Are wind farms the answer to Scotland's energy needs?

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'Their electricity is next to useless - and they hurt rather than help the environment.'

GOODBYE Bonnie Scotland, bring on the Electric Munros.

Should Scotland be building so many wind farms to generate electricity? That is the question.

The answer is an emphatic no, because they can achieve neither of the main claims that their proponents make.

First, they cannot produce a reliable worthwhile source of electricity compatible with the stability of the National Grid.

Second, they cannot deliver a reduction in the release of carbon dioxide that will have any meaningful effect in reaching the dreams of the Kyoto Protocol.

What is more, even if they did, their location should be based on independent environmental impact assessments, for there is now incontestable proof that they kill both birds and bats.

They also reduce property prices and no compensation is on offer. They are noisy and produce strobing, flashing reflections and moving shadows that annoy and, in already proven cases, debilitate people and animals - again with no compensation on offer.

They have already urbanised some of the most natural landscapes in Europe, whose beauty is crucial to jobs and cash-flow in the Highlands and Islands. Their steel towers and whirring plastic vanes may top 450ft in height. Blocks of reinforced concrete weighing up to 1,000 tonnes support each one, while access roads for construction and maintenance affect water tables, water supplies and catchment management.

Borrow pits scar the countryside and excavations of peat cause siltation of fish nursery grounds and the release of carbon dioxide as the disturbed peat oxidises away.

I could go on with downsides, but back to those two basic points.

Wind farms, even in the best locations, rarely come up to 30 per cent of the industry’s most optimistic expectations. A recent study in Lewis showed that for a third of the year the wind speeds were too high - the turbines have to be shut down. And this, as the recent hurricane showed, is just when you might need local power.

So however many wind turbines Scotland decides to build, they cannot provide a worthwhile supply of electricity compatible with the working of the national grid simply because of the nature of the wind. It is intermittent and can and does fluctuate rapidly. This makes the running of the grid a nightmare - as members of our Institutes of Engineers and the Royal Academy of Engineers warned from the start.

The story is no longer so rosy from both of the world’s wind-power leaders, Denmark and Germany, two countries that are well connected to the diverse continental grid and so can import and export electricity to maintain stability of frequency and voltage in their grids.

Scotland does not have the benefit of such interconnecting, and if this wind-farm madness is allowed to continue here, you will have major problems in dealing with the random intermittency of wind power.

Interestingly, Denmark has the most expensive domestic electricity in Europe and one of the worst carbon dioxide emission records.

Fortunately, in the past two years Denmark has discovered and put in the public domain the disturbing fact that "as reliance on the vagaries of wind increases, the need for dedicated back-up outstrips the installed capacity of the wind arrays, blowing the whole idea of wind as an alternative to pieces".

The whole thing is an economic farce, and to make matters worse the Scottish people are being promised thousands of jobs.

Where are they going to come from when you consider that most of the technology being used is imported from Denmark or Germany?

Have the Scottish people been told that this so-called green electricity is going to cost three times that from traditional sources? Where is the market for this intermittent electricity? Certainly not in England or Wales, where they are building their own wind farms much closer to the big users.

QED: wind power is but a very expensive, highly fluctuating, dangerously intermittent add-on that doesn’t even deserve to be called alternative, let alone green. In any event, Scotland is already Kyoto-compliant by virtue of its hydroelectricity.

• Dr David Bellamy, television botanist and conservationist, is patron of environmental group Views of Scotland.


'We can build a secure energy supply as well as protecting the futures of our children.'

THIS week the world’s leading climate scientists met at the Hadley Centre in Exeter. They were not discussing whether climate change poses a threat to human civilisation. They were discussing the growing evidence that climate change will be more severe and rapid than previously foreseen.

In Scotland, rapid climate change could be expected to put lives, health and property at risk, undermine economic activities from fisheries to financial services, change our landscape, and devastate our wildlife and ecosystems.

Countries like Scotland have been disproportionately responsible for emissions of climate-changing gases - while poor countries like Bangladesh and Indonesia will suffer the impacts most. The principles of sustainability and environmental justice demand that we cut our emissions dramatically and rapidly.

The urgency is because concentrations of climate-changing gases are reaching unprecedented levels. Scientists fear a "tipping point" - such as the melting of the Greenland ice sheet - might trigger irreversible change, and massive sea-level rise. We must play our part in tackling this global threat. Building wind farms is not a panacea, but only part of the package of necessary action, alongside energy efficiency, other renewable power, carbon taxes and improved public transport.

In the future more electricity should be generated from wave, tidal, offshore wind and solar photovoltaics. But onshore wind farms are technologically practical and commercially viable right now, while these other technologies are only now emerging. So onshore wind is a key part of the transition to a sustainable energy future. The overall efficiency of wind power - despite the variability of the wind - is generally around 30 per cent of "installed capacity" but virtually carbon free. Coal plants typically run at about 50 per cent of installed capacity. As the technology matures wind will become highly cost-effective: cheaper than coal or nuclear power.

