If all the developments now in the pipeline go ahead, the number of wind turbines in the landscape would triple. It is a graphic illustration of the rush to secure the most suitable sites as planning consent becomes more difficult as a result of growing pressure on the landscape and more organised opposition by communities and conservation bodies.
With the least contentious sites in the most accessible areas already snapped up, future applications will become ever more controversial. This is already apparent as global power companies recognise the growing importance of renewable energy and become involved in developments in Scotland, such as the Glenmorie wind farm backed by AES Corporation. The opposition of community groups is understandable but more should consider the advantages of engaging with developers in return for an energy supply or share of the profits.
All forms of energy generation carry some form of cost. An increasing problem is the accumulation of developments within sight of one another, particularly in scenic areas, especially our two national parks, where access to wilderness and the rich natural habitat are vital components of the tourism which underpins the local economy. There is also a carbon equation to be balanced. A number of applications are for peat moors, which are globally important as storage for CO2.
Wind power already has the potential to generate around 30% of Scotland’s electricity consumption but there is not a simple equation between the number of turbines and the amount of power they generate. Because turbines only operate when the wind blows and have to be switched off during gales, back-up from another power source is required to maintain base load. If we are to stop burning fossil fuels, as serious CO2 reduction requires, nuclear generation will be essential for the foreseeable future.
A significant step forward has been taken, however, with the installation of an underwater turbine at the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney for testing before transferring to the pioneering tidal stream energy development in the Sound of Islay. It is particularly welcome because successful harnessing of predictable tidal power would add stability to the amount of energy generated from renewable sources and will keep Scotland at the forefront of developing marine energy.
The powerful surges around the Scottish coast and islands offer huge potential for generating power but equally important will be the ability to develop the technology. The opportunity for Scottish universities and businesses to be at the cutting edge of renewable energy must be grasped now or forever regretted. That will require considerable investment but the long tradition of innovative technology and engineering skills provides a solid base on which to build.
It was a bold claim by Alex Salmond to say he could envisage Scotland as the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy and one his political opponents will use as a taunt if he fails in the more precise ambition of generating the equivalent of 100% of Scotland’s electricity needs from renewables by 2020. Nevertheless, the memorable phrase has focused attention on Scotland’s natural resources of wind, wave and tide. Their potential can only be realised, however, by developing technology and infrastructure to harnesses the power of nature and transmit it to the national grid at a viable cost. There is a political will at Holyrood but it can only be realised with a coherent and concerted strategy from planning authorities, through education and skills development to small businesses and global corporations.