On paper at least, planning reforms in Scotland should ensure protection for the best natural landscapes from being destroyed by onshore wind – but will they?
“People living closest to the wind farm tend to be most positive about them … those who most frequently see the wind farms in their day-to-day lives tend to be the most favourable towards them.”
So said a report into public attitudes towards wind farms in Scotland, revealing 44 per cent of people living within 5km of a turbine said it had a positive impact – and a substantial majority supported increasing the proportion of electricity generated from wind energy – even increasing the size of wind-farm sites.
These figures come from 10 years ago – research by the then Scottish Executive at a time when wind power held only a fraction of the importance that it does now.
The 2003 research, when the target for renewable electricity was just 18 per cent by 2010, concentrated only on the sites with more than nine turbines – there were just ten.
By contrast, the proportion of renewable electricity has jumped to more than 30 per cent and according to RenewableUK’s UK Wind Energy Database, there are more than 60 sites across Scotland with turbines in double figures, and more than 2,000 wind farms, small or large in total.
At the same time, while research shows public support for wind energy is still high, the debate has intensified and campaign groups were again due to protest at the SNP conference in Perth, claiming turbines are destroying the country’s landscape.
An application from St Andrews University for 328ft high turbines to power its North Haugh Campus was approved by a government planning reporter, overturning a decision by the local council.
A public inquiry was held in October 2012 into a wind farm from RWE npower renewables at Allt Duine in the Monadhliath Mountains, with 31 turbines up to 125m high.
And the Scottish Government has appealed a ruling from Lady Clark in the Supreme Court, that a 103-turbine development on Shetland from Viking Energy – a consortium including SSE – was incompetent under UK legislation as it did not have an electricity generating licence from Ofgem.
The Scottish Government has made clear its intention to green the country’s electricity supply, setting a target of producing the equivalent of 100 per cent renewables by 2020.
When he spoke to Holyrood magazine last month, SNP Energy Minister, Fergus Ewing, said: “I’ve always said that every application is considered strictly on its own merits. I take decisions about the large-scale projects of 50MW or over and many have been approved, some have been rejected and every one is taken only after careful consideration in an appropriate fashion.
“I’m exercising a quasi-judicial function and we do need to scrupulously observe the correct process here and I hope that people would accept – I know some in the vocal minority have been sceptical – but the fact we have rejected some applications does I think show very blatantly that each application is considered on its own merits, they are not simply waved through on some rubber-stamping exercise.”
But at the same time, the Government is consulting until January on its revised planning policy, which includes tighter controls aimed at safeguarding parts of the country from development.
A key part of its policy on onshore wind is that development will not be acceptable in areas designated in the two National Parks, or in areas marked as National Scenic Areas – which stretch from the Cuillins on Skye, down to parts of the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway.
It also sets out areas of “significant protection” including a map drawn up by Scottish Natural Heritage on core areas of wild land.
Writer and broadcaster Cameron McNeish has been a high-profile supporter of a campaign to stop the Allt Duine wind farm which protestors have claimed is too close to the Cairngorms National Park.
The developers of the Allt Duine proposal cut back the size of the wind farm from 34 to 31 turbines and reduced the height of the turbines to 110m in some parts.
Finance Secretary John Swinney is expected to make a decision when he has considered the reporter’s recommendations later this year or early in 2014. Objectors said 15,500 tonnes of concrete would be involved in the construction process.
The reporter, Jill Moody, also took several helicopter trips to assess the impact of the turbines, as well as walking up some of the hills involved.
Save the Monadhliath Mountains has written to RWE asking it to withdraw the application.
But both McNeish and the campaign group he has backed have stressed this is not an anti-wind energy protest.
He said: “There will be a huge impact on the park. Not just because of the visibility issue, but because of the construction work that will take place within the boundary of the National Park.
“The roads will be accessed from the A9 and if anybody has seen the access roads being built at the moment to supply the Beauly-Denny gridline, they are absolutely horrendous – very broad, bulldozed tracks to get big heavy lorries up, carrying these big turbine blades.”
The SNH map of 43 wild land areas covers about 20 per cent of the country, and has assessed parts of the country for remoteness, ruggedness, perceived naturalness and the absence of modern artefacts. The map, which was published earlier this year, is also being consulted on.
McNeish said: “It is very clear there are many people in Scotland who are happy for the Government to go on down the renewable energy lines but want to protect as much wild land as possible.
“This is a good start and it recognises this Government does actually care about tourism and looking after these wild land areas and trying to get a balance.”
Many advocates of wind energy will argue that the structure of wind turbines are not ugly.
McNeish says: “It boils down to two kinds of people, those who are not particularly enthralled by natural landscapes and those who get very excited and motivated by them.
“The less impact of a man on that landscape tends to add to its beauty, it is very hard for man to compete with nature in terms of natural beauty.”
But Rob Gibson, SNP convener of the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee, argues caution over the issue of wild land.
He said: “The criteria that Scottish Natural Heritage has used and the lines on the map that have been drawn, needs some careful analysis.
“I think the Government recognises there has to be a proportionate approach to where we develop wind energy.
“But remember, climate change, which has been underlined by the IPCC report last week, shows we really have to decarbonise our economy and providing electricity in a sustainable and secure fashion is a very high priority.
“It’s not a case of saying it’s one or the other, we can have both. There actually isn’t the same threat to wild land as has been implied.”
He added: “The set of desktop paradigms that have been set up by Scottish Natural Heritage need to be questioned very carefully indeed.”
Gibson, MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, said he is a “huge believer” in having areas that don’t have large developments on them, but said most of the developments in his constituency would be small developments for community purposes.
And he said issues like the Lady Clark ruling meant there was a “near moratorium” on developments until the issue has been resolved.
He added: “We need to take a deep breath and look at this very sensibly, because our huge potential to be self-sufficient relies upon, not entirely but to quite a large extent, the on-land wind at the present time.”
McNeish, who says he prefers to campaign from “outside the stockade” rather than being part of a protest group, has met the First Minister over his calls and says Alex Salmond, whose mother was a keen hillwalker and climbed more than 170 Munros, has been very receptive, but asked on their first meeting: “What do I do before the lights go out?”
He added: “My father and grandfather both worked in the shipyards in Glasgow and they were proud to work there because they saw it as a great industry in Scotland, something we were world famous for.
“I’ve come round to the way of thinking that Scotland has in the past had a number of major industries like shipbuilding, mining or steelworks and we don’t have these anymore.
“To me, the natural resources we have points to Scotland being a good place for a successive renewable energy industry in the future.
“At the moment, wave and tidal technology is not fully ready and we need a stopgap.
“From being in a place where I was very anti-wind, I’ve tried over the past couple of years to be more pragmatic and say we’ll have an opportunity to ultimately, hopefully, move all the stuff offshore in wind, wave and tidal – but at the same time, I want to do my utmost best to preserve those wild land areas – it’s getting a balance between development and protecting the best of our world famous landscapes.”
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