Windy Pops

Feature by Jasper Hamill | 17 Mar 2006

Recently unveiled plans for the world's largest wind farm near Edinburgh have been dogged by controversy. Stretching over the Firth of Forth, out to Dunfermline and on the protected island of Lewis, the project is part of the Scottish Executive's plan to provide 40% of Scotland's energy needs from renewable sources. Environmental groups have been split on the project with the RSPB warning the turbines will lead to the death of fifty golden eagles and countless other rare bird species, whilst government think-tanks see the project as a viable way of reducing the county's dependence on fossil fuels sourced from often unstable regimes.

The aesthetic of the turbines themselves, great white sentinels whirring gently on the horizon, are simultaneously derided as eyesores and lauded as symbols of a prosperous, ecologically-sustainable society. Investigating the possible impact of the turbines, a survey from the Energy Policy Unit found that people are three times more likely to consider the farms as having a positive effect on the surrounding environment with only 27% citing the deleterious effect of the turbines on the landscape.

The sheer scale of the projects in Scotland, including a massive string of windmills from Glasgow Central Station to East Kilbride, has prompted even some of the staunchest environmentalists to question the logic of placing wind farms in ecologically delicate environments. Stuart Housden, head of the Scottish Royal Society for the Protection of Birds asserts that by building on protected peat bogs, Amec and British Energy will "seriously threaten habitats of vital importance for birds and biodiversity." Aside from the collision risk, the concrete footprint of the structures at Dun Law, Scotland's current largest site twenty miles from Edinburgh, is reckoned by the Rimside Moor Protest Group to be the size of three double decker buses. They also claim people in Germany are being traumatised by low-level infrasound, noise which is beneath the human threshold of hearing, and spuriously complain of a vague 'flickering effect' on the horizon which upsets views. Other complaints have been fielded by fighter pilots, who complain of the possible danger to life as they swoop two hundred feet above the ground, as well as the interference caused by the generators microwave emissions.

Yet despite the possible damage to vista, localised wildlife or eardrum, the public perception of wind farms is almost unerringly positive. The Lewis Wind Farm, despite over four thousand complaints and a threat from the RSPB to take the case to Europe, is described by local councillor Anne MacDonald as offering "the prospect of a substantial number of jobs," and a possible way to alleviate the dire economic state of the region. Wind Farms, despite been only able to produce in one year each what a power station can in one hour, are undoubtedly a solution, if not a panacea, to the energy crisis looming on the horizon. In our crowded island, we cannot implement the recommendations of the National Wind Council of America, who claim that "wind-powered electricity generating projects belong far from places of human habitation."

Other alternatives include wave powered generators, which have yet to be successfully implemented on a large scale; geothermal power of the type used to power small communities in Scandinavia; solar power which barely deserves a mention in dreich Scotland, or nuclear facilities which are enormously unpopular with any nearby communities. Aside from nuclear power, all these alternatives are as yet untested, or impossible, in Britain. Wind Farms, despite their inefficiency, are the only environmentally sustainable alternative to traditional means of generating energy available to us at the moment. Even if, as some groups claim, it is yet another example of city-dwellers imposing their ideologies upon rural communities without a clear grasp of the context they will be implemented in, there has to be some amenable way forward to satisfy growing energy needs without compromising the environment.

To some, a set of turbines whirring in the distance is a stirring and hopeful view: an inchoate glimpse of a society living in harmony with its environment rather than ripping out resources pell-mell. The planning issue, recently highlighted by a group of hoaxers called Calton Hill Energy who applied for permission to build a wind farm on the picturesque Salisbury Crags, will continue to be a problem highlighting the need for future applications to be dealt with in a nuanced, sensitive manner. But if, to use a trendy phrase, people applied some joined-up thinking, the cost to the local environment can and will be outweighed by the possible benefits to global ecology environment as we learn to wean ourselves off fossil fuels.