Plans to harness the wind divide the moors
Some scots see turbines as costly blightby Elizabeth Rosenthal
DUMFRIES, Scotland Sarah Burchall had always liked the idea of wind energy. "I thought: It's renewable and it's clean, part of the lifestyle I'd chosen to live," said Burchall, an earthy woman who farms here in the blustery hills of southern Scotland.But that idyllic view changed drastically last April, when Scottish Power announced plans to open an industrial-strength wind farm, with more than 100 thrumming 400-foot-high, or 120-foot, wind turbines, in the Ae Forest across from her home. "I could accept this if this was really about clean energy, but it's not," said Burchall, who has organized a local group called Trees Not Turbines. "This is all about business. It's an enormous imposition on the community, and we feel helpless because of the amount of money that's at stake." Ever since the British government offered lucrative subsidies for renewable energy projects to encourage compliance with Kyoto Protocol emissions goals a few years ago, rural Scotland has become something of a Klondike for wind energy. Mammoth wind farms are being proposed and constructed at breakneck speed, creating divides within communities, and renewing debates about an outwardly appealing technology that is viewed by some scientists as having only limited practical use. Britain has now followed Germany, Denmark and Spain in making wind power a cornerstone of its energy strategy, committing itself to generating 10 percent of electricity from renewable sources like wind by 2010. Because of Scotland's blustery climate, the Scottish Executive has set even higher goals: 18 percent by 2010 and 40 percent by 2020. "The government is promoting this, and the targets are high," said Matthew Smith, chief executive of Scottish Renewables Forum. "Twenty-five percent of Europe's wind blows across Scotland, so this is an opportunity and can be cost-effective here." But some British experts oppose the rush, saying that wind has proved an expensive and impractical source of energy and produces a small reduction in climate-changing emissions. "The political commitment here in the U.K. doesn't make sense scientifically - it is very na´ve - but wind has been marketed very successfully," said Ian Fells, a professor of engineering at Newcastle University. "I am in favor of developing wind in certain places. But it is only suitable as a small part - maybe 4 or 5 percent - of an overall strategy." Wind power has proved controversial across Europe at a time when production capacity is galloping ahead. Cumulative wind power capacity in the 25 European Union countries increased by 20 percent in 2004, according to industry statistics cited by the European Wind Energy Association. New plans are unveiled every week. At the same time, citizens groups and politicians in Scotland and in other countries are contesting the technology on grounds of effectiveness and expense, as well as aesthetics. In Britain, the Royal Academy of Engineers estimated recently that electricity produced by wind cost more than twice as much as that generated by gas, nuclear power or coal. Britain's national audit office concluded that the complex subsidy system - which rewards developers of wind energy by allowing them to charge higher electricity rates - was unnecessarily generous. On Thursday, a study published by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a leading German daily, warned that the government's plans to expand wind power would increase annual household costs by 14 to 17 percent. Most important, critics say that even in windswept Scotland the breeze blows only intermittently or, on many days, too fiercely to be of use. So wind farms need constant backup with conventional power stations, limiting the beneficial reduction of dangerous emissions. As Germany and Denmark have become increasingly reliant on wind power, energy regulators have had to scramble to import energy at short notice whenever the wind is uncooperative - through "connectors" that have long linked their electrical grids to those of neighboring countries. But Britain lacks such links and cannot rely on this type of backstop. At a first pass, being against wind power is like being against pandas. Almost all environmental groups, from Greenpeace to Friends of the Earth, endorse the development of renewable energy sources in general, and wind power in particular. While "renewables" include solar, wind and wave power, wind is the only technology that is commercially ready for large-scale development. "We know that wind power can play an important role in reducing climate emissions - especially if you factor in the cost of climate change, it is very cost competitive," said Dan Barlow, research director of Friends of the Earth Scotland. "Government targets are providing an incentive for companies to get into the alternative energy field." But even Barlow noted that, in Scotland, "we do need a strategy that is more than just a rush of applications." "There