Pylon threat to mountain wilderness; Electricity cables from Highland wind farms would destroy the Cairngorms, say opponents
Nigel Hawkins is standing on a bank of heather and shrub gazing towards the cloud-covered peak of Schiehallion in the distance. ‘This is some of the most beautiful scenery in Scotland, yet it could soon be destroyed, covered by huge pylons carrying massive electricity cables,’ says Hawkins, director of conservation group the John Muir Trust.
The pylons would form part of the upgrading of the power link between north and south Scotland. Extra electricity from new wind farms being built in the Highlands must be transmitted to power users in cities in the south. Scottish and Southern Energy says the £320m upgrade – on the line between Beauly, near Inverness, and Denny, near Stirling – would consist of 600 pylons, 40 to 64 metres high, with a section going through Cairngorms National Park.
The idea has horrified landowners, wildlife groups and walkers: 18,000 people have formally objected to the Beauly-Denny plan. A public inquiry, one of the biggest held in Scotland, is hearing evidence and is set to finish deliberations in a few weeks. A report is to be presented to the Scottish Executive next year.
It also emerged last night that the government will shortly announce proposals to open up the sea to a major expansion of offshore wind energy. Energy Secretary John Hutton is setting up a panel of experts to advise him on renewable energy, because of pressures to meet the European Union target of having 20 per cent of energy from renewables by 2020.
But in Scotland, it is wind farms on land that are causing the problem. The prospect of giant pylons crossing Schiehallion – ‘the Fairy Hill of the Caledonians’ – has become one of the inquiry’s most sensitive aspects. The 3,500ft mountain is one of the country’s favourite hill-walking destinations. It also has intriguing historical associations, having been used in the 18th century by Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne to make the first accurate estimate of the Earth’s density.
The problem, according to experts, is that the issues raised by the Beauly-Denny inquiry go far beyond local concerns. They focus on a more general, national problem: should Britain’s commitment to renewable energy take precedence over its need to preserve its wild places? Objectors say no, and in this case urge that the cable be built underground or rerouted to run on the seabed. But Scottish and Southern Energy says that would raise costs fivefold.
‘This is a serious issue,’ said Professor Nick Jenkins, a renewable energy expert based at Manchester University. ‘We have built our cities in places that are not windy but now want to get more and more of our power from remote places that are swept by gales and high winds.
‘There are a number of solutions: you can build lines on pylons – but they are controversial – or you could think of ways of converting electricity from alternating currents to direct currents.’
It is a point backed by Hawkins. ‘Carbon emissions are a real threat to the environment. We don’t want climate change wrecking the hillsides of Britain. But at the same time we don’t want action that could result in serious ecological damage. [The inquiry] is concerned only on the impact of the upgrade on one part of Scotland. We need to consider a range of other issues: the role of sub-sea cables, their costs and the impact of onshore wind farms.’
By Robin McKie, science editor
9 December 2007
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