Wind turbines – renewable targets and the environment

Wind farms have rarely been out of the news in recent weeks, highlighting the demands of renewable targets that are largely being met by onshore wind and environmental concerns. 

It started with the Scottish Government publishing new planning guidance that will include maps, drawn up by Scottish Natural Heritage, which will designate about 28 per cent of the country’s landscape as wild land and make it more difficult to secure permission for wind farms. It received a mixed review from environmental groups. Some welcomed the protection it gives to wild areas but others argued it simply put more pressure on other areas. The John Muir Trust said that new planning were not enough to protect the majority of Scotland’s wilderness from future threats. Wind turbines would be prohibited in the 42 per cent of wild land but not the remaining 58 per cent of wild land on the updated map – drawn up by Scottish Natural Heritage – which does not have national park or scenic area status.

 The challenge is highlighted by the approval of two controversial windfarms by Highland Council which critics claim would “blemish” part of the nation’s most important wild countryside. The developments for Glencassley and Sallachy, near Loch Shin and Ben Assynt, total 48 turbines, all at least 125 metres tall. The applications had opposition from Scottish Natural Heritage and the Mountaineering Council of Scotland. Similar opposition was also rejected by Highland Council when they approved the SSE Stronelairg scheme above Loch Ness. The John Muir Trust said “If this proposal goes ahead, one of Scotland’s core areas of wild land will disappear under a forest of steel turbines the height of the Forth Bridge, spread across an area of peatland the size of a small city.” 

There was a different form of objection in Fife following approval by the Scottish Government of Scotland’s tallest turbine. The 196-metre turbine will be erected 35 metres offshore at Fife Energy Park in Methil by Samsung Heavy Industries which will use it to test cutting edge technology for offshore wind farms. Scottish Ministers said the project was a major new development in the valuable renewables sector. But Linda Holt, spokeswoman for Scotland Against Spin, said: “Planting a 650-foot experimental wind turbine within a few 100 metres of one of Scotland’s historically most deprived communities is a recipe for disaster. Once again the government is championing the profits of the wind industry before its prime duty to protect its citizens. The turbine will create next to no sustainable jobs for locals, but it will be a disturbing eyesore for many Fifers as it will dominate the Forth coastline.”

An alternative to large scale wind farms comes from Scottish turbine manufacturer Kingspan Wind, which launched a windcrofting  scheme last month. Gavin Kerr, Kingspan Wind’s technical sales manager, said: “Windcrofting is for people who cannot afford a wind farm. It allows the landowner to lease the land to the developer in return for free electricity”. Scottish Renewables said small-scale turbines were a “valuable addition” to Scotland’s energy mix alongside large-scale wind farms. However, NFU Scotland warned that farmers should look at all the options carefully. Adding  that crofters might be better off joining community schemes such as the Scottish Government’s Community and Renewable Energy Scheme, which includes funding to help cover costs.

The economics of constraint payments to wind farms to shut down when output is high has come under attack. Dr Lee Moroney of the Renewable Energy Foundation said: “Ever since constraint payments to wind farms first began in 2011 there has been concern that the prices demanded were unreasonably high”. She said it also meant wind farms with licence exemption were also exempted from the regulations controlling constraint prices. “In effect, these wind farms can safely continue to name their price for not generating. And in fact very high prices, several times the lost income, are still common in the market. This bizarre situation, which is seriously bad for consumers and deeply embarrassing for the Government, should be addressed immediately.” 

Onshore wind remains the main technology to achieve the 2020 renewables targets. The new National Planning Framework reminds us that the target of 100 per cent of Scotland’s electricity consumption by 2020 means getting 14-16 gigawatts of installed renewable generating capacity in place by that date. As offshore wind and wave power will make only a limited contribution, environmental tensions look set to continue.

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