Every megawatt installed- capacity of wind in central or southern Scotland saves 1,000 tonnes of coal burning at Longannet.

So how many wind farms should we build? To deliver 20 per cent of electricity from renewable sources by 2010 will require another 55 wind farms - about a fifth of those currently proposed. After that there will be a case for some further on-shore farms, but reaching 40 per cent of generation in the following decade will rely mainly on innovative offshore wind, wave and tidal power schemes. Only a few of Scotland’s hills will have a wind farm, even by 2020.

Opponents claim that wind power requires an equal amount of reserve capacity to cope with calm conditions. This is completely false. The generating and transmission system is already designed to handle greater variations in both demand and supply - for example when an unreliable nuclear plant has to be closed down without warning.

Wind power could comprise 20 per cent of the system without significant additional reserve capacity. In the longer term, wind can be mixed with other renewables to create a balanced system where tidal, solar, wind and wave provide base-load capacity, and biomass-fired plants are fired up when demand varies rapidly. Such a renewable-energy future would help achieve energy security for Scotland - with less dependence on imports of oil and gas and uranium.

Saying "yes to wind" doesn’t mean saying yes to every scheme. Friends of the Earth supports the right schemes in the right places - those that are the right scale, bring community benefits and don’t damage important landscapes or wildlife sites.

Ideally renewables should be developed close to those using the energy - but renewable energy can also help Scotland’s most remote rural communities secure their own energy supplies, and profit from a surplus of wind. It isn’t just remote islands that benefit directly from renewables.

In Sweden, people living near wind farms can buy shares in them; we should go one better, and develop models of real community ownership, as they are doing in Castlemilk in Glasgow.

With such enlightened policies, the wind revolution can begin a genuine transition to sustainability, benefiting Scotland’s society, economy and environment - and starting to repay the "ecological debt" that we owe the world for our past profligate use of fossil fuels.

• Duncan McLaren is chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland, who has written widely on environmental policy issues.


Which side of the wind farm debate are you on? Is Duncan MacLaren right, or do you agree with David Bellamy?


Post: Letters, The Scotsman, 108 Holyrood Road, Edinburgh. EH8 8AS.

Don’t go too far

There is something quite elegant and beautiful about wind farms and I don’t think any I have seen are ruining the landscape. But even I have a limit and I am horrified to read planning permission is being sought to place turbines on Salisbury Crags. This has made me realise that although I like seeing them, I don’t want them on my doorstep and I now understand how others may be feeling.

If Edinburgh city council gives permission for these turbines, they will destroy probably the most beautiful part of Edinburgh. I thought that this was a joke until I read all the reports. There is a need to find new sources of energy but no need to destroy one of the most beautiful cities in the world.



Harsh reality

The real difficulty I see with wind farms is that they only generate power for 30 per cent of the time, which leaves us with a power hole. Therefore, they cannot be an answer to power needs. They should really be directed at low-level domestic use to allow people not to tap into the national grid other than when the wind isn’t blowing; ie, putting them on top of houses like satellite dishes.

In addition, we in Scotland have a largely unspoilt countryside which, for some reason, we are now justifying spoiling in the name of environmental progress. The harsh reality is that the only effective answer to electricity generation which doesn’t cause greenhouse gases on an industrial scale is nuclear power.



Backing Bellamy

I am entirely behind Professor Bellamy. Somewhere along the line, we have lost sight of one of the main reasons for a switch to renewable energy - creation of greenhouse gases and global warming.

Any intermittent renewable sources need to have a base load running on standby while they are generating useful input to the grid, which means conventional stations have to be "ticking over" very inefficiently. Hence, any reduction in output is minimal and all at the expense of huge areas of irreplaceable landscape.

It is unfortunately obvious that the Scottish Executive does not understand the science of power generation. Wind, wave, hydro and solar power sources are all intermittent, unpredictable and have large landscape impacts, even without considering the obtrusive pylon lines required.

The planned proliferation of windmills will turn our landscape into an industrial wasteland for no real global environmental benefit, will lead to higher electricity prices (as has happened in Denmark and Germany) and will benefit only wind energy companies, with huge profits derived from the taxpayers’ and consumers’ pockets.


Centre for Ultrasonic Engineering University of Strathclyde

The way forward

I think wind is absolutely the right way. Wind farms do look nice and are no harm to the environment. Fossil fuels are no option - nuclear power isn’t anyway. So, more money should be invested in research and importing the hydrogen.

The only alternatives to wind power are oil, gas, coal or nuclear power. We cannot really afford to burn more fossil fuels and put more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and nuclear power is not the answer.


