Stare long enough at the hills around the Dumfriesshire village of Moniaive on an Ordnance Survey map and you may eventually come across one called Whiteneuk. Until recently, even the locals had not heard of it. In these rolling uplands, one hill merges into another, forming a vast ruffled blanket of scenic splendour.
Locals know all about Whiteneuk now. For here, a short ramble from their front doors, the largest wind turbines ever built in Scotland may soon dominate the landscape.
They would measure up to 820ft from ground to blade-tip. That is 50ft taller than London’s Canary Wharf tower.
If such a turbine were built next to the Eiffel Tower and you stood on its top deck, the fully extended blade-tip would be a mere 150ft below you. And there would be 35 of these monsters. It is thought that, on a clear day, they would be visible from Berwick-upon-Tweed in the east and the Isle of Man in the west.
Yet, outside of their locale, barely a soul is aware of the bid by Swedish government-owned firm Vattenfall to plonk almost three dozen steel giants on these blustery hilltops.
That may be because many of Scotland’s hills are already sprinkled with smaller versions of these turbines – and this plan is merely one among a raft of proposals to add almost 1,500 more.
‘In a word, the impression of communities in the vicinity of these proposals is outrage,’ says Iain Milligan, whose home near the village of Dunscore is two miles from the Vattenfall site.
‘There is a complete disregard of local opinion and, in many instances, the owner of the land is simply an absentee investor.
‘Another factor is the developers – certainly around us – are foreign-owned and therefore indifferent to the damage they do to the landscape.’
A third issue is these sparsely populated communities lack the funding to take on mega-rich players in the renewable energy industry and, even if councillors on local planning committees are sympathetic to their objections, rejected applications are frequently overturned at Scottish Government level.
Save Our Hills, the campaign group fighting to stop further wind farms in Dumfries and Galloway, now has Freedom of Information data showing ministers have overruled local authority decisions on 19 out of 24 rejected wind farm applications in the past five years.
They do so, say many in the affected communities, because of their ‘obsession’ with renewables – a fixation which critics argue has departed the realms of environmental or economic common sense.
Former QC Mr Milligan, a leading figure in Save Our Hills, has lived in a farmhouse outside Dunscore for 35 years.
He says: ‘The Scottish Government is obsessed by the virtue signalling of what is generally perceived to be green energy without taking any adequate account of the impact it has on Scotland and an economy which depends to a significant extent on tourism.
‘What was once unspoilt countryside is becoming overwhelmed by what appears to be the unstoppable march of giant wind turbines.
‘Instead of open hills, there is a rash of industrial development spreading over them. In South-West Scotland we are reaching saturation point and, all over the country, from the Borders to the North, the message is the same.’
The ‘upside’ of these forests of turbines, of course, is their contribution to Scotland’s green credentials.
Quarterly, the Scottish Government publishes data reflecting progress towards renewables targets. By 2030, for example, it wants 50 per cent of the nation’s total energy consumption to come from renewable energy, with wind at the forefront. In 2019, that figure stood at 24 per cent – hence the enormous welcome sign for wind farms.
The problem is that the more turbines that come on stream, the greater the pressure on the National Grid as it works to maintain the flow of power on the grid and minimise congestion.
This is done by temporarily constraining power from some producers in much the same way traffic lights manage the flow of vehicles joining a busy motorway.
Here, say critics, is where the economic folly of wind farm reliance becomes glaringly clear.
Whenever a wind farm is asked to power down and produce nothing, it is paid to do so by the National Grid. This compensates them for the wholesale value of the power they would have generated and for the loss of a green subsidy of around £50 per megawatt hour of electricity produced.
Indeed, it more than compensates them. Industry analysts claim they earn more for sitting idle than they do for generating – and the cost is passed on to the public in their energy bills.
The escalating sums paid out as wind farms proliferate across Scotland make eye-watering reading.
According to figures collated by the Renewable Energy Foundation (REF), a UK charity which analyses the energy sector, £5.9million in constraint reimbursements was paid out to wind farms across Britain in 2012.
By 2019 it was up to £130million in Scotland alone and, by last year, had jumped to more than £244million.
Ever more enormous sums are being doled out to energy giants – at bill-payers’ expense – for switching their turbines off.
Indeed, so lucrative is the bonanza in constraint payments, suggests
REF director Dr John Constable, that developers are financially incentivised to build more wind turbines in areas where there is already an over-provision of wind power.
He says: ‘Because constraint payments are paid in compensation for lost subsidy, but actually exceed that lost subsidy, there is a perverse incentive for developers to select sites that are behind bottlenecks in the grid.
‘The fact of the matter is that there have been several proposals, some still live, to extend wind farms that are already heavily constrained – and developer interest in Scotland, which accounts for almost all the UK constraints, is strong.’
According to REF’s data, ScottishPower’s Whitelee wind farm, near Glasgow, received the highest level of constraint payments, at £25.8million, followed by Kilgallioch in Ayrshire – also run by ScottishPower – on £19.7million.
SSE Renewables was handed £18million for the Clyde wind farm, near Abington, Lanarkshire.
The contributed dramatic upward trend of constraint payments appears inevitable.
ACCORDING to a study carried out last April by the REF’s Scottish policy adviser Helen McDade, there were active planning applications for approximately 1,487 wind turbines in Scotland between 460ft and 820ft.
Of those, 447 were more than 665ft (or 200 metres) tall.
Indeed, the scale of modern turbines is reckoned to be among the least appreciated factors by those who do not live close to them.
A mere five years ago anything over 400ft was considered a giant, says Dr Constable. Today they could be double that size.
He says: ‘The basic scale, the standard form factor for the industry has shifted towards the larger, offshore size [of turbine], so the onshore industry has to look towards these mega-big devices to be able to order anything at all.
‘Of course, it’s also attractive to them because when they’re very tall they’ll have increased productivity, because they’ll be getting high up into stronger wind streams.
‘But that brings us back to constraint payments. They cannot even integrate the energy they’re creating at lower heights and yet they want to build even bigger ones onshore.’
All of which feeds into the sense of outrage rural dwellers such as Mr Milligan experience as energy giants and international developers target Scotland’s remaining virgin landscapes with the apparent blessing of the Scottish Government.
It is not for planning authorities to take into account the likelihood of any new development being constrained off the grid for significant periods. Indeed, he says, the planning criteria used by local authorities are so narrow that entire communities’ objections can swiftly be brushed aside as irrelevant.
He adds: ‘It is commonplace that almost the entire population in the locality object to these wind farms but, in planning terms, that is irrelevant unless their objections are pinned to genuine planning reasons.
‘Greater attention and greater weight needs to be given to the generality of local opinion.’
Even then, he says, a refusal by the planning authority is rarely the end of the matter.
‘The Scottish Government simply steps in and says, “Actually, we disagree, it’s going ahead”.’
How, he wonders, are structures approaching the height of Paris’s most famous landmark given the green light with such disregard for the views of locals, the effects on the landscape and the economic shambles they represent?
The Vattenfall proposal will involve turbines so vast they will have to be lit up at night because they are in a low-flying area for the RAF.
And these nightly illuminations are just a few miles from Britain’s first designated Dark Sky Park in Galloway Forest. Thus, observes Mr Milligan, the quest for green energy now threatens the nation’s environmental treasures.
Dumfries and Galloway is not the only area groaning under the weight of wind farms and plans for new ones. It is, because of its topography, merely among the most popular.
Plans in the pipeline include a 48-turbine proposal in Sanquhar – also in Dumfriesshire, an 18turbine farm for Ayrshire, 39 new turbines in the Highlands, and 48 more for Moray. Then there are Scottish energy giant SSE Renewables’ plans for the UK’s biggest onshore wind farm in Shetland.
The 103-turbine Viking 443MW project will cost £580million and rely on an undersea cable between Shetland and the Scottish mainland to feed power into the National Grid.
The scale of development – and the associated costs – are, then, dizzying. Yet, says Helen McDade: ‘The issue seems to have fallen off the national political agenda.’ She adds: ‘Politicians have drastically ignored their national duty.
‘It’s become one of those issues where practically no one will stand up for these communities and it’s a national disgrace.’
She says the absence of any real political challenge – and the overemphasis on renewables targets – leaves communities on the ground virtually powerless in the face of wind farm plans.
And, looking to the long-term, she says it remains far from clear how this massively costly green energy infrastructure would operate in the event of independence.
A huge number of Scottish wind farms are, after all, powering English homes. What if the rest of the UK decided to take its power from elsewhere?
Ms McDade says: ‘There is this complete disconnect between what the UK Treasury, if they looked at it, would want – and what the Scottish Government, who are in charge of Scottish planning, want.’ Yesterday a spokesman for Vattenfall said taller turbines with longer blades allowed operators to catch faster and more predictable wind speeds.
He added it also meant fewer turbines covering smaller areas of land.
He said: ‘The proposal for Whiteneuk wind farm is at an early stage. We continue to gather feedback from the local community and undertake detailed impact assessments, all of which will be input to the next stage of the scheme design.’
The spokesman added: ‘We really do care about the environment and the landscape, as so many people do, but that doesn’t mean that onshore wind doesn’t have a place here.
‘A recent survey commissioned by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy found that 70 per cent of people in Scotland support onshore wind.’
Energy Minister Paul Wheelhouse also told the Mail that wind farms were ‘demonstrably popular’ with the UK public.
‘Furthermore,’ he said, ‘Rough Guide readers voted Scotland the most beautiful country in the World in 2017 after most of the wind farms operating today had been constructed.’
HE added: ‘We strongly support the development of renewable energy, including wind energy, with Scotland’s growing renewable electricity supply making an ever more significant contribution to meeting the country’s energy needs.’
He said that new electricity infrastructure being developed in Scotland would increase the need for renewable power and reduce constraints.
Mr Wheelhouse said the National Grid was responsible for setting constraint payments to the electricity generators but added they were ‘often the safest and most cost-effective way… to manage demand and supply across the system.’
He added that all wind farm applications were subject to consultation with the public and appropriate local bodies.
‘It would therefore be incorrect to assume that all applications will be approved and developed.’
Not all, perhaps. But on the basis of the evidence of the past five years, 19 out of 24 rejected applications are nodded through at government level.
Little wonder rural householders such as Mr Milligan feel powerless in the face of the steel monsters’ relentless march.
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