BRITAIN is set for a massive expansion of wind farms under plans to tackle climate change to be unveiled today.
Up to 7,000 turbines could be installed off the UK's coastline in a bid to boost the production of wind energy 30-fold by 2020. The plans are likely to see a huge increase in wind farms off the coast of Scotland, although plans to situate new farms within 12 miles of the Scottish shore have been shelved.
Instead, the new farms will most likely be in deep-water locations up to 200 nautical miles offshore.
Renewable-energy groups last night welcomed the plans, saying there was great potential for new deep-water farms.
But groups opposed to the development of new wind farms said the latest proposals could pave the way for more turbines across the Scottish landscape.
The plans are due to be announced today by John Hutton, the business secretary, at a conference in Berlin.
Mr Hutton admitted the "step change" would alter the face of the waters around the country - with the equivalent of two turbines to every mile.
But he insisted that tough choices had to be made to effect the shift to low-carbon power sources.
"There is the potential, we believe, out there, using the resources that there are around the UK to generate maybe all of the electricity that households use from offshore wind sources.
"We should see whether we can maximise that potential because it's obviously in the nation's interest, in the world's interest, for us to make sure that more of our energy comes from clean sources."
Currently just 2 per cent of Britain's power comes from renewables, and wind accounts for less than 1 gigawatt.
By 2020, the government hopes that it could provide around 34 gigawatts - which using current technology would mean introducing some 7,000 turbines.
Mr Hutton has shelved plans to situate new wind farms within 12 nautical miles of the Scottish coast at the request of the Scottish Government - which is responsible for both its territorial waters and the UK Renewable Energy Zone surrounding Scotland - as there is limited scope for such development.
However, the exclusion of "inshore" developments, coupled with the practical difficulties of building deep-water wind farms, has led some groups to fear more turbines would instead be built on land.
Nigel Hawkins of the countryside charity the John Muir Trust said: "We welcome the development of offshore wind farms rather than those in beautiful parts of Scotland.
"It could be good that there will not be too many too close to our coastline in terms of wild birds, but we remain very concerned about the development of wind farms in some of our most beautiful places. Tourism is a major Scottish industry and people come to see our beautiful countryside which we do not wish to see disfigured by wind turbines."
David Bruce, chairman of Views of Scotland, a pressure group dedicated to preserving the Scottish landscape, said: "We already have 250 to 300 applications in Scotland for onshore wind farms. We understand that there are the same number in the pre-planning process.
"The risk is that Scotland will end up looking like a hedgehog with wind turbines all over some of our most beautiful areas."
A spokesman for the Scottish Renewables Forum, the body responsible for the renewable-energy industry in Scotland, said: "The UK and Scottish governments are entirely right to exclude most of Scotland's territorial waters as the topography of the country, with large mountains, makes it very difficult to develop reliable inshore wind farms.
"There is little point in hiding a wind farm in the shadow of a mountain when you can build one on the top of it.
"There is great potential for deep-water offshore wind farms - especially in the North Sea where oil companies are very interested in terms of not just supplying electricity to the UK but to Europe. This is being driven by the market."
So far there are five offshore wind farms operating in England and Wales, six under construction and a further six with planning consent.
In Scotland, there is the Beatrice demonstrator deep-water wind farm, off the North-east coast, and plans for inshore wind farms at Robin Rigg in the Solway Firth - which will supply Cumbria in England - and in Aberdeen Bay.
The proposals were given a qualified welcome by environmental groups.
John Sauven, executive director for Greenpeace, said they amounted to a "wind-energy revolution" but insisted premium prices needed to be guaranteed for clean electricity.
"If we are finally to exploit the massive energy resources we have available to us on this windy island, there will now need to be a revolution in thinking in Whitehall, where the energy dinosaurs have prevailed for too long," he said.
"And Labour needs to drop its obsession with nuclear power, which could only ever reduce emissions by about 4 per cent at some time in the distant future."
Friends of the Earth renewable-energy campaigner Nick Rau said the potential for wind power was "enormous", adding: "Making Britain a world leader in this form of energy will create jobs, boost the economy and help put Britain at the forefront in the battle to combat climate change."
Michael Rea, of Carbon Trust, said: "Offshore wind is set for huge growth but this will require substantial investment before it can be realised at this scale. Cost reduction is now the name of the game."
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government welcomed the move, saying: "Harnessing the potential of offshore wind in Scotland is one of a number of ways we can use renewable energy and oppose the use of nuclear power."