It is 10 years since the first wind farm was built in Scotland.
As they blow out the candles on the birthday cake, supporters of wind power have plenty else to celebrate.
The industry is currently expanding at a furious pace.
Right now, there are 40 wind farms in operation, accounting for about 40% of Scotland’s renewable energy production.
Nearly 50 farms are now either being built or set to be given planning permission. A further 80 schemes are at the planning stage, while nearly 70 more are in early-stage development.
Putting this into context, onshore wind farms account for 97% of all renewable energy schemes currently at either planning or scoping stage.
This momentum has strong political backing. Trade Secretary Alistair Darling recently praised Scotland for being “in the vanguard” of the fight to secure the UK’s future energy supplies and fight climate change.
Scotland’s own political leaders are equally enthusiastic, having committed themselves to more ambitious renewable targets than their counterparts down south.
At the moment they can afford to smile. Scotland generates about 16% of its total energy from renewable sources – its goal is to reach 18% by 2010 and 40% by 2020 – while the UK as a whole lags behind on a paltry 4%.
It is now a question of how far Scotland will exceed its 2010 target, rather than if it will meet it – something which experts say is partly due to the Parliament’s supportive stance.
“Most politicians are keen to support projects which are environmentally acceptable, efficient and generate an economic benefit,” says Jason Ormiston, acting chief executive of industry body the Scottish Renewables Forum.
“At a Scottish level, the motivation is how to get most out of meeting the targets, how to get the most jobs and the best for the economy by stimulating new technology.”
Fair or foul?
With Scottish Power about to start construction on what will become the UK’s largest wind farm – the £300m Whitelee project south of Glasgow – the future for wind power in Scotland seems to be serene.
But the longer-term forecast could be much more blustery.
A 2004 report identified planning problems, poor access to the national grid from wind schemes and public opposition to onshore wind farms as real obstacles to growth.
Two years on, these problems are more pressing now that a range of factors, such as higher steel prices, are making offshore wind projects less commercially viable than anticipated and with alternatives like wave power still in their infancy.
The pressure is on onshore wind farms to deliver – and one operator says conditions in the industry are increasingly “challenging”.
“We still operate in a very high risk sector,” says Robert Forrest, boss of Green Power, an Alloa firm seeking to build several wind farms.
“There is scope for development, but only as long as the market mechanism does not make it unprofitable.”
He is concerned that changes to rules governing how much green energy power firms must buy and at what price – designed to encourage new technologies such as wave power – may make wind unviable for some firms.
At the same time, he says planning bottlenecks mean projects are taking longer and longer to realise.
“The industry’s main concern is not quite so much about the result of decisions, but the time taken to get to these decisions. In some cases, it is increasingly unsustainable.”
The Whitelee scheme took more than four years to be approved, while larger wind farm proposals are now commonly spending more than two years in the planning system.
Mr Forrest says the industry may be the “victim of its own success”, with a tailwind of political enthusiasm, regulatory requirements and the growing appeal of wind farms to investors producing a blizzard of applications which the system cannot cope with.
“As with all land use change, people are quite right to have concerns and it is right to have these things debated,” he says of community objections to proposals that have forced a number of recent public inquiries.
“There are plenty of places in Scotland where we would not like to see wind farms. But where they are being positioned correctly, I think the right decisions are taking place.”
Figures show that, despite complaints over the length of the planning process, developers are generally getting their desired outcomes.
Scottish ministers, who have the final say over any proposed wind project of more than 50 megawatts, have rejected only two schemes in recent years.
To critics, this is proof that economic considerations are taking precedence over wider environmental and social concerns when it comes to official attitudes to wind farms.
“Apart from your family, what else would you fight for, apart from the country,” says Gillian Wilson, chair of the Amulree and Strathbraan Windfarm Action Group, set up in 2004 to oppose two proposed wind farms sited within miles of each other in Perthshire.
“You have a tiny rural community up against government policy and huge companies with limitless resources,” she says of the recent public enquiry held into the plans.
“I don’t think the public appreciate the destruction caused by the construction of a wind farm. You are turning a rural landscape into an industrial one.”
Her fellow campaigners speak passionately about potential noise disruption, threats to water supplies and the impact on local roads but reject claims of self-interest.
They believe the visual damage done to the countryside by the schemes will compromise the region’s tourist industry – one of Perthshire’s leading sources of jobs and income.
“They have not come to Scotland for the weather or the good food,” she says of visitors.
“They have come, purely and simply, for this [the scenery] and you are taking that away. You are taking a huge risk on what is now Scotland’s leading industry.”
Ministers contest claims that wind farms have a negative impact on tourism, saying recent studies in the UK and abroad prove otherwise.
But a document posted on the Scottish Executive’s website listing “10 myths about wind farms” shows they accept public support cannot be taken for granted.
By Gavin Stamp
Business reporter, BBC News, in Central Scotland
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding