It is cheering to know that some good came from the weather that has lashed the country. On December 10 our onshore wind turbines generated enough electricity to supply 6,340,000 homes: three times the number of households in Scotland.
And, according to the environmental charity WWF Scotland, wind generated enough power to supply more than 100 per cent of our needs during six out of the past 12 months: January, February, March, October November and December.
There is something to be marvelled at in these figures. There’s comfort in knowing that the country has harnessed a natural and renewable means of keeping the lights on. But it also begs the question: do we need more onshore wind farms?
Clearly the system works. It is already giving us twice what we need in those months when the wind blows. The downside is that we have no way of storing excess. In fact, at a cost to the consumer of £1 million a week, we pay wind farm companies to stop production when the grid can’t cope.
Also, those six months of over-supply need to be balanced against the other half of the year when we have less reliable wind and less reliable supply. For example, in June, onshore wind farms produced only 37 per cent of our electricity needs and in September 41 per cent.
The answer to those months of lighter wind is to maintain a back-up supply provided by gas, coal or nuclear power stations. Not everyone agrees. The WWF Scotland report states that, by 2030, Scotland could be powered almost entirely by renewables, with no need for carbon sources or nuclear. It is arguably a wonderful prospect. If it can be delivered with the existing number of wind farms, backed up by hydro-pumped storage, offshore wind turbines, solar panels, wave power and so on, underpinned by a reduction in demand, who could fail to celebrate? But Scotland seems to be intent on putting up more and onshore wind farms.
Why? The figures suggest we have enough already for half of the year and require some other form of generation for the other half. When do we reach the stage of balancing electricity generation against other interests? How much more scenery can we afford to blight without having a significant adverse impact on our tourist industry?
There are other unintended consequences. Across the country there are landowners with acres of unprofitable, unfertile acres who go to bed at night praying for a wind farm on their land. It has already made overnight millionaires of some. There are a few saintly and public spirited lairds who have turned their backs on the filthy lucre. But most are only human and take the chance to endow their estates for another generation.
When a big wind farm company blows into a community, largesse follows. The companies make hefty profits and are even paid to switch off their turbines when they produce too much electricity for the grid to cope. In the last twelve months this compensation amounted to £53.1m; more than £1m a week.
So some lucky landowners hit the jackpot. Wind farm owners profit from subsidies. Scotland gets green electricity but the consumer pays a premium for it. It’s particularly unpalatable to see that extra cost going towards “compensation” for private companies that act as Mr Big to the community closest to their wind farm.
The Government has committed itself to a target of meeting 100 per cent of our electricity consumption from renewables by 2020. At this time, in what promises to be a lull between referendums, it will be keen to forge ahead with its existing policy, to claim victory in all its doings.
But Nicola Sturgeon, a seemingly thoughtful woman, should ask herself if this really is how we want to configure Scotland. We have powerful organised interests making huge sums of money lobbying for more onshore wind turbines. Meanwhile, lovers of the landscape are scattered individuals who find it difficult to have their voice heard. The Scottish Conservatives say the Holyrood Parliament received 5,942 complaints about wind farm proposals in 2014, double the 2,951 in 2013. They are calling for a halt to wind farms and, for once, I agree with them.
One of our greenest organisations, the John Muir Trust, is speaking out in hope of protecting wild places. Head of policy Helen McDade said that, while the trust agreed that Scotland needed to cut energy use and reduce carbon emissions, it is concerned about the number of inappropriate wind farm developments going through the planning process.
She said: “The Trust is aware of several major industrial developments proposed in Wild Land Areas, for instance Glencassley and Sallachy in north-west Sutherland, Allt Duine beside the Cairngorm National Park and Talladh A Bheithe in Rannoch, adding up to hundreds of turbines. These landscapes should be protected for their value to Scotland and it would be unfortunate if this report was used to justify continual degradation of our wildest landscapes.
“There are more developments than ever before being applied for within our best wild landscapes due to the excessive subsidies paid to onshore wind development. There needs to be a national energy commission set up to consider the costs and benefits of various energy systems, with a focus on most benefit from public subsidies and taxes.”
More wind farms would inevitably further multiply the already staggering cost of “compensation”. More landscape would be blighted with a knock-on effect to the important tourist industry.
The pleasure we all take in the country we live in would be diminished. The unspoiled beauty of Scotland’s landscape is a matter of pride to its people. For country dwellers it is a daily pleasure. For us in the city a weekend or holiday serves as a reminder of how fortunate we are to occupy this part of the planet.
Of course, we want to play our part in cutting carbon emissions but despoliation is not right way to set about saving. Wind turbines have proven themselves to be effective up to a point. Surely that point has now been reached.
There are other things we can do. We can build houses that are energy neutral. We can make existing houses energy efficient. We can offer grants and subsidies to promote greater use of solar power. We can maximise all other means of renewable energy production to fulfil our needs for the six months when the wind is not enough.
It will cost; of course it will. But isn’t it a better way to spend money than destroying more landscape to build more turbines that command a subsidy to be switched off?
We need a centralised, informed, objective strategy with which to move forward for the benefit of all. So let’s have that national energy commission and meantime let’s halt the building of onshore turbines.
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