British Geological Survey

West Mains Road, Edinburgh

Sights to behold

I count myself among those who favour the use of wind energy to generate electricity, mainly for environmental reasons. As for questions of aesthetics, the sight of wind turbines, while not one of great beauty, does elicit a sense of responsibility in me, which, while not exactly the thrill of a lifetime, gives me a kind of pleasure. Our views influence the language we use in debate: were we to call the offending machines windmills and not wind turbines, for example, would we have a different picture of things?



Too late to worry

The time for worrying about our landscape is past; we are too late - the threat of climate change is upon us and we must take drastic action to limit the damage. We should welcome wind farms and look on them as positive signs that some action is being taken. The only key things is that we don’t place them in highly sensitive sites for wildlife.

I love my country and its landscapes, but I’m afraid that the situation has gone past worrying about our views being spoiled. Emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and car exhausts have brought us to this. Those still concerned about having their walk/drive in the countryside ruined surely fail to comprehend the severity of the situation.


Duncan Crescent, Dunfermline

The view from Wales

We have the same problem in Wales. The sites considered always appear to be beauty spots that could become blots on the landscape. When up and running, they have no redeeming features to make them other than the blots on the landscape.

Some say they are not that efficient. Aesthetics are not the only problem from these wind-ravenous stick insects. But in Wales, we didn’t hear enough of the positives and the potential gain and how that balanced against other power options.

I think you’ll have a great debate. But to all those who love the countryside, I’d say: get your cameras out now and start snapping those wonderful views for posterity. If you leave it too late, there will be a lot of air-brushing to do.



Look to the tides

The "thousands of birds" which are claimed to be wounded and killed by turbines seems to me to be a bit of a red herring. The SSPCA wildlife centre which rehabilitates injured wildlife from around Scotland, has certainly not seen any evidence of this. As with many issues, the truth is being bent by both sides.

Yes, we definitely need more renewable energy. The cost of the visual impact of turbines on our landscape has to be balanced against the hugely destructive and expensive consequences of climate change. However, there needs to be far more investment in what has probably the greatest potential for generating "clean" electricity, namely tidal power - although the engineering challenges are not insignificant.



No clear strategy

One of many concerns is a lack of co-ordinated thinking between the Scottish Executive and local authorities. Where is the joined-up thinking on wind power, the elusive strategic plan?

The plan is due in 2006, yet numerous planning applications are being approved ahead of publication. This unseemly rush may well have something to do with the rich pickings for wind power companies and landowners. The Executive should remember: "Only fools rush in."



What's the point?

As Scotland has only two coal-fired power stations, Longannet and Cockenzie, with a combined installed capacity of 3,456MW (according to DTI energy statistics for 2002), what’s the point in having 15,000MW of wind power?

Also, as these two power stations only idle or shut down the turbines when the wind is blowing at a suitable speed, leaving boilers burning away merrily for when the wind is too strong or too weak, where are the claimed emission savings coming from? Is it not the case that when the spinning reserve is taken into account, wind factories will never pay back the emissions caused by their construction. Wind power can only ever be "as well as" and not "instead of" coal or nuclear, In fact, if more than 3,456MW of wind power is installed, more nukes will have to be built.


Isle of Skye

Graceful turbines

Why do detractors say the amount of energy generated from wind is a waste of time? South of where I live in Dunbar, the bleak and denuded landscape of the Lammermuir hills is graced with the turbines of Crystal Rig wind farm, standing tall for our salvation. Much of the Borders of Scotland would not be degraded by the presence of wind turbines.

Why can’t we hugely reduce our energy requirements? How about rationing each of us so we really have to think how we use energy? Opponents should stop whingeing - after all, turbines can be removed after advances in technology, eg, in offshore wind and wave and solar technology, and improvements in efficiency.


Manor Gardens, Dunbar

They just don't work

I totally disagree with wind farms. They are uneconomical and do not work. They will not produce jobs here, as developers pretend, only in foreign countries such as Denmark.

They do not cut down on and will not help in reducing global warming.

They are a blight on the countryside. They are bad for tourism and will cost the Scottish economy dearly. They only line the pockets of the developers who seek vast rewards and return little to the community.

Electricity prices will rise as a result, affecting all users, from industry to the sick and the elderly.


Forgandenny, Perth

Uglier option

I know I would rather watch wind turbines turn than look at the grey ugliness of a nuclear power station. With turbines, my biggest concern would be one falling over and maybe killing a sheep or two. With nuclear power stations, I live in constant dread of a British version of Chernobyl or Three Mile Island.


Not such a blight

Wind farms actually have a smaller environmental footprint than the industrial/retail estates and housing schemes that are spreading out from the cities. It is certainly true that wind farms are highly visible due to the nature of their functionality, but this is not as much of a blight on the landscape as some would have you believe.


University of Stirling