The Kintyre wind farm ‘gold rush’
All the power generated at the Beinn an Tuirc 3 wind farm, on the Kintyre peninsula, belongs to Amazon.
Credit: By James Shaw, BBC Scotland correspondent, 3 September 2022, bbc.com ~~
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Largely unseen by the outside world, a transformation has been taking place in the remote Kintyre peninsula on the west coast of Scotland. And it is not over yet.
Funded by international power companies and one of the biggest corporations in the world, nine wind farms have already been built in Kintyre, consisting of about 150 turbines.
In the coming years there could be 14 more wind farms with as many as 200 turbines, creating what one local described as an “industrial landscape”.
Alasdair Bennett, who runs a group seeking to maximise compensation for local communities, told me it has been like a “gold rush” for power companies who are eager to meet the growing demand for renewable energy. And it’s happening in an area which is half the size of Greater London.
The concentration of applications to build wind farms in Kintyre is happening for a number of reasons.
Firstly it enjoys the kind of winds which are normally only found at sea.
Combined with that, constructing wind farms on land is significantly cheaper than building them offshore.
An added benefit is that connections to the national grid are closer and easier than in many other potential locations.
And to maximise power generation and profit, the size of turbines being proposed is bigger than any currently operational onshore locations.
At the bottom of the narrow 30-mile (50km) peninsula is the Mull of Kintyre, made famous in the 1970s by Paul McCartney’s hit song.
There are plans for two wind farms nearby which would be 230 metres tall, that’s the height from ground level to the tip of a turbine blade at its highest point.
For context, the BT Tower in London is 190 metres tall, the Gherkin is 180 metres. And a wind farm is not a single isolated structure.
The proposed developments near the Mull would consist of about 30 towers, visible for miles around, particularly at night, when their aviation warning lights would be switched on.
So what will be the impact if all these developments go ahead?
Rupert James, a part owner of the Skipness Estate in the north of the peninsula, is one of those opposed to the rapid expansion of wind farms.
He takes me by boat to an area of natural woodland on the east coast of Kintyre which he wants to use as the location for an ecotourism project.
Battling through a wilderness of bracken we reach an ancient oak on the bank of a deep rocky gorge running down to the sea.
Mr James explains why he believes the site is important.
“There’s a large number of rare species of birds, bats, pollinating insects that use this habitat, that are part of this integrated ecosystem and they may indeed be directly affected by the development,” he said.
“And if all those elements stop working properly together, then the ecosystem will suffer and the habitat will die.”
The development that Mr James is talking about is the Earraghail wind farm.
Scottish Power Renewables expects to hear next month whether it has been given permission to go ahead for up to 13 wind turbines with a maximum tip height of 180m.
Mr James hopes that won’t happen.
He wants to use a nearby ruined croft house to create an eco-friendly artists’ retreat but it is only a few hundred yards from the site of the wind farm.
He believes his project will not be viable if the wind farm, as proposed, is built.
There is a strong argument that the rapid expansion of sustainable power is absolutely essential for the future.
The Scottish government has said it strongly supports upgrading existing wind farms with more advanced turbines as part of plans to double onshore wind capacity by 2030.
It also needs more renewable energy to meet its aim of reaching net zero emissions by 2045.
Affordable, sustainable energy, particularly at a time of rising bills, is an aim which many consumers will agree with. But it is not as simple as that.
It is hidden in a vast area of upland forestry.
There have been three phases of development and it is the third I am interested in.
The huge towers and the enormous blades sweeping through the air above Kintyre look like any other wind farm. But what is different about this one is who owns the power which it produces.
Scottish Power Renewables signed what is known as a power purchase agreement for Beinn an Tuirc 3 with Amazon.
It means that all the power generated at the 14-turbine wind farm belongs to the giant US corporation.
The deal also means that Amazon benefits from a fixed price for the duration of its 10-year deal with SPR.
Mr James is not directly affected by Beinn an Tuirc 3 but he worries about its implications for the future.
He said: “Big silicon valley companies driving wind farm development in Scotland because of their own consumption and high levels of demand is at odds with local interests – local environmental interests, local economic interests – so it can’t be that we’re there simply to service their demands.”
Alasdair Bennett also worries about the benefits or lack of them for local communities.
The Scottish government guideline is that power companies should donate £5,000 to local communities for every megawatt of electricity generated. But it is not mandatory.
A spokesperson said: “The Scottish government are supportive of power purchase agreements as a route to market for onshore wind developments and it is not uncommon for larger and industrial users to enter into these long-term contracts.
“We are keen that local communities can benefit in a similar way and continue to explore options and solutions for implementing such a scheme.
“We will continue to work with communities and all stakeholders to explore, develop, strengthen and maximise opportunities flowing from our energy transition.”
More importantly for Mr Bennett, targets for shared ownership of wind farms are not being met. In Denmark all new wind farms must offer at least 20% ownership to local people.
But the Scottish government has not so far moved to make shared ownership enforceable.
Mr Bennett thinks that must change.
He said: “It’s only fair at the end of the day that local communities benefit from the wind farms that they’re going to have on their doorstep.”
Barry Carruthers, managing director of Scottish Power Renewables, said it was a “good neighbour” which had had a presence on Kintyre for 20 years and was proud of its long-standing and positive relationships, with about £2m provided for community schemes.
Claire Mack of Scottish Renewables, which represents the industry in Scotland, told me they understand their responsibilities to communities but time is short to deal with climate change and the current energy crisis.
She said renewable energy generated from systems such as wind farms had the advantage of not being traded as a global commodity.
“It is something that has much more price stability inherent within it,” she said.
“And something like onshore wind has a major role to play in that, because we can do it relatively quickly, we can do it cheaply and then it becomes one of the key tools in terms of the near-term actions that we can take to help with the energy crisis that we’re currently in.”
Ms Mack’s case is that onshore wind farms can help with energy prices and the drive for net zero emissions.
The question for people in Kintyre, what will be the long-term impact of these global forces on them?
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