It is the gold rush that underpins Scotland’s ambition to be a global leader in renewable energy.
Land-based wind farms have become a common site on Scottish soil with the appetite to build the controversial and lucrative developments significantly growing in 2011 – while protests against their arrival also intensified.
A 100% increase in planning applications for onshore wind turbine sites was recorded this year as developers and landowners put 55 new proposals through the system, an increase from the 28 lodged in 2010.
The surge comes as the UK Government considers altering the two payment schemes used to reward the generation of green electricity, with a reduction in financial returns a likely possibility.
Aberdeenshire has proved to be the most attractive location for development this year as landowners look to diversify incomes. Of the 55 applications lodged across the country, 33 are in the largely arable area of the north-east and are mainly for small-scale developments.
Planning permission was sought for just eight sites in Aberdeenshire in 2010.
The Highlands remain a key interest for developers, with applications lodged for five medium-sized wind farms in the past year, while the Borders also retains its spot as one of the areas most densely populated with wind farms, with six developments planned for the area – a total of 49 turbines.
Energy Minister Fergus Ewing last week hailed 2011 as a “momentous” year for renewables, describing it as the best year yet given the volume of development and investment.
However, South Scotland Labour MSP Graeme Pearson warned of the “helter skelter” approach to development and said serious questions had to be asked about the end result of the green energy drive.
Mr Pearson said: “When I came to the Parliament in all truth I had little interest in the green energy issue but, as I went around the country, in particular the south of Scotland, I could see communities are concerned. I have spent six months digging through the evidence to get a better understanding.
“My own position is I don’t approach wind farms saying they are a bad thing but are we really certain that we’ve checked through where this model takes us and will we be happy with the destination that we arrive at?”
Mr Pearson, who has gone on to advise pressure group Communities Against Turbines Scotland (CATS) about evidence on wind farms, said the main issues were the proliferation of schemes, the infrastructure required to connect the developments to the National Grid and the economics of green energy.
He said: “When you try and find out what level of subsidy is applied, it all then becomes pretty murky in trying to understand the financial aspects.
“It is certainly the case the landowners who apply to have wind farms on their property do very well.
“A medium sized wind farm will generate hundreds of thousands of pounds a year in rental. There have been a number where that figure is between £700,000 and £1 million. There is often a notion co-operatives build these wind farms, but when you go out and look at the landscape it’s large international companies and investment groups behind them.
“From a government policy point of view you would want to be able to see a proper balance sheet and a cost-benefit analysis in local terms but the documents I get are all very sizeable tombs and hugely complex.
“If all the questions we ask are all answered in a way that leaves more positives than negatives then you may be able to look out of a window, see a wind farm and think it is not the most beautiful thing in the world but because it creates clear benefits for Scotland, I should accept it.”
Some research would suggest the majority of Scots are in favour, given their core purpose of reducing climate change.
Scottish Renewables said its recent MORI poll found 78% of people agreed that more onshore wind power was required to tackle climate change, with 56% agreeing more investment in wind power was needed.
Jenny Hogan, policy director for Scottish Renewables, said: “Once a wind farm is built there tends to be much more support.
“A lot of uncertainty comes from people not knowing what to expect.”
The Adam Smith Institute recently reported a quarter of the UK’s generation capacity will be lost over the next decade as old and polluting capacity closes down and Ms Hogan said it was important to find ways to fill that energy gap.
She said: “If we want to keep using energy the way we do we have to find ways to generate it.”
Brendan Turvey, policy officer for Scottish Natural Heritage, said his view was public concern regarding wind farms was “growing significantly” – as illustrated by a recent debate in the Scottish Parliament in which a motion for a moratorium on wind farms was put forward.
Mr Turvey said: “The thing people are most concerned with is the level of development in the system and the cumulative effect of all the applications. Is that a barrier to the future development of onshore wind? Yes.”
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