Christine Jardine: Balance of Scottish power

Are we sure that our hillsides are the best location for future energy sources?
Are we sure that our hillsides are the best location for future energy sources?
Share this article
18
Have your say

THE rush to fulfil green energy commitments must not come at the expense of blighting our dear and green land.

I am concerned. On a recent walk along the West Highland Way, I stopped above Crianlarich to enjoy some of the most spectacular views I have ever seen. I noticed something: I could see for tens of miles and not a wind turbine in sight. That’s far from the case elsewhere in Scotland.

I don’t object to land-based wind turbines in themselves. They will undoubtedly be part of a larger and more widespread rebalancing of our future energy provision. But taking in that scenery, I began to wonder how long it would be until this view, too, has to accommodate the giant structures.

And are we sure that our hillsides are the best location for our energy sources of the future?

As a firm believer in the UK government’s Green Deal, a committed supporter of renewable power developments, and someone who uses a stove-top kettle to avoid the electricity demands 
of an automatic one, the thought that I might agree with Donald Trump about wind farms – however briefly – concerned me.

But it also wasn’t the first time I had come face to face with the contradiction between a greener economy and the aspirations of rural economies, particularly those dependent on tourism.

During last year’s Scottish elections as a candidate in the Highlands, I spent time talking with numerous villagers who felt besieged by planning applications for wind farms their communities didn’t want and seemed powerless to prevent.

Their disapproval was not just because they found them ugly, noisy or intrusive on their own outlook. No. Many were afraid that the multi-million pound tourist industry – which is still the dominant employment sector in much of Scotland – would be blighted by them.

Certainly some places – Gigha for example – have embraced the opportunity that a community-owned facility, selling power into the national grid, can offer.

And there’s no doubt successful renewable energy projects can be a key strategic component in building a sustainable future for many of our island, and remote rural, communities.

But in many others at the distant end of the energy chain, surrounded by landowners who are keen to benefit from the subsidies attached to wind farms, there is a fear that short-term benefits are coming before a sound long-term energy strategy.

Now two councils – Moray and Fife – have asked the Scottish Government for, but been refused, a moratorium on fresh wind farm approvals.

And there are reports of other councils across Scotland struggling to cope with the volume of developers keen to be part of the SNP government’s bid to generate the equivalent of all of Scotland’s electricity from green sources by 2020.

Perhaps it is time to pause and evaluate whether we are pursuing the correct green strategy or just rushing headlong towards a wind farm-covered Scotland to justify a political stance.

No-one doubts that Scotland is ideally placed to exploit the global realisation that we have to find an alternative to fossil fuels. We have the natural resources to cater for our own demands for renewable power and the potential to export both our expertise and equipment built in Scotland.

But critics of land-based wind turbines point out that it is our powerful offshore winds, strong tides and shallow seas which offer the greatest potential.

The Pentland Firth is proven to be a world-class location for the research and development of marine energy projects.

The chief executive of Samsung Industries told Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg during his recent visit to Korea that his company might look favourably on sighting future research facilities into offshore developments in Scotland.

Manufacturing facilities such as the newly-reborn yard at Nigg in Easter Ross or in Methil in Fife have the geographic proximity to exploit both the market and the £100 million the UK government recently released from the fossil fuel levy for green investment.

On the domestic front, too, the Liberal Democrat-inspired Green Deal offered by the coalition will enable householders to avoid paying up front for energy-efficient home improvements. That way it is hoped that we will all reduce our energy consumption and carbon footprint, contributing to helping the UK meet its targets.

And the UK Green Investment Bank, established this year, headquartered in Edinburgh and with an initial £3 billion capital to invest in green projects, has the funds to support future growth.

Industry group Scottish Renewables estimates that the sector has already attracted capital investment of £2.8bn over the past three years.

But the vast majority of that – £1.6bn – was pumped into land-based developments, not those offshore wind and marine projects that expert opinion suggests is the real key to a strong future in renewables.

Wind variability is often cited as the weakness of a land-based wind farm strategy and something many of the communities opposed to developments feel is being ignored. Scotland is certainly doing better than the rest of the European Union, where the majority of wind turbines produce only an average of 
25 per cent of their maximum estimated electricity because of variable winds. But even here that figure is an average of 40 per cent. A wind farm on Shetland achieved a record figure of 58 per cent.

And there are the subsidies. The suspicion persists that without the financial support the land-based facilities attract there would be no real appetite for them.

Trump is primarily annoyed at a proposed offshore wind farm opposite his controversial golf development. Cynics will say there was a financial imperative behind his uncompromising warning to the First Minister that “industrial wind turbines will destroy your tourism sector and are not economically viable without the substantial help of your already overburdened taxpayers”.

But the sentiment at the core of the US billionaire’s statement is one many Scots can relate to over land-based developments.

The conflict between tourism and large-scale wind farms is one that many fear will be repeated all over Scotland in areas where, say, 25 vital local jobs that are dependent on the tourist industry could be undermined with little in return for the community.

It’s unlikely, I would hope, that the breathtaking beauty which I enjoyed from above Crianlarich would ever be an acceptable location for a wind farm. But there’s that just that tiny element of doubt that creeps in and too many areas where people are unsure about what policy might be.

Perhaps it’s time to listen to what the local authorities in Moray and Fife have to say.

Should the Scottish Government not pause and review to make sure we have a sound, clear strategy on renewables that benefits us all?

If we get it right, the potential is huge. But there’s too much at stake to prioritise a single route only to discover at the end of the decade that it was the wrong one.

• Christine Jardine is a former Liberal Democrat special adviser to the Westminster government