renewables Forum, agree that some of the planning applications are speculative. But they insist that onshore wind farms still matter. It is argued that unless the wind farms are built now, there will not be the infrastructure available to transmit future forms of green energy around the country.
That idea that wind farms should be built now in order to ensure the grids and connectors are there for the likes of offshore winds and wave power fills campaigners with horror. They worry that their landscapes will be damaged in the cause of a doomed “interim technology”, the equivalent of buying a Betamax video, but with far more solemn consequences.
Some worry too that the Executive’s move has been short on the vital detail of how and why developments will be blocked.
A spokeswoman for the anti-turbine group, Views of Scotland, said: “Nicol Stephen’s predecessor, Jim Wallace, never turned down anything. Does this mean some will now be turned down? That would be welcome, but there is no indication in any of this what the criteria will be.”
Bob Graham, of the Highlands-based campaign Protect Rural Scotland, said: “It’s fine for ministers to say that these applications are speculative, but what we see in my area is applications being rubber-stamped and developers rushing ahead before the government realise that the technology doesn’t work and won’t bring the clean power they have promised. The only thing that will work is a moratorium on wind farm developments.”
The Green Party said it approved of the ministerial announcements on moving towards a national planning strategy for wind farms and a greater focus on “cumulative impact”.
Green MSP Mark Ballard said: “We have long been arguing for a review of planning guidance and the need to assess applications in rounds, rather than one by one.”
Hovering in the background of the wind power announcement is the “n-word”, the power source which dare not speak its name. For many in the green lobby, atomic power is the ultimate bogeyman, blighting landscapes and producing waste which is difficult to dispose of safely. But in recent years, the nuclear industry’s green credentials have become more relevant for governments intent of tackling global warming by reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas.
First Minister Jack McConnell is understood to be softening in his previous opposition to any new nuclear power stations north of the Border, despite the hostility of coalition partners the Lib Dems.
Although energy policy, including nuclear power, is an area reserved to Westminster, the Scottish Parliament controls planning, meaning that an anti-nuclear majority of MSPs could stop the building of new nuclear power stations.
Peace in the coalition has been secured by ruling that no new stations will be built before experts come up with a solution to the problem of what to do with nuclear waste, effectively deferring a decision until a government panel, which is reviewing the issue, publishes a report next year.
But as the report approaches, and the time for a decision nears, McConnell is understood to be relaxing his opposition, by insisting that the decision should depend on whether the panel comes up with a solution as to how to dispose of waste. If the panel comes up with an answer, it is argued, then that should be seen as the green light for new nuclear power north of the Border.
The change of heart in the Executive is also being helped on by the fact that the UK government is increasingly coming to the view that it needs more nuclear power.
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Tony Blair said administrations which refused to consider nuclear power as part to future energy supply were not being “responsible”.
And the Scottish Executive’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Wilson Sibbett, has also warned of the “extremely high risks” to power supplies if the country is forced to rely on wind farms and renewable sources for its electricity.
One source close to McConnell said: “Jack has changed his approach. He has been under pressure from London and many of his colleagues to leave the nuclear option open.
“He is preparing the ground to give himself much more wriggle room for manoeuvre by saying that the decision depends on whether the experts believe that waste can be dealt with safely. Jack knows that he doesn’t have to make a decision yet but he is preparing the ground for the time when he, or another First Minister, must.”
How the various options compare
ONSHORE WIND. Has the advantage of being relatively straightforward to install. The disadvantages include the fact that they are unpopular with locals, who regard them as a blight on the landscape, and they only work when the wind blows.
OFFSHORE WIND. Less likely to prompt objections from locals, but much more expensive to install and maintain. Could lead to environmental objections because of the risks to seabirds, fish and dolphins.
TIDAL POWER. Much more reliable than any variant of wind power. The tides always come in regardless of how strong the wind is. But tidal power is less developed as a power source than wind, and the technology is expensive to buy, install and run.
WAVE POWER. Tidal power’s less reliable but more advanced cousin. Wave power depends on the strength of the wind, but is still a much better bet than wind power. But all the coastal options must overcome the problem of sending power to population centres on land.
BIOMASS. One of humankind’s oldest forms of fuel. The plan envisages burning wood in huge power plants. Fast-growing species of trees would be cultivated for this purpose. The problem is that it fails to deal with the problem of the greenhouse gases produced by burning most kinds of fuel.
CARBON SCRUBBING TECHNOLOGIES. The most adventurous way in which the forms of energy currently in use can continue. It envisages attaching special filters to power stations using coal, oil, and gas so that they capture gases such as carbon dioxide. The disadvantage is that pollutants are only reduced, not eliminated.
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