Does Donald Trump have a point on renewables?
Does Trump have a point in saying wind farms will destroy tourism? Or will his own interests actually destroy the campaign against renewables, asks Dani Garavelli
THE handful of tickets made available to the public were snapped up in under an hour. Donald Trump’s appearance before the economy, energy and tourism committee in Holyrood on Wednesday is the most hotly anticipated transatlantic clash since George Galloway faced down US senators over Iraq.
And judging by the gloves-off approach the American tycoon has taken since discovering plans for an 11-turbine offshore wind farm near his proposed £1 billion golf resort near Aberdeen, those who have secured a ringside seat will witness a no-holds-barred performance. Trump may lack Galloway’s finesse with language, but not his capacity to ruffle feathers or cause offence. Together with Communities Against Turbines Scotland (CATS) – the lobby group he has thrown his weight behind – he will attack wind farms as a blight on the Scottish landscape.
While CATS will look at health and safety implications and the alleged lack of democracy in the granting of planning applications, Trump will concentrate on the issue closest to his heart: tourism. If the government pursues its love affair with renewable energy, he will insist, it will drive foreign visitors from its shores.
After his appearance, he is expected to join CATS members at a joint press conference, his hair no doubt askew as if he were caught in a gale capable of generating enough electricity to power the whole of Princes Street.
Trump is after all nothing if not a caricature. His petulant foot-stamping and the schoolboy insults he has levelled at Alex Salmond have been greeted with as much scorn as respect. But the question is: beyond the rhetoric, the bombast and the ego, does he have a valid point? Are wind farms really the answer to our energy problems or a means of lining the pockets of foreign companies at the expense of the taxpayer? And is the Scottish Government’s commitment to producing 100 per cent of its electricity requirements from renewables by 2020 realistic?
According to a YouGov poll, published today by Scottish Renewables, 71 per cent of the public supports wind farms as part of the country’s energy mix, with young people the most positively disposed. Yet Trump does seem to have tapped into a genuine sense that wind farms are despoiling Scotland’s biggest attraction, its rugged landscape and its stunning coastal views.
Last week’s news that South Korean firm Doosan had pulled out of a £170 million deal to build turbines in Scotland, citing a reduction in confidence in the offshore wind farm market, also heightened fears that the economic case for investing in wind power was weakening. Add this to the mounting concerns over the efficiency of individual turbines; the revelation that some farms have been given “curtailment” payments to stop producing electricity in high winds; and the UK government’s potentially game-changing decision to allow fracking, a means by which reserves of natural gas can be extracted, to continue, is it any wonder some are questioning the Scottish Government’s decision to place the power of the wind at the heart of its energy and economic policy?
Ever since the SNP took power, Salmond’s vision has been of a self-sufficient country at the forefront of a renewables revolution. Over the past few years, the party has announced a series of targets for increasing the percentage of our electricity needs produced by renewables from 18 per cent in 2006 to 31 per cent by the end of last year to 100 per cent by 2020.
Although the country has invested in other renewables, the greatest focus has gone on wind turbines; both onshore sites, such as the one in Whitelees in East Renfrewshire, and (increasingly) offshore, such as the Robb Rigg Wind Farm in the Solway Firth.
In addition, the government has committed an estimated £600m to upgrading the Beauly-Denny power line to allow for future expansion. Last week, in response to Trump’s claim that his policies would turn the country into “a third world wasteland that global investors will avoid”, Salmond said the offshore wind sector was forecast to generate about £30bn of investment and 28,000 Scottish jobs.
Although, when weighed against coal, gas-fired and nuclear power stations, polls show there is a public acceptance of the need for wind farms, they are still proving controversial.
Long before Trump got involved, concerns were being voiced about their possible impact on public health and tourism, while there was scepticism in some quarters over their ability to reduce CO2 emissions and transform Scotland’s economic fortunes.
According to opponents, low frequency noise produced by the turbines can cause symptoms such as headaches, depression, high blood pressure and even heart attacks. Although in Scotland, wind farms are supposed to be built at least two kilometres from the nearest residence, CATS chair Susan Crosthwaite says the guidance is frequently flouted, with some people living near Toddleburn and Longpark wind farms in the Borders complaining they can no longer use their gardens or sleep with the windows open because of the noise. As for tourism, though there is little empirical evidence to show wind turbines are responsible for a drop in overall visitor numbers, many directly involved in the industry have reported negative feedback. “You just have to ask yourself would you choose to go and stay close to a power station for your holiday?” Crosthwaite says.
