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Viewpoint: Taking a Stand

Alan McCombes - John Muir Trust communications editor

Alan McCombes – John Muir Trust communications editor

In this article first published in the Autumn edition of the John Muir Trust members’ Journal, the Trust’s communications editor Alan McCombes outlines how the giant wind farm proposed at Stronelairg in the Monadhliath Mountains poses a very real threat to an outstanding area of wild land – and why he feels it is worth fighting against.

“Between Loch Ness and the Cairngorms lies a vast, mysterious landscape which has been described as Scotland’s terra incognita. Monadhliath Mountains range across more than 700 square miles – an area larger than the Peak District and not much smaller than the Lake District. But while these English upland regions are inhabited by tens of thousands of people, criss-crossed by roads, and swarm with several million visitors a year, the Monadhliaths lie empty and silent, even in the height of summer. Here, there are only a handful of isolated lodges and farm steadings connected to the outside world via a few rudimentary tracks.

This is not picture postcard territory. The Monadhliaths lack the splendour and drama of the nearby Cairngorms, or the Nevis range to the south west. Yet, while the Grey Hills – to give them their English translation – may not have such dazzling charisma, these rolling hills and plateaux have their own understated charm, heightened by the sense of solitude that hangs heavy in the air. On a fine day in late August this year, I tramped the southern Monadhliaths from morning till sunset without encountering another human being.

This atmosphere of wild remoteness has made the Monadhliaths a prime target for energy corporations looking for vast landscapes in which to build industrial-scale developments. Three major wind farms have already been built or approved in the area, including the fiercely controversial Dumnaglass development, which provoked over 1,500 objections and was described by mountaineering writer and broadcaster, Cameron McNeish, as “sickening in its scale and insensitivity”.

Monadhliath Plateau in winter

Monadhliath Plateau in winter

A further three proposals are still at the application stage. One of these, Allt Duine, on the edge of the Cairngorms National Park, is even more contentious, with locally-based photographer and author, Chris Townsend, denouncing the proposal as “the equivalent of building a Tesco in the Grand Canyon”.

Allt Duine was subject to a Public Local Inquiry, with the outcome expected at any time. But as things stand, the largest wind development of all in these mountains could be given the go-ahead by a Scottish Government minister without the rigorous scrutiny of an open inquiry. So far, councillors and planning officials at the Highland Council have supported the Stronelairg development, with the proviso that the project be scaled down from 83 turbines to 67. That would still make it the largest wind farm in the mainland Highlands – one that would cover an area larger than Inverness or East Kilbride.

According to SSE, the developer, the wind farm will power 250,000 homes with clean, green electricity, helping Scotland meet its climate change targets and contribute to the fight against global warming. On the face of it, that sounds impressive. But the arithmetic does not stack up.

The maximum installed capacity of Stronelairg, even based on the higher figure of 83 turbines, is 300 MW. That is around five per cent, or one twentieth, of Scotland’s existing installed renewables capacity (as of December 2012). A simple calculation suggests that if Stronelairg really was capable of supplying all the electricity to a quarter of a million households, then the rest of Scotland’s renewables industry would already be powering the equivalent of around five million homes – more than double Scotland’s entire housing stock.

If SSE’s figure is accurate, then, even allowing for commercial and industrial electricity consumption, Scotland would already have smashed its target to generate 100 per cent of its electricity needs through renewables by 2020. Yet, according to the Scottish Government’s Third National Planning Framework (April 2013), Scotland will have to expand its renewables capacity two and a half times over to reach the target.

CO-ORDINATED ACTION

Few people today would dispute the need to shift society away from its reliance on fossil fuels. Climate change poses a very real threat to the entire eco-system. At national and international level, we need urgent, co-ordinated action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But there is growing evidence that the proliferation of industrial-scale wind farms on wild land has been, at best, a tokenistic diversion of resources and investment that could have been more effciently deployed in the battle against climate change. At worst, developments such as that proposed at Stronelairg may even be counter-productive.

According to SSE’s own Environmental Statement, the Stronelairg project will involve quarrying 730,000 cubic metres of stone from borrow pits around the site to build access tracks, turbine foundations and bases.

All of this disruption will take place on a site which the developer acknowledges consists of more than 70 per cent wet, blanket peatland – Scotland’s miniature version of the rainforest – which locks in up to 20 times as much carbon per acre as the average British woodland. More than one third of that is unmodified with the rest of it capable of being fully restored. The building of a giant development on this site, with the associated excavation and destruction of the soil, flies in the face of advice from the Scottish Government’s own expert advisers who have stated that there is no justification for building wind farms on healthy peatland.

