In the dramatic countryside west of Inverness, a single-track road pitches and turns between dark purple hills and the fast-flowing River Beauly. Then you round a corner and find a scene of total destruction.
Along a strip 300 yards wide, the trees have been ripped out, leaving nothing but stumps and bare, scarred earth. It looks like the Space Shuttle has crashed into the hillside – except that it stretches into the distance farther than you can see.
In fact it stretches, or soon will do, for 140 miles, through the heart of the Highlands, Europe’s largest upland wilderness. And above the scorched earth is rising the first of 600 electricity pylons, each the height of a 15-storey tower block, dominating mountains and ridgelines as they go. It is a preview of the future for much of wild Britain. As The Sunday Telegraph revealed last week, hundreds of miles of new pylon lines are planned across the country’s finest landscapes to serve the ever-growing wind industry. This one, from Beauly to Denny, near Stirling, is the first.
“We have new construction roads in everywhere now,” says Andrew Fielden, director of the Ardverikie Estate, near Newtonmore. “This is a national park, but there doesn’t seem much point if this can happen to it.”
For millions across Britain and the world, Ardverikie, where the Monarch of the Glen TV series was filmed, is their idea of Scotland. But soon, at the east end of Loch Laggan, some new monarchs, a giant line of pylons, will come marching through the glen. At Stirling, the masts will pass within a field’s length of another icon of Scotland: the Wallace Monument, commemorating the “Braveheart” who fought for Scots nationhood. It is both extremely damaging and totally appropriate: in modern Scotland, Wallace and the Highlands are being replaced as national symbols by the electricity pylon and the wind turbine.
“In 2002, you could stand in 41 per cent of Scotland and see no visual impact from built development,” says Helen McDaid, of the John Muir Trust, which campaigns for wild land. “By 2009, it was down to 28 per cent, largely due to wind farms.” That figure, produced by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), will be even lower by now. It fell by 3 per cent in 2008 alone. But it has not been updated since – SNH told The Sunday Telegraph that they were “working on it” but it was “complicated”.
The real complication, perhaps, is the SNP government’s commitment to a different percentage – that by 2020, an amount equivalent to 100 per cent of Scotland’s electricity demand should be generated from renewables, mostly wind. That implies a threefold expansion in just eight years. It has led to a “wind rush”, with thousands of new turbine applications blowing into Scottish councils’ planning departments. One, Aberdeenshire, had 800 in 14 months. Even Ikea has got in on the act, buying its own wind farm near Huntly. In the Highlands and Islands, there are 252 operational turbines already, a further 278 under construction or approved and another 1,130 proposed or in the planning process.
But the problem is not just the wind farms; it is the transmission lines needed to connect them to the customer. In northern Scotland, there are already too many wind farms for the grid, which lacks the capacity to get power to consumers in the country’s central-belt cities and England. The absurd result is that these wind farms are paid not to generate electricity, to avoid overloading the network. One, Farr, has collected almost £2.5 million. Another, Gordonburn, was paid £140,000 even before it formally opened. Most of the top farms for such “constraint payments” are in this part of the world; hence the new Beauly to Denny pylon trail.
But though they might seem to solve one problem, pylon lines create others. For Beauly-Denny, hundreds of miles of new roads are being built across virgin mountain land so that diggers and construction crews can reach the sites. Some of the lost trees and habitats can never be replaced. Supporters of the project say it largely follows the course of an existing, smaller power line – which is only half true. Substantial stretches of Beauly-Denny run away from the current line, through wholly unspoilt areas.
“People will be hit hard when they see it,” says David MacLehose, convenor of Scotland Before Pylons. “They’ll ask, how did we let that happen?” At least in part by ignoring evidence to the contrary, is the answer. The public inquiry into the plan refused to consider a submission by Sir Donald Miller, former chief engineer and chairman of one of the companies building the pylon line, that it would have been just as effective to reinforce an existing line running through less sensitive areas to the east. But as with wind farms themselves, opponents suspect, a symbolic point was being made by the choice of an in-your-face scheme.
Supporters of wind power point to the number of jobs it can create – potentially as many as 40,000, according to the upper estimates, though others put it in the low thousands. But the number of people employed in Scotland’s tourism industry is already 200,000 – and some warn that the wind rush puts that seriously at risk.
A spokesman for the Gleneagles Hotel, in Perthshire, says guests “expect to see an unspoilt landscape, as this is what they associate with Scotland”; instead, they notice a “marked visual impact” from nearby wind farms. He adds: “Cumulative, and rapid, growth of more wind farms threatens the very essence of why these places are so well-regarded and known.”
Paul McPhall, from St Andrews Golf Club, says that wind turbines – six of which are proposed near his course – are “monstrosities” that will “disturb” his players and guests.
Visit Scotland, the government’s tourism quango, claims that wind farms have “little impact” on the industry, based on research showing that 80 per cent of visitors said their decision about where to visit would not be affected by the presence of a wind farm. But in the current climate, few hotels or attractions can afford to be relaxed about a 20 per cent loss of business.
Visit Scotland also says that tourist numbers to the country rose by 9 per cent last year. Yet a regional breakdown shows that many of the areas with the most wind farms – such as South Ayrshire and the Western Isles – bucked the trend and suffered declines.
There’s a more direct cost to people and the economy. Bulldozing the countryside is enormously expensive: Beauly-Denny alone is costing £500 million, all of which will find its way into consumers’ bills across the UK. The cabling to link new wind farms on Shetland – 300 miles from the central belt – is so costly that, experts say, Shetland wind farms can never hope to operate without subsidy.
Beauly-Denny takes Highland electricity only as far as Glasgow and Edinburgh. But Scotland’s 100 per cent renewable target relies on it being able to sell large quantities of excess power to the English. (The Scots will still have to keep an excess generation capacity as backup for when the wind isn’t blowing.) Selling more electricity to the English means more new Beauly-Denny-like lines across the Border and down through northern England.
Of the four UK nations, Scotland has always been the wind industry’s friendliest haven. Edinburgh politicians talk lyrically of a “Saudi Arabia of wind”, of wind being the new North Sea oil. But any industrialisation is occurring largely in areas that were never industrial before. North Sea oil gave money to the taxpayer rather than took it away. And even in Scotland, the sheer scale of what’s planned may now be changing minds. The National Trust for Scotland, much less hostile to wind than its English equivalent, is consulting its members about a possible change of heart. Anti-wind candidates did well at this year’s local elections. Aberdeenshire and another council, Fife, have called moratoriums on new wind farm applications.
Even Donald Trump, the American entrepreneur building a golf resort on the east coast, has claimed wind farms will “end” the Scottish tourist industry.
“The (Edinburgh) government are nervous about this,” says the John Muir Trust’s Helen McDaid. “It’s beginning to percolate through to them how damaging this is to a sector of the population.”
If the pressure doesn’t work, though, it might be worth taking your holiday to Scotland soon, in the short time left before it changes for ever.
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding