Scottish ministers have been accused of an “irresponsible” dash for green energy as new data reveals that wind farms have expanded while being paid record sums of money to power down turbines.
This year, the operators of 86 wind farms across Britain were handed more than £136m in constraint payments to reduce output and discard surplus energy, a new annual record and £12m more than was paid in 2018.
Most of the compensation (£127m) was paid to Scottish onshore wind farms, including several that have either extended in recent years – with the Scottish government’s approval – or are seeking permission to do so.
The disclosure has prompted disquiet among opposition politicians and environmentalists who said compensation payouts should be a key consideration in whether to allow wind farms to be built or extended.
Energy firms are compensated for turning off turbines when the network is unable to cope with the power they produce. Such constraint payments are paid out by the National Grid but ultimately charged to consumers and added to electricity bills.
Analysis carried out by the Renewable Energy Foundation, a charity that monitors Britain’s energy use, shows that in 2019, six onshore Scottish wind farms received about 50% of the £127m bonanza. They include Fallago Rig in Berwickshire, which received £7.8m in constraints this year, yet is seeking an extension to add a further 12 turbines.
The Clyde wind farm was completed in 2009 but permission to extend the site with an additional 74 turbines was granted in 2014 and completed in 2017. Its operators, which includes the energy giant SSE, received almost £15m in compensation this year.
The big six also includes the 96- turbine Kilgallioch wind farm in South Ayrshire, which was extended in 2017. Its owners, Scottish Power Renewables, is seeking to extend the site by up to 11 turbines.
Whitelee, Europe’s largest wind farm, opened in 2007 and added a further 75 turbines five years later. Since 2013, it has received £106.5m in constraint payments, including £12m this year.
The Stronelairg wind farm near Fort Augustus went live a year ago and received more than £11m in constraint payments this year. Critics have questioned the wisdom of proposals to build two neighbouring wind farms.
“The probability of constraint payments is not given any significant weight in the planning system when considering applications for new or extended wind farms, with the result that the Scottish government is needlessly, and some will feel irresponsibly, contributing to the constraint problem and to UK consumer bills,” observed Helen McDade, the Renewable Energy Foundation’s Scottish policy adviser.
Alexander Burnett, the Scottish Conservative energy spokesman, said: “The fact that the SNP are still allowing windfarms to expand despite this staggeringly high level of constraint payments already in operation is astonishing. Indeed, this absurd situation simply demonstrates the foolishness of the SNP’s renewable energy policy.”
Since 2010, when constraint payments were introduced, more than £600m has been paid to Scottish wind farm owners. Because of a rapid growth in onshore wind, payments have increased steadily, in spite of grid reinforcements and upgrades such as the £1bn Western Link between Hunterston and Deeside, which was built to export Scottish power. The foundation claims that some wind farms lie behind grid bottlenecks, yet are given ministerial approval for upgrades to generate more power. The charity points to increases in turbine heights at the extension to the Gordonbush wind farm, near Brora in Sutherland. The original wind farm has been paid more than £16m to reduce output since it was commissioned in 2012.
Paul Wheelhouse, the energy minister, said constraint payments will fall as investment in the grid increases. “Adding more demand load onto the grid, as we electrify Scotland’s own transport and heating systems, will also reduce the need for constraint payments. The importance of continued grid investment to facilitate transmission cannot be overstated and this need featured in our Networks Vision Statement which we published earlier this year.”