The Monadhliaths support one of Europe’s most extensive tracts of upland blanket bog. A serious, joined-up strategy to curb Scotland’s carbon emissions would include the protection and, where necessary, restoration of this vast carbon storehouse. And it would exclude from this type of terrain such destructive developments as that proposed for Stronelairg.

Looking over the site from Meall na h-Airse

Looking over the site from Meall na h-Airse

PROFIT AND LOSS

But this is not about climate change. And neither are the corporations, who are driving wind energy in the wild lands of the Scottish Highlands, ethical crusaders fighting to save the planet. Over 90 per cent of the power generated by SSE is non-renewable, mainly from coal and gas. Its mission is to make money for its shareholders. And it does that very well indeed. Today, the company has 10 million customers, mainly in the south of England, and a market value of £13 billion – the equivalent of Morrison’s and Sainsbury combined, but with just seven per cent of the workforce of the two supermarket chains.

The Stronelairg development alone is estimated to be worth around £1 billion to SSE, while the landowner – Charles Connell of the Belfast and Clydeside ship-building dynasty – stands to make something in the region of £60 million as his cut for leasing the land.

With such large sums of money at stake, it would be both naïve and irresponsible not to put the claims of the developer under the microscope. Earlier this year, SSE was owed a record £10.5 million by UK energy watchdog Ofgem for deceiving its own would-be customers. According to Ofgem, the company provided “misleading and unsubstantiated statements” to potential customers. So why should anyone take at face value anything said by SSE – especially when such a lucrative deal is within its grasp?

In support of its application, SSE states that Stronelairg will create employment in the Highlands during the construction phase equivalent to 379 job years, with a further 117 long-term local jobs to follow after the wind farm is up and running. But the company neither constructs nor maintains its wind farms, and therefore has no control over how many workers are employed or where they are recruited. Its figures are based largely on extravagant guesswork.

We can, however, measure the accuracy of this guesswork against recent experience. Last year, SSE opened the Griffin wind farm in Perthshire, which is around the same size as Stronelairg. The building of the infrastructure of the site was carried out by Northern Ireland-based Lagan Construction. During that construction, almost the entire workforce was brought into the area from outside. This may have given a temporary boost to a few local hotels, but it has created few, if any, local construction jobs. Meanwhile, the installation of the turbines, and their maintenance for the next five years at least, was contracted out to the German manufacturer, Siemens, which has since stated that Griffin will require a workforce of just 14 employees in technical and supervisory roles. That’s just one-eighth of the figure claimed by SSE for Stronelairg.

Questionable facts such as these are one reason why there is now an overpowering case for a transparent Public Local Inquiry that will cut through the smoke and spin. It is especially important that the Stronelairg development is examined in the light of the Scottish Government’s recent planning consultation documents promising special protection for wild land against large-scale development, and the publication of the Core Wild Land Map by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and supported by the Scottish Government, which includes the Monadhliaths.

SSE justifies targeting Stronelairg on the grounds that “due to the presence of existing infrastructure, the proposed development area is not considered to be wild land”. The infrastructure in question is the Glendoe Hydro scheme, constructed by SSE in 2008 just west of the Stronelairg site. Inconveniently for SSE, when this project was completed, the John Muir Trust hailed the development as “a great achievement” and congratulated the company “on the way that they have kept the landscape and environmental impacts to an acceptable level”. It is ironic that the company should now reject that compliment.

Ultimately, there is no way that a wind development of this scale can be built in this location without fundamentally altering the character of the landscape. If Stronelairg goes ahead, the great central plateau of the Monadhliaths would be industrialised and the heart ripped out of what SNH describes as “one of Scotland’s key areas of wild land”.

No large-scale development in such an important landscape should be allowed to proceed without, at the very least, a full-scale Public Local Inquiry. It is the only way to cut through the spin and clarify the facts.

Alan McCombes is the Communications Editor for the John Muir Trust. The Trust is a UK conservation charity dedicated to protecting wild places. They own and care for some of the UK’s finest wild landscapes including Ben Nevis, Schiehallion, Sandwood Bay, Quinag in Assynt, part of the Cuillin on Skye and 3,000 acres on the remote Knoydart peninsula.

Website and details of how to join and support the John Muir Trust: http://www.johnmuirtrust.org/

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