Scotland is still on course to hit its renewables target, the energy minister insisted last night, after he pulled the plug on plans for Europe’s largest wind farm.
Jim Mather finally rejected a proposed 181-turbine development on Lewis, which provoked a fierce “environment-versus-development” debate over nearly four years.
Supporters said it was a lost opportunity to advance Scotland’s renewables industry and the fragile economy of the Western Isles. It had been claimed the project would bring in £600 million annually and provide hundreds of jobs.
Ministers had indicated in January that they were “minded to refuse” the plan, and yesterday’s announcement delighted objectors who said it was a rational decision to protect the environment.
Mr Mather said the Lewis Wind Power (LWP) project was incompatible with European law, as it would have had a serious impact on the Lewis Peatlands Special Protection Area. The land is designated under European Commission regulations because of its important birdlife.
However, he insisted the rejection did not mean there could not be wind farms in the Western Isles, nor did it affect the government’s commitment to renewables – its target was still to generate 50 per cent of Scotland’s electricity from renewables by 2020.
An action plan on how to develop renewables in the islands is to be completed in the autumn.
At present, 454 wind turbines are operating in Scotland, with a further 203 approved. Applications have been received for 1,700 others in 28 locations, including another two in the Western Isles.
Mr Mather said: “There is 6.4 gigawatts of renewable development either under construction or in existing or planned applications, well over twice the current installed renewables capacity of 2.8 gigawatts.
“Even allowing for refusals, we are well on the way to meeting our ambitious target to generate 50 per cent of Scotland’s electricity demand from renewables by 2020.”
But the Highland Renewable Energy Group said yesterday’s decision was a social and economic disaster for the islands and raised major questions about the Scottish Government’s commitment to renewable energy.
Bill McAllister, the group’s secretary, said: “The Scottish administration cannot, in all strategic logic, decide to reject nuclear and opt for renewable energy instead, and then reject the large-scale scheme without which the administration has no chance of reaching its own renewable energy supply targets.”
He said the future of a new interconnector between the islands and mainland was also now at risk.
Gareth Williams, of the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, warned that, if the decision was allowed to set a precedent, it could mean large parts of Scotland near designated sites would now be closed to development.
The Liberal Democrats called for ministers to publish a strategy for the future of energy in Scotland.
LWP, meanwhile, said it was considering its next move. Kevin Murray, the firm’s representative on Lewis, said the rejection represented a “huge missed opportunity”. He went on: “For the sake of our generation and the generation coming after us, we need renewable energy. We also need this for the economy – fuel prices are going through the roof, fish farming is struggling, as is Harris Tweed.”
It had been claimed the wind farm would employ more than 400 people and bring in £6 million annually to the islands, as well as using the former oil fabrication yard at Arnish for turbine manufacture.
Angus Campbell, the vice-convener of Western Isles Council, said the decision was “deeply disappointing and perplexing in view of the Scottish Government’s renewable energy policy to make Scotland the green powerhouse of Europe”. He added: “The government has got the balance between the environment and the socioeconomic benefits of the wind farm completely out of kilter.”
The £500 million project has been controversial since it was put forward in October 2004 by LWP, a consortium of AMEC and British Energy.
Out of 11,022 representations, 10,924 were against the plan, with only 98 in favour.
Environmental bodies feared potential damage to the peatlands, which are home to species such as golden eagle, merlin, red throated diver, golden plover, dunlin and greenshank.
Stuart Housden, the director of RSPB Scotland, said the rejection of the project sent “a strong message that in meeting our ambitious and welcome renewable targets, we do not have to sacrifice our most important environmental resources”.
Catriona Campbell, of the protest group Moorlands Without Turbines, said she was delighted while Alasdair Allan, the islands’ SNP MSP, said the decision brought to an end a long and painful debate.
THE Lewis peatlands are regarded as one of the most extensive and intact areas of blanket bog on the planet and one of Scotland’s most important wildlife areas.
The development would have covered an area of 24,797 hectares (61,248 acres), much of it in the Lewis Peatlands Special Protection Area, the second largest in Scotland.
Environmentalists claimed the wind farm would hit populations of red-throated divers, black-throated divers, golden eagles, golden plovers and dunlins.
It was also felt that construction would cause irreversible damage to the structure of the peat and that carbon dioxide would be released.
But LWP said greenhouse gases released during construction would be cancelled out by the clean energy produced by the turbines within seven months. Dr Tom Dargie, who carried out analysis for LWP, said that the long-term structure and function of the peatland habitat was not under threat.
Charity has the clout to fly in face of controversial building proposals
WITH more than a million members, the RSPB has considerable power to influence decisions.
The charity, which last year had funds of almost £80 million, has fought vigorously against Lewis Wind Power’s proposal to build a wind farm on peatland at Lewis.
The RSPB argues that renewable energy targets can be met without needing to threaten environmental resources. The RSPB, the largest conservation charity in Europe, has had similar clout when opposing other high-profile developments, such as Donald Trump’s controversial plans for championship golf courses at Menie Estate north of Aberdeen.
Along with Scottish Natural Heritage, the Scottish Government’s conservation adviser, the RSPB has objected to part of the development being built on an site of special scientific interest, saying it could damage wildlife.
The organisation has an army of 12,200 volunteers and 150,000 youth members. It has 200 nature reserves covering about 130,000 hectares, which are home to 80 per cent of the country’s rarest or most threatened bird species.
The charity, which was founded more than a century ago, is supported by a network of 175 local groups and there are at least nine volunteers for every paid member of staff.
The bulk of the charity’s income is spent on conservation projects, maintenance of reserves and education schemes. It counts among its success stories the decision by governments in India, Nepal and Pakistan to ban Diclofenac, a veterinary drug that is wiping out vultures.
More than 1,000 RSPB members attended the Stop Climate Chaos Rally in London in November 2006.
By John Ross
22 April 2008
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