The accompanying photograph is possibly the first to be published of Scotland’s latest upland landmark. It was taken today and shows the first four – of an eventual 13 – turbines at the Burnfoot windfarm site in the heart of the Ochils. The complete cluster will become familiar skyline objects from many points on the southern-Highland fringe.
Needless to say, the windfarm will dominate the northern view from the main Ochils ridge itself. On clear days the two-megawatt turbines (102 metres in height and standing at around 550 metres above sea level) will be visible from the majority of hilltops in the area. Of the ten highest Ochil summits, only Ben Ever and the Law have any chance of remaining out of eye-shot.
Burnfoot gained planning approval in the summer of 2007, following an application by Wind Prospect. A monitoring mast had been onsite for a several years, and a major development was widely regarded as almost inevitable. The earth-movers arrived this April, and the first rotor-towers were raised last week.
The construction process is complex, with the main site traffic – hydraulic diggers and trucks carrying the turbine sections – coming in from the Gleneagles/Glendevon A823 via the Frandy reservoir road system. But the eventual electricity will depart directly southward – a pipeline is being laid across the edge of Alva Moss and along the Silver Glen farm track (which has been widened), then across the A91 to connect with the grid.
The main site is, understandably, an exclusion zone during the construction process: signs at standard start-off points announce a localised suspension of access laws. On the section down the southern glen, however, access has been maintained. The workers there, in my experience at least (and these hills are my local stomping ground), have been both considerate and courteous.
A few weeks ago one digger driver stopped well before he really needed to in order to let a friend and me walk down a section of track. He was apologetic about what was being done to the track, and assured us that the surface would be restored, and the edges reseeded, once work ends in late October.
A fortnight ago, however, a heavy tracked vehicle was driven to the 680-metre summit of Ben Buck, well above the agreed pipeline route. It’s unclear whether this was for surveying purposes, or whether the driver had watched too many editions of Top Gear and fancied a bit of offroading. Whatever the reason, the churned ground will take some time to recover, even assuming the vehicle doesn’t make a return visit.
In terms of the overall picture, the Ochils have been unusually vulnerable to this form of development, due to a lack of legislative protection. The area isn’t in a national park; neither is it a regional park in the way that applies to Edinburgh’s equivalent “set of lungs”, the Pentlands.
In administrative terms, the Ochils are a mishmash. The range straddles four council areas: Stirling, Clackmannanshire (the main host authority for the Burnfoot development), Perth and Kinross, and – on the lower eastern hills – Fife. Given the lack of an overarching agency, it was always likely that the range would be seen as disposable and subject to a carve-up.
Stirling council has higher land masses under its control, as does Perth and Kinross, while Clackmannanshire – along with every local authority – has been placed under severe central-government pressure (from both Holyrood and Westminster) to do its share in terms of renewable energy sources.
Several years ago, when the race for wind energy was gathering pace, eight different windfarm applications were pending for the Ochils. There appeared to be no joined-up thinking: the proposals stood as distinct, discrete planning applications, and those who objected to some or all had to start from the ground up each time.
In the end (or at this stage, at least), two of the eight made it through the planning process: Burnfoot, and the 18-turbine Green Knowes site on the north-east side of Glen Devon, which came onstream in summer 2008.
Do hill ranges such as the Ochils count as “wilderness”? No they don’t, and anyone who thinks they do is kidding themselves. The Ochils have been worked, in terms of mineral mining, quarrying, sheep farming, water storage and commercial afforestation, for decades or even centuries. Hence there is an element of nothing-new with regard to the windfarms. But have they ever been industrialised on such a substantial and mood-changing scale as this?
The situation is complex. Windfarm companies should not be seen as ill-intentioned, just as objectors should not be seen as Luddites or Nimbys. My own position is indicative of this ambivalence.
I must declare an interest, in that until a couple of years ago I was an active member – indeed for a while the chairman – of Friends of the Ochils, a group devoted to protecting these hills from excessive intrusion. Two subjects, windfarm development and the Beauly–Denny powerline (which is scheduled to cross the western shoulder of the Ochils), came to dominate every meeting.
I was probably the least anti-windfarm person on the committee – but that’s not to say I was pro. I could see the need for an increase in renewable energy sources. And I wasn’t opposed to all windfarms – those built on land already trashed by forestry or mining seem fine, for instance. I have even – and this can be a dangerous thing to say to a turbinophobe – come to rather like the aesthetics of the Green Knowes towers and their turning blades. I’d rather they weren’t there, but they can be pleasing in their own peculiar way.
But there have to be limits, and the in-your-face Burnfoot development is surely pushing the boundaries of appropriateness, given how much it will change the feel of a much-loved walking area – and that’s without trying to calculate the effect on the tourist trade around the fringes, on Crieff B&Bs and the like.
Perhaps we really do need these turbines – and more. But perhaps the cost – in all its forms – is too great, and they ought to be superseded by other forms of power-generation, be it the harnessing of tides or (again, speak it not in certain circles) a major reinvestment in nuclear power.
Installations such as Burnfoot are relatively quick fixes, however, given the off-the-shelf nature of the hardware. This, allied to political expediency, or plain political panic, means they are here to stay – for now at least.
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