There is hardly a Munro left in Scotland from which you cannot see a wind farm. In recent years the landscape has been transformed by enormous turbines.
These structures are more than 100 metres (330ft) in height and when many are clustered together, they are highly visible even from great distances.
People who choose to live in the wild areas of rural Scotland do so for a reason: because they love it. Those who go walking in these places feel the same.
They find them beautiful, and they’re sensitive to the landscape and to visual intrusion. Many are upset by the large number of turbines that have been erected.
Wind farms have a huge impact on the local environment, and not only visually. From surprisingly far distances people can hear them and the noise they make is peculiar and intermittent – it wakes them up at night and they can’t get back to sleep. Wind farms do not make good neighbours.
They are often constructed in areas where there are no roads, meaning these have to be created, sometimes on peat.
This leads to real concerns over the balance of damage and benefit – the benefits of low emissions energy on the one hand, yet the damage to the local environment on the ground, and whether that is really justified.
Almost all of the UK’s wind farming is concentrated in Scotland, because the Scottish Government is not listening to the objections of the residents who have to live near these sites.
Because so much of the Scottish population is concentrated in urban areas, however good the environmental arguments made by local objectors are, there simply aren’t enough voices for the SNP in Edinburgh to care. The simple truth is that this is political statistics.
So it is perhaps not surprising that the Scottish Government’s new energy strategy is planning an expansion of the number of turbines.
The Government has accepted a lot of the spin coming out of the wind farm industry without being sufficiently sceptical. They’ve
swallowed it all hook, line and sinker. Energy Minister Paul Wheelhouse continues to say that onshore wind is the lowest-cost form of new generation energy, but this is simply not true.
Onshore wind is generally extremely expensive in comparison to electricity from conventional sources, particularly combined cycle gas turbines.
It is well known that the subsidy and system costs of existing wind farms put them well above the cost of other forms of energy. Subsidies in the UK for renewables in total now come to about £7billion per year.
You’re taking money – in other words, resources – from elsewhere in the economy and giving it to wind generators.
By redirecting resources towards the wind sector, you are suppressing activity in other parts.
So you may have created jobs in the wind sector but how many jobs have you destroyed in other fundamentally economic activities?
The costs for all forms of wind are high. The farms require more grid and special operations of the grid system to keep it balanced. These costs are not small.
When you add it all up, the total cost to the consumer of a unit from a wind farm is considerably higher than that from a conventional generator. So how is the Scottish Government going to pay for these new plans?
In the autumn Budget, the Chancellor said there would be no new subsidies for wind turbines – indeed all renewables – until 2025 at the earliest.
With new sites, wind farm operators will sometimes say they don’t require subsidies, but that remains to be seen.
This suggests to me, then, that the SNP is either hoping for a change in policy, or it is being deliberately vague in its ambitions. Does it believe any of this?
If all these turbines were to be built, the Government faces another problem: an enormous expansion of the grid to serve them. You need an awful lot of wire to get wind from the wind farms to the interconnectors that serve the grid.
As Scotland knows from the controversial Beauly to Denny power line, this is not an easy thing – it’s expensive and ugly – and someone has to pay for it.
A few people may well benefit from the further expansion of wind turbines in Scotland – land owners and wind farm operators, perhaps – but it is unlikely to be the Scottish people.
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