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ScottishPower eyes big expansion of onshore wind energy

ScottishPower, the UK’s largest generator of wind power, has said it sees plenty of room for expansion in Scotland despite the opposition the turbines attract.

The Spanish-owned group has approval for it to raise its UK onshore wind capacity from the current 1,600 megawatts to more than 2,000MW – most of which would be in Scotland.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Keith Anderson, chief executive of ScottishPower Renewables, credited Scotland’s grid infrastructure and planning policies with helping “pick up the pace” of onshore wind development in recent years.

His upbeat comments come as Scotland-based onshore wind establishes itself as an increasingly important contributor to the UK electricity supply. According to the environmental group WWF Scotland, Scottish wind turbines generated more than 812,000MWh of electricity in November – more than the total demand from Scottish households.

Wind is the biggest source of Scottish renewable energy, which in 2013 accounted for 32 per cent of electricity generated in Scotland, the same as supplied from fossil fuels, according to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change. A record 28 per cent of Scottish electricity was exported to the rest of the UK last year.

The increasing numbers of wind turbines in Scotland has drawn fierce complaints from conservation groups and critics of the governing Scottish National party, which has strongly supported renewable energy development.

In an interview at Whitelee, the UK’s largest onshore wind farm, Mr Anderson praised the Scottish government for making its system of approvals for wind projects “progressive and open”.

“We are probably about as good as it gets in terms of the planning environment,” he said, striking a particular contrast with Wales, which like Scotland has high levels of wind and a relatively sparse population.

“The Welsh have talked a lot about doing wind,” he said. “But we have found that in terms of actual physical action on the ground . . . it is way, way behind what we have in Scotland.”

ScottishPower last week walked away from the Dyfnant Forest wind farm project in Wales, blaming worries about the planning process and grid infrastructure. “That’s not something we do in Scotland,” said Mr Anderson.

He said Scottish ministers had decided to approve a further 11 turbines at its wind farm at Black Law, where there are already 77 built or under construction, meaning ScottishPower has planning permission for a further 500MW of onshore wind.

The expansion means ScottishPower’s total onshore wind capacity is approaching the scale of its Longannet power station, the UK’s second largest, which burns coal to generate up to 2,400MW.

ScottishPower’s wind ambitions are on clear display at Whitelee, 20km south of Glasgow, where 215 turbines, spread across a moor, can generate up to 539MW.

On a windy December day, the flow of electricity was stopped only by gusts forcing some turbines to shut down temporarily. At an on-site control centre, technicians were remotely monitoring and controlling ScottishPower turbines across the British Isles.

ScottishPower also sees Whitelee as an example of the public embrace of wind power. The site has become a tourist destination and hosts an information centre with up to 100,000 visitors a year.

Mr Anderson said ScottishPower had a host of future projects under planning, located carefully and with use of local services and contractors making it easier to win the support of residents.

“I’ve got no reason why we won’t be developing wind farms in 2020. There’s plenty of life there,” he said.

Mr Anderson waved aside suggestions that onshore wind farms would be made less attractive by deployment of offshore turbines, which offer more consistent generation and greater scale but are more technically challenging. “Onshore wind will always be more cost-effective, so why not keep doing it,” he said.

Such comments will dismay opponents who say too much of Scotland’s dramatic rural scenery has been marred by vast turbines.

The Scottish Conservatives said this week that utilities had made planning applications for 200 large wind farm developments over the past 18 months.

“The SNP’s ludicrous targets and constant rhetoric on wind energy has given these companies the green light to submit application after application,” said Murdo Fraser, Conservative energy spokesman.

“It puts a massive strain on council planning departments, which in turn causes anxiety to those in communities whose surroundings would be severely impaired.”