LAST week this newspaper reported the welcome news that the John Muir Trust, a charity prominent in conservation work, has joined the growing crusade against the proliferation of wind farms across the Scottish landscape.
When this column last addressed the issue two years ago, the prospect was ominous; today it is disastrous. The one majestic asset that Scotland has always enjoyed, in good times and in bad, is our glorious landscape. Even the Industrial Revolution, mostly confined to the Central Belt, left this aesthetic heritage largely unscathed. Today, theoretically, we should be well equipped to resist any assault on our natural heritage: there is a heightened public awareness of conservation issues and we have a devolved parliament in place that is supposedly closer to local communities and eager to embody their wishes in government policy.
Theoretically, that is. The reality is different. The Scottish Executive has become a wholly owned subsidiary of the wind farm industry. There are already more than 250 known proposals for wind farms, most of which are already in the consents system. The number of planning refusals is minute to the point of irrelevance.
When local opinion momentarily triumphs, it is soon steamrollered by the Executive. Permission for an 18-turbine project at Greenknowes, near Auchterarder, was refused by Perth and Kinross Council in November last year; but the Scottish Executive has now overturned that decision by elected representatives and declared the scheme environmentally acceptable (though it is not, to the people who live there).
The energy question, unlike most of the issues that present themselves in Scottish politics, is one where a consensus is desirable. We have to start by recognising that there is a crisis in the areas of conservation, energy and global climate change. We also need, however, to assess the nature of the problem as accurately as possible. If there is an imminent crisis of global warming and related problems, we may have to make sacrifices to restore nature's equilibrium; but only in the most abject extremity should they encompass the destruction of our landscape.
The Kyoto accords are an example of politicians getting things wrong: they have become a shibboleth for populist politicians, although their analysis and prescriptive solutions are both to be discounted by serious conservationists. For the pygmies of the Scottish Executive, Kyoto represents just the sort of gesture politics to which they are enslaved. Hence the great wind farm aggression.
The United Kingdom is pledged, under the flawed Kyoto accords, to reach a target of having 10% of its energy supplied by renewables by 2010. In a knee-jerk bid to outdo this, the Scottish Executive - the best small-brained administration in the world - has committed itself to a target of 18% by the same date, rising to 40% by 2020. It is playground braggardy, pure and simple. In a desperate attempt to translate it into reality, the Executive has grasped at the straw of wind farming.
It could not be more wrong. There is no conceivable energy problem to which wind farms are the solution. If Scotland's entire energy requirement were generated by wind farms, it would reduce global CO2 emissions by a miniscule 0.09%. One Jumbo jet produces more pollution in an hour than a large wind farm saves; three lorries are sufficient to cancel out the CO2 saved by a giant wind turbine. Average output has been found to equal only 26% of their stated capacity. They cannot function when the wind blows too strongly, as well as too weakly.
Therein lies one of their principal drawbacks. Because of uncertainty of output, no existing power stations, nuclear or conventional, could be decommissioned: they are needed as permanent back-up, for when the turbines fail to generate energy. When the conservationist David Bellamy carried out a detailed study of the output of two neighbouring wind farms in Wales, with 159 turbines between them, covering thousands of acres, he discovered they produced in a year less than four days' output from one 2,000 MW conventional power station.
Their joint output averaged 20 MW; in winter, UK demand peaks at around 53,000 MW. So Bellamy's study shows demand could only be met by 420,000 turbines. The whole island would take off like a giant helicopter. This is not a sane project. If 20% of UK energy were to be supplied by renewables, it would mean installing 22 GW of wind generation capacity; but the Royal Academy of Engineering has assessed that 16 to 19 GW would still have to be retained in conventional plant capacity.
Is it worth raping the Scottish landscape for such negligible levels of production? Can we live with forests of Martian turbines with rotors larger than the windspan of a Jumbo jet, with heights of between 250 and 400 feet? At present we have 40 wind farms with 643 turbines, but 179 more farms with over 4,500 turbines are in the pipeline. They are a licence to print money for the renewables industry, though it will cost 500m to link them to the national grid. Energy bills will rise too.
Some people perversely claim to like the appearance of the turbines. That reflects the rise of a kind of anti-aesthetic, fostered by the urbanisation of society, brutalist architecture and the excesses of modern art. Anyone who prefers Lewis, or Perthshire, or the Borders covered with turbines has lost that spiritual connection with his native landscape that is the heritage of the true Scot. This vandalism must be halted or the consequences will be total degradation of our countryside. Look thy last on all things beautiful...