It is a question of nature versus need, and livelihood versus landscape. The Scottish Government’s rejection this week of plans for Europe’s largest wind farm on Barvas Moor, on Lewis, has shown there are many shades of green.
Only a few years ago, the merits of the Lewis Wind Power (LWP) scheme were trumpeted high and wide. The 600MW wind farm, to be constructed by Amec and British Energy, would cut a quarter of a million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year from Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Since then, however, environmentalism has come in for increasing questioning and paradoxes have been revealed. The rejection of LWP – to protect the fragile ecosystem of the Lewis Peatlands Special Protection Area – may be a taste of things to come.
Now, more than ever, renewable energy – or wind power, at the very least – is under scrutiny, not least in Lewis. In the same way the military describes friendly fire as “blue on blue”, so there will be “green on green” conflicts as clean methods of harnessing renewable energy are seen by some to be ecologically intrusive, and are thoroughly examined and debated.
According to the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA), the wind power industry body, there has been a downwards trend in the number of wind farm planning applications in Scotland. There were applications for 2,221MW in 2004, 1,779 in 2005, 1,107 in 2006, 563 in 2007, and 65 so far this year.
The SNP administration’s decision on LWP has led to widespread criticism of its policies on green energy, or rather, the sparsity of them.
There are 27 wind farm projects before the Scottish Government’s Energy Consents Unit. Alex Salmond, the First Minister, has repeatedly talked up the nation’s capacity for generating green power, but the detail of his intentions has so far been scarce.
The aftermath of Lewis may be a spur. A source in the Scottish Government said yesterday: “Regardless whether the decision to oppose the wind farm was right or wrong, the past few days have seen an interesting debate.
“People are saying, ‘Yes, that project’s great, but it needs tinkering with,’ or ‘The principle’s good, but it’s not suitable at the moment’.
“It’s opened up a forum for people to analyse renewable energy and how to make it work, and the government isn’t excluded from the process.”
The Lewis scheme may yet be revived. The developers have retired to pore over the government’s response, and are officially “considering their options”.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland (RSPB), perhaps the most vocal objector to LWP, has registered tentative support for the developers. While seeking reassurances that “they will not simply seek to continue pushing modified versions of the same proposal,” it is willing to help “identify new areas” for development.
More significantly, it is thought Jim Mather, the energy minister, is amicable towards the idea of a smaller wind farm, and has stressed he is in no way opposed to onshore wind farms in the Western Isles.
It is a pledge many in Lewis will be hoping turns into reality. Though thousands considered the Amec-British Energy plans an affront to the landscape, the community is aware of the benefits they have lost. Along with 400 jobs, the wind farm was expected to bring in millions of pounds a year, a vast sum earmarked for leisure and sporting facilities.
Politicians in the Western Isles have insisted this week that a renewable energy conduit to the mainland is vital to the region’s economy, provided it is developed sensitively.
Alex Macdonald, convener of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, and chair of the Outer Hebrides Community Planning Partnership, said
“The decision to refuse planning consent for the wind farm represents a huge missed opportunity for the government to meet its national renewable energy targets, and for the economy of the Western Isles to receive a sizeable, sustainable long term boost.
“In particular, the refusal is a desperate blow for the future viability of the Arnish Point fabrication yard which has been the recipient of a major investment package in recent years to meet the needs of the energy turbine market.”
He added: “It is time for the government and those representing the Western Isles in Westminster and Edinburgh to come forward with fresh proposals to sustain and re-energise the (area’s] economy.
“The government needs to be more proactive in helping the Outer Hebrides Community Planning Partnership to address the serious socio-economic issues facing the islands.”
There are two other wind farm applications in the south of Lewis, and an inquiry will open next month into a 53-turbine scheme at Eisgein.
Wind may not be the only option, though. Barely had the Scottish Government’s decision became known than Lewis found itself the subject of another renewable energy proposal – to use the seas which lash the island with a wave power plant.
Still in its formative stages, the Siadar Wave Energy Project (Swep) is a collaboration between Npower renewables and Wavegen, an Inverness technology firm.
They believe their pilot project, if approved, is capable of generating enough electricity to power 1,500 homes on Lewis and Harris, harnessing power from waves in Siadar Bay to generate up to 4MW of electricity.
Building work could start as early as 2009. The project could generate up to 50 construction jobs, would take about 18 months, and would be the first project to operate under the Scottish Government’s Marine Supply Obligation (MSO).
Iain Macleod, a crofter at Siadar, and one of the most outspoken opponents of the wind farm, said:
“This started as a community project. We were looking for ways to improve the old slipway where we used to launch boats,” he said. “There have been no objections anywhere in the community.”
The industry, while reeling from the LWP decision, largely believes it is a one-off case.
Duncan McLaren, chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: “The SNP should be doing more to promote energy saving as the most cost-effective option, but its approach to renewables is sound – drawing a line at European designated habitats, but approving wind farms in appropriate places, and not allowing a nimby tendency to dictate policy.”
Jason Ormiston, the chief executive of Scottish Renewables, the green energy trade body, told The Scotsman: “I think the renewables industry will just view Lewis as another planning decision, not something that may impact on their own projects. The LWP scheme is unusual in scale and location, and it’s certainly not a death-blow to wind power.
“There are a lot of problems with the planning system, but broadly, there’s political support for wind power. I don’t think the decision is reflective of the government’s energy policy.”
Charles Warren, senior lecturer in the School of Geography and Geosciences at the University of St Andrews, in a paper in the Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, wrote: “Given the ‘green on green’ nature of the debate, opinion will doubtless remain divided over whether such a development would be a good, bad or indifferent development in Scotland.”
His study was published in 2005. Three years later, it is still unclear which way the wind in Scotland is blowing.
By Martyn McLaughlin
26 April 2008
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