Let me own up to my love-hate relationship with wind farms.
I used to think turbines were works of art. The first ones I saw stood on top of Soutra Hill to the south of Edinburgh. To me they looked like elegant and innovative sculptures: slender, headless figures doing back-flips.
I thought: sometimes man gets it right. I bought the political argument too. Wind energy would create jobs, reindustrialise Scottish communities, cut carbon emissions and bring us clean, renewable energy. Along the way it would make millionaires of those fortunate enough to own the poor land on which they would stand.
Could we really have all this and beauty too? It was almost too good to be true. Now I see it was. And I’m not alone. Standing shoulder to shoulder with me are voices as diverse as the John Muir Trust and Donald Trump. From the letters page of The Herald to tabloid headlines, people are expressing acute unease about an ever-growing forest of identikit turbines. The objections aren’t just about where they are sited. People question their efficiency, their cost and the subsidies we pay their owners. Is the price, whether it’s the lost scenery or the millions to put the things up, worth paying?
As wind farms grew in size, proliferated and marched across Scotland, my love affair palled. I now regard turbines not as sculptures but as eyesores. To add insult to injury, their outstretched arms often aren’t even spinning lazily. Instead they stand static, awkward – and expensive. Sometimes we pay them to do nothing.
Up close their access roads are scars on the landscape and their massive concrete bases seem at odds with green technology.
Now evidence is emerging which queries their efficiency. Only days ago the John Muir Trust, that guardian of wilderness, published a report stating that turbines produce at less than 10% of their capacity for more than a third of the time. Half the time it’s under 20%.
It said: “There is an urgent need to re-evaluate the implications of reliance on wind for any significant proportion of our energy requirement.”
If that is the case – or anywhere near the case – we need to stop, look and listen before we smother this beautiful country with any more of what I and many like me now regard as monstrosities. A locust may be a thing of wonder but a swarm of them is a blight.
Since 1999, permission has been granted to build 84 wind farms in Scotland. This year alone a further 46 were put into the planning system. That’s 354 more turbines.
At this rate we should meet the SNP Government’s aspiration to provide 100% of Scotland’s energy needs from renewable sources by 2020. But will we be weaving through a forest of wind turbines to drive across the country? Will any of our beauty spots remain out of sight of one? How much of our seascape will be sacrificed to them? What effect will new developments have on our all-important tourist industry?
I’m not a natural ally of Donald Trump but for once I think he’s got it about right.
This unlikely conservationist is fighting the proposed building of 11 turbines off Aberdeen Bay, just over a mile from his new golf course development. He knows the value of unspoiled scenery and he’s agitated. He says America protects its magnificent stretches of coastline from “these horrendous looking, noisy and inefficient structures”.
He objects to the “horrible idea of building ugly wind turbines directly off Aberdeen’s beautiful coastline”. He says he’s making a fuss “for the benefit of Scotland”.
It isn’t just the Aberdeen coastline that is threatened. The Cairngorms National Park could have three winds farms along a 40-mile stretch around its north-west boundary. It would mean that when people in search of wilderness scaled the park’s peaks they would be looking down at turbines.
A decision is soon due on Allt Duine, which could have 31 turbines, each 125 metres high. David Gibson of the Mountaineering Council commented, “It’s time for planning authorities to think again.”
In Galloway, local residents fought a successful campaign to block planning permission to Blackcraig wind farm with its 23 turbines only for the last Scottish government to over-rule the council. Galloway Landscape and Renewable Energy (GLARE) described it as an “appalling” decision to allow an “erratic and intrusive industrial generator”.
But objections aren’t confined to turbines. The Beauly to Denny pylon upgrade is needed in part to carry the extra electricity. That’s another great scar across areas of exceptional beauty.
It’s one thing to blight large parts of Scotland if wind farms live up to their claims, if they do the job that’s billed for them, but quite another if they don’t. We’re told that Whitelee in East Renfrewshire – the largest wind farm in Europe – can power 300,000 households. It’s impressive but how true is it if the John Muir Trust is correct and turbines function at less than 10% for more than a third of the time? How does the average citizen know which figures to believe? Isn’t it time to pause, to take stock, to re-evaluate and re-assess? I think so.
What better way to do it than to appoint a commission of inquiry which would take evidence in public and report, let’s say, within a year? We have enough turbines and they have been operational for long enough for there to be a thorough statistical examination of efficiency. The commission could take evidence from companies in the renewables sector as well as land owners, community groups and conservationists, champions of green energy, protectors of the landscape, entrepreneurs and ordinary citizens who care about what is happening to country, their country.
Many will be like me. If asked in 2002 how I felt about wind farms I would have supported them (just like the majority of those who were surveyed by the then Scottish Executive). If I was asked the same question now I’d need convincing.
A policy that started out with the goodwill of the people is losing support. Our Government is charging onward as though nothing has changed. Does the policy still have public consent for the building of more and more wind farms?
I doubt the Government is certain of the answer to that question any more. So what is the basis for it permitting the erection of another turbine – much less three wind farms within sight of the Cairngorms National Park, another off the unspoiled coast of Aberdeen Bay – and the others that are bound to follow?