When I lived in East Kilbride, the Whitelee Wind Farm dominated the skyline. The turbines didn’t bother me. In fact, I saw something majestic in them.
And they were a good thing, weren’t they? We couldn’t keep firing carbon into the atmosphere by spewing out coal and oil, could we? It might not be windy every day, but the wind would never run out. So, wind power made me feel like we were doing something to save the planet.
When I was an MSP, I remember being bombarded by letters from people against wind farms in their communities. Quite frankly, like a lot of people, I judged those people as nimbys. But since I’ve moved to live in rural Perthshire, I’ve realised my narrow, urban perception was ill-informed – to the point that, last week, I was pleased that a huge development proposed by SSE at Stronelairg was stopped in its tracks at the Court of Session following a judicial review pursued by the conservation charity the John Muir Trust. Have I become a nimby myself?
No. What I’ve come to realise is that my left-wing politics and concern for the planet are consistent with treating the huge expansion of wind power with scepticism.
I have no sympathy for the Donald Trumps, the Jeremy Clarksons and The Daily Telegraph’s climate change deniers who would cheerfully burn up the planet and leave future generations to deal with the catastrophic consequences. But to cast a critical eye over onshore wind generation is not to put yourself in their camp.
When I worked in the NHS, there were many battles against privatisation – the profit motive had no place in looking after the sick and vulnerable. Speakers at public meetings would predict, only half-jokingly, that if the powers that be could find a way to privatise the air we breathe, they would. Since then, even capitalism has not yet worked out a way to make us pay to fill our lungs. But it has managed to turn wind into gold.
The development at Stronelairg was proposed a few years ago by SSE under its then chief executive Ian Marchant, who went on to become a vocal supporter of the No campaign during the independence referendum.
The development would have meant 67 turbines in the heart of the Monadhliath Mountains near Loch Ness, spread across an area the size of Inverness, or East Kilbride. It would have involved a network of 40 miles of roads and tracks, transmission lines and power stations.
It would have meant the excavation of hundreds of thousands of tons of rock from the surrounding landscape, destroying an extensive area of peatland, which in turn would have released vast quantities of carbon into the atmosphere.
When the Stronelairg scheme was first proposed, press reports, which have never been challenged, said the development was worth £1 billion to the shareholders of SSE. The landowner, Charles Connell of the Clyde and Belfast shipbuilding dynasty, stood to make £60 million as his cut for leasing the land on his Garrogie sporting estate – ten times its current market value.
The problem with the onshore wind boom of the past decade is that it has been driven by money – a modern-day gold rush. The companies behind these projects are not climate change crusaders – they are multinational corporations whose sole goal is to maximise profit for their shareholders.
They’ve put the green tag on their letterheads and the green energy premiums on the bills that drop through your letterbox but they’re still exploiting fossil fuels. While building wind farms, they simultaneously drill for oil, dig for coal and frack for gas. In fact, the company behind the Stronelairg wind farm, SSE, generates most of its power from non-renewables, mainly coal and gas.
WIND power has blown in a lot of speculators – and there have been some financial shenanigans that deserve a little close attention.
For example, the Braes of Doune wind farm, just off the A9 north of Stirling, was developed by SSE’s then subsidiary, Airtricity, and approved by the last Labour-Lib Dem Scottish Executive.
The development was later sold by SSE for £51m, and is now owned by a Bermuda-based investment trust that stands to make tens of millions of pounds from the project over the next 20 years, paid for by public subsidies. And the landowner, the Earl of Moray, now rakes in a reported £2m a year for the lease of his land.
All of which is murky enough. But it gets worse. The chairman of Airticity at the time the scheme was developed was none other than the intemperate Unionist politician Brian Wilson, who in a previous incarnation as UK energy minister introduced the Renewable Obligation Certificates – the subsidies that made the Braes of Doune Wind farm so lucrative in the first place.
Most sensible people understand that we need to break with fossil fuels and develop renewable energy. But we need to deal with one big issue: the question of public ownership.
Energy should be seen as a public resource, owned and controlled by the nation as a whole – with decisions taken in the interests of current and future generations. If we don’t control it, the planet has no chance. Big business will do what big business is legally required to do – exploit energy in the interests of private shareholders. So-called “corporate social responsibility” is really just window dressing.
In the short term, whatever public resources are available should be shifted to small-scale renewables projects that directly benefit communities, and provide power and income to local people.
And where energy companies bring forward proposals for large-scale developments, we should not be afraid to put these proposals under serious scrutiny.
The Scottish Government itself has, to its credit, begun to rein in the big energy companies. Since July a number of major wind farms in the Highlands have been rejected on the basis that they are in unsuitable locations.
None of this means standing by and doing nothing about climate change. But let’s look for more imaginative ways of cutting our carbon emissions.
Like bringing every building in the land up to Scandinavian standards of insulation. Like following in the footsteps of the city of Tallin in Estonia, which three years ago introduced a resoundingly successful system of free public transport for all its citizens. Or like mass restoration of our peatlands and natural woodlands, which would create new carbon sinks while creating jobs and regenerating dying local economies.
Such measures would benefit the people rather than the shareholders. And in doing so, they could help broaden the fight against climate change, uniting urban and rural, working-class and middle-class communities, in a truly popular cause.
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