In his monthly Viewpoint column, outdoors writer, broadcaster and mountain walker Cameron McNeish discusses windfarms.
I’VE never been very big on pessimism but I believe many hillwalkers and wild land enthusiasts are now engaged in a battle that cannot be won.
I dislike the visual effect of windfarms as much as anyone and I’ve yet to be convinced of their value in terms of energy output but after years of campaigning alongside that wily old fox from Ramblers Scotland, Dave Morris, I have learned the value of pragmatism.
Sometimes, just sometimes, you have to recognize that the odds are stacked against you in such a way that continued resistance is no more than farting against thunder. It’s under such circumstances that you have to re-evaluate your aims and concerns.
In the past I’ve shouted as loudly as anyone for a moratorium on on-shore windfarms but that’s clearly not going to be granted. I now believe we would be better preparing ourselves to accept a few crumbs from the table, crumbs that might even turn out to be a fairly substantial slice of cake.
Let’s look at the facts, uncomfortable as they may appear. Wind generation, both on-shore and off-shore, has cross-party political support in Scotland. According to a recent YouGov poll 77% of SNP supporters, 71% of Liberal Democrat supporters, 64% of Labour supporters and 53% of Conservative supporters said they were in favour of wind energy.
An Ipsos-Mori poll in April 2012 for UK Renewables indicated that 67% of the UK population support wind power while a OnePoll survey in 2011 for VisitScotland showed that 80% of people would not be affected in their choice of UK holiday destination by the presence of a windfarm.
Politicians love these strong displays of support and the figures do tend to go against the perceived notion that appears on many outdoors forums that no-one supports wind energy.
Talk to Joe Public and he’ll tell you he’d rather have wind turbines on a hill than a nuclear reactor around the corner. And why not build the wind farms in high, mountainous countryside – that’s where the wind blows isn’t it? And these big spinning windmills can be quite pretty in an arty-farty kind of way. Better than ugly power stations like Longannet. Right?
Mmm, it’s obvious that those of us who want to protect the hills from wind turbines are in the minority. However, all is not lost.
It’s been suggested that there have been over 44,000 objections to various windfarm developments in the past five years. These objections are from people who have felt strongly enough about the issue to take time and put pen to paper and formally object either to a local authority or directly to the Scottish Government.
In addition, other polls have shown that while there may be strong public support for wind energy there is also considerable public concern regarding the siting of wind turbines. There is a growing support for protecting our wild land areas from windfarm development.
In a recent YouGov poll commissioned by the John Muir Trust 40% of respondents said the Government should “prioritise protecting scenic wild land from large commercial wind farms”, even if this means that there is less opportunity to develop wind power in those areas. Conversely, 28% said the Government should prioritise building large commercial wind farms, even if this means that some are placed on scenic wild land.
Now these numbers are not huge and not entirely convincing but they do give us a modicum of hope.
Instead of calling for a complete moratorium on new windfarms, which clearly will not be granted, we should be asking the Scottish Government to set aside those scenic areas that could be described as ‘wild land’ for full protection from all potential developments, including wind turbines.
For some time now Scottish Natural Heritage has been mapping Scotland’s wildness and wild land in an attempt to identify where the most significant and valued areas of wild land are most likely to be found. Phase1 of that task, which has mapped relative levels of wildness for the whole of Scotland, has been completed and Phase 2 is intended to identify and define more precisely areas of wild land.
I recently caught sight of that mapping and it appears to cover many of those areas we would certainly want to protect, particularly the North-West. In total the map of Scotland’s wild land amounts to be about 28% of Scotland’s land mass. That may be well down on previous SNH estimates but it’s still a reasonable slice of cake and if we are offered it we should grab it with both hands.
Given the public and cross-party political support for wind energy it will be a bold government that offers to keep over a quarter of Scotland’s land mass free of wind turbines. But we are in the Scottish Government’s acclaimed Year of Natural Scotland so what better time for First Minister Alex Salmond to show some his party’s green credentials and announce substantial turbine-free zones?
At the moment the MCofS, Ramblers Scotland and the John Muir Trust are more or less singing from the same hymn sheet. It would be good to see some of the other anti-wind groups align themselves with the recreational NGO’s and forget nonsense about moratoriums and opposing offshore wind. This is one argument in which we’re not going to get all our own way but with a bit of strategic co-operation we could convince the Scottish Government to hand down that decent-sized slice of cake. To mix metaphors, I believe we’d be pushing at an open door…
NB In the interest of transparency I am a member of the SNP and I’ve spoken to Alex Salmond about this issue on a number of occasions. The First Minister is not averse to the idea of setting up turbine-free areas in Scotland Perhaps he just needs a little more encouragement?