The question of the economic and environmental impact of wind turbines is even more contentious; critics complain about the level of subsidies which are being given to attract foreign companies, pointing out the same approach was applied to attract inward investment to “Silicon Glen” in the 1990s, but that a decade later most of the foreign companies lured to our shores had packed up and gone home, taking their jobs with them.
“Wind power is not about saving the world or about reducing CO2,” says Crosthwaite. “The whole wind farm thing is about greed, about a big transference of money from the poor to mostly foreign energy companies.
“We need to have the right mix of power. What is going to happen in 25 years when the life of these wind power stations is over, if we haven’t invested in other sources of energy?”
Though a recent survey suggested 11,000 people are now working in renewables in Scotland, opponents question the longevity of the jobs, pointing out that those involved in construction, transport and infrastructure are likely to be temporary. They claim that even when it comes to addressing climate change, wind turbines are flawed, since CO2-producing coal and gas-fired stations are necessary to provide back-up when wind levels are low.
According to Niall Stuart, chief executive of Scottish Renewables, however, wind turbines quickly pay back the CO2 used in their manufacture. “When the wind level is high, you have to burn less fuel to make electricity – that’s fewer CO2 emissions,” he says. “It’s as simple as that.”
Stuart says that although the National Grid needs improving, it is capable of dealing with most fluctuations in energy provision, and suggests Doosan’s decision to back out of the deal might have more to do with its late entry into the competitive renewables market than wider fears about the economic climate.
Responding to claims that Scotland should be focusing more on power from the tides, which are more reliable than wind, he says money accrued from wind farms is being reinvested in developing the technology to make this possible. “Wave and tidal power is at a very early stage,” Stuart says. “Scotland is the world leader – half the planet’s wave and tidal power capacity is installed here. But large-scale onshore wind farms are the cheapest form of renewable energy that can be produced today. The technology is proven over a 25-year lifespan, the economics are understood, there’s a steady flow of financed projects and the banks understand the risks.”
None of this is likely to change Trump’s mind. Responding primarily to the threat of wind turbines near his golf resort at the Menie estate, he has widened his campaign to all proposed wind farms, frequently name-checking his Scottish mother Mary Anne MacLeod, in his attempt to persuade the public he has their interests at heart.
In doing so, he has found himself mocked. Quite aside from the very British humour to be derived from the juxtaposition of the word “trump” and the word “wind”, his critics have lost no time in pointing out that the aesthetic appeal or otherwise of any landmark is a matter of taste and that both Trump Towers and Trump Place were included in the American Institute of Architects’ list of New York’s ugliest buildings in 2010. And then there was the full-page advert he took in the Aberdeen P&J showing a photograph of 11 rusty turbines under the headline: “Welcome to Scotland”, which turned out to have been taken in Hawaii.
Yet Trump’s celebrity and economic clout means Scotland has little choice but to take him seriously. Since becoming involved in the debate he has propelled CATS – until recently a small-scale group which struggled to throw off the nimby tag – on to the national stage. “We did have reservations about appearing at the inquiry with Donald Trump, but it [his involvement] is focusing the public and the Scottish government’s attention on all the problems with the wind turbines – and when Scottish Power is taking out a full-page ad in national newspapers, well it must be having an impact,” says Crosthwaite. “I think Trump began this thinking about himself, but I think he has taken on the wider issue and probably sees himself as some kind of Scottish hero.”
The image of Trump as a Braveheart figure taking on the establishment may jar for those who view him more as a megalomaniac who believes he can bend Scottish policy to his will, but few doubt his appearance at the inquiry into Scottish renewables targets on Wednesday will be gripping.
For those who want a serious debate about renewable energy, however, the worry is the media circus that surrounds Trump will merely muddy the waters. “There are lots of conflicts and challenges about how we change the way we power the economy and fuel our lifestyles. There are lots of different questions to be answered and all of them are being completely overshadowed by one man’s ego and interests in building a golf course,” says Stuart. “Trump’s response is factually incorrect, technically incoherent and economically illiterate. My hope is that he doesn’t have an impact on the future of Scotland’s economy and Scotland’s energy. He can’t be allowed to. It’s just too important.”
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Weather for Edinburgh
Friday 24 May 2013
Temperature: 3 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 20 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 7 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West