are good and bad proposals and we need to sort these out so there aren't unsatisfactory ecological consequences," he said. While there are only 21 small wind farms in Scotland, there are hundreds of proposals, some slated for the country's most revered landscapes, like the Isle of Skye. "I mean look at this scenery! How could you desecrate it?" said Bob Graham, an anti-wind farm activist, driving through rolling Scottish moors. Graham, a former member of the Word Wildlife Fund, continued, close to tears: "Sure I'm a 'nimby' - not in my backyard. But my backyard is Scotland. This is a subsidized destruction of our national heritage." Up close there is a certain eerie beauty about the clusters of turbines that have already started to dot this magnificent landscape. Massive structures with spindly, slowly spinning blades that sweep the sky and nearly brush the ground, they look like giant humming insects in a DalÝ painting. They are hospital white. Sheep graze about their bases. "I have no real objection to the visual impact, so long as they work," said Jim Buchanan, a retiree from Moffat, near Ae Forest wind farm. He said developers had shown residents computer-enhanced photos to assure them that turbines would not be visible from their homes. Advocates say that the turbines can be absorbed by Scotland's vast landscapes. Anyway, said Barlow: "Parts of Bangladesh are threatened by rising waters. Do we want to be saying that we didn't invest in renewable energy because we didn't like the look?" Behind aesthetics run serious scientific divisions about the ability of wind technology to produce power and reduce greenhouse gases. "The real issue is that this is a scam and shouldn't be allowed. We are subsidizing a failed technology," said David Bellamy, the prominent British naturalist. "These are not wind farms but wind factories. They are destroying some of the best views in the world, without giving us much of anything in return." He said that each turbine required a 1,000-ton block of concrete for a base and heavy duty roads for transport. Already, he said, peat bogs have been damaged and fish populations destroyed by construction in northern Scotland. Managing wind systems is a difficult balancing act, scientists admit. "You weep when you watch the Germans struggling to keep their system going," said Hugh Shaman, a consultant on renewable energy in Copenhagen. "In Denmark, without connectors, our system would have collapsed - and that's what will happen in Scotland." Denmark and parts of Germany now produce about 20 percent of their electricity through wind. Shaman noted that Scotland already produces 30 percent more energy than it needs and said that its electricity grid was not large enough to absorb the wind energy planned. Pro-wind groups disagree. They say that Britain has enough excess capacity at traditional power plants to backstop a large number of wind farms; they project a need for 70 in all. Power grids are adjusted constantly anyway, they say, such as when a nuclear plant is shut for cleaning. According to government projections, wind energy could produce 20 percent of Scotland's power and create a "steppingstone" to other technologies. "Wind is building confidence among investors, who see that they can make money developing renewables," Smith said. "Hopefully they'll soon take a look at wave and tidal power as well." Scottish community planning boards are struggling with such technical debates. The county of Dumfries and Galloway has dozens of wind-farm proposals, said Neil McKay, a member of the board, although only two small farms have been approved. "We've got a government that is pushing this very hard," he said. Last month, when a planning board in Drammuir rejected a wind farm proposal, the Scottish Executive overturned the ruling. Wind farms bring money into depressed rural communities. Energy companies pay farmers lavish rents, up to ú10,000, or about $19,200, per turbine each year. Developers create "community benefit funds" for towns willing to accept wind farms. During construction, there are jobs. "No one would invest without the subsidies," Fells said. Some of this money ultimately comes out of local electricity bills. The National Audit office placed the cost to Scottish consumers for the government's commitment to renewable energy at ú1 billion a year by 2010. Here in Dumfries, several hundred people who attended an anti-wind farm presentation on a recent evening expressed varied concerns. "This is a coalition of big business and big landowners and big government and a lot of us feel that we're being walked over," said Wilson Flood, a retired teacher. "You're going to destroy our landscape for a small amount of energy. You'll drive from Dumfries to Glasgow and never be out of sight of a turbine." Nonfarmers worried how they would survive if unsightly wind farms drove away tourists. "I have a caravan park and will lose my business," said Archie White, from Galloway. "And that is what feeds my butcher and my plumber as well."