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August 22, 2011

What Price Power?

By Spear's

Wind farms threaten to despoil the landscape north of the border too. Here, John Cromartie writes about the misconceptions and falsehoods of the wind industry which will harm the Scotland he loves
JOHN MUIR ONCE wrote that if the Sierra had but one tree left, ‘You would find a lumberman and a lawyer at the foot of it, eagerly proving, by every law terrestrial and celestial, that that tree must come down.’ At the time Muir was struggling to save California’s Giant Redwood groves, a struggle that would eventually lead to the creation of America’s first National Parks.

In Scotland we find ourselves engaged in a similar struggle today. One MSP described our wilderness areas as ‘Scotland’s unique selling point for the future’ and a ‘first class environment’. There are a growing number of us who feel the need to protect these areas for the future.

The future of rural Scotland lies in tourism not in short-sighted industrialisation. To cover the Scottish hills and mountains with wind farms would be to destroy the very thing that Scotland has to offer, a relatively unspoilt mountain landscape of great beauty. Do we really want the hills to become a forest of wind turbines and if so, at what price?

Many studies have shown that wind power will never be the answer to our energy problems. Wind energy can only ever contribute a fraction of our total energy requirements and is fraught with problems. What do we do when there is no wind? What happens when the wind is too strong? How do we stabilise the demand on the National Grid? Wind power cannot be stored or turned on when demand is high. The truth is they function at best at 30 per cent efficiency and supply a tiny fraction of our total energy needs nationwide. Is this enough to warrant so much devastation of the countryside?

The infrastructure needed for a wind farm is colossal – roads across the hills, concrete footings that are there forever, power cables and pylons – and the sheer size of the turbines themselves that impact so heavily on relatively small mountains. A group of turbines in excess of 125 metres in height, amid hills of 600 to 1,000 metres, are simply out of proportion to the scale of the landscape.

There seems too little understanding of the peripheral damage caused by such things as lorry deliveries, site preparation and grid connection not to mention the true CO2 cost when you consider the tons of concrete laid down per turbine and the plastics and metals needed in turbine construction.
The whole issue of renewable power has become highly emotive, surrounded by smoke and mirrors and has become a cash cow for interested parties.

The language used of ‘free wind’, ‘green energy’ and ‘wind farms’ are disguising the fact that this is an industry with industrial processes that are quietly despoiling the countryside. Wind energy has become a political issue with large subsidies being handed out to feverish investors involved in a gold rush.

We are told that the power companies will clean up the mess after the 25 year life span of a turbine is over. I can only hope that they have budgeted for this huge expense.
IF THE WORLD were facing a power Armageddon and wind power was truly the only option and it was constantly efficient, then just perhaps all this ruination might have to be suffered, but it is not the only option. There are other ‘green’ sources of energy that have not been fully developed: offshore wind farms, run-of-the-river schemes and updated hydro-electric, solar and tidal power, ground source heating and of course better energy conservation. However it is unlikely that renewables alone will be capable of generating sufficient reliable power.

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Then there is the even more emotive subject of nuclear power which may have to be considered again in the future in a cool and analytical light.

Developed and developing countries will not lessen their energy consumption as the world population increases. It is hard to alter the lifestyle we have grown accustomed to. We are all consumers, practicing an empirical capitalism regardless of our stated politics. The need to make the right choices for the future has never been more real.

It is the wind farm companies (often foreign investors) and landowners that are making money out of wind farm projects. Do these people have the interests of the countryside at heart? They are being heavily subsidised by government and by us, the consumer, through our electricity bills. We are all paying for this wind farm development through rising energy bills, often without any knowledge (or interest?) in what is really going on.

It appears that those who feel that onshore wind power is overstated are classed as ‘un-green’ when quite the opposite is the case. The industrialising of rural Scotland, a growing Moloch, is exacerbated by spin and counter spin and once money is involved communities can be divided by the power company’s hand-outs.

Government bodies and power companies extol the virtues and efficiencies of onshore wind power but the truth is masked by the conflicting and confusing reports. We need a fresh look at the whole subject. Are onshore wind farms actually worth pursuing?

It has to be noted that Denmark and Holland, who led the way in developing wind technology, have abandoned plans for developing any further onshore wind farm sites due to their inefficiency.

We have real mountains but on a human scale; they are relatively easy to access for the adventurous hill-walker. They offer a unique experience that is quite different to the high Alps. Hill-walking and climbing alone bring in more than £150 million in indirect spending per annum. Scotland is admired, visited and loved by millions. Tourism – and increasingly outdoor tourism – is on the increase. This is a landscape that is a priceless resource. It is our landscape that is at stake and it is worth infinitely more than just being sacrificed for what is proving to be an ineffectual industry.

To quote John Muir again, this is ‘not blind opposition to progress but opposition to blind progress’.

John Cromartie is immediate past president of The Mountaineering Council of Scotland, former trustee of the John Muir Trust and a former member of the House of Lords

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