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Issue 25 - Gone with the wind farms?

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Whisky Magazine Issue 25
August 2002

 

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Gone with the wind farms?

With two wind farms proposed for Speyside, Charles Maclean asks: how will they affect this unspoiled area?

Speyside has a unique magic, as many readers of this magazine know. That’s why it’s one of Scotland’s leading visitor attractions; each year over a million people come to ski in the Cairngorms, watch the ospreys at Boat of Garten and capercailzies in Glenmore Forest Park, walk the Speyside Way, fish the River Spey, play golf – and, of course, to visit the distilleries. Around half of Scotland’s malt whisky distilleries are located in this beautiful, romantic and unspoiled paradise.

This may soon change. Not the location of the distilleries, but the ‘unspoiled paradise’, if a proposed plan to build two gigantic wind farms in the area are approved by the Scottish Executive.

The farms themselves are to be the largest ever built in the UK, with turbines standing 324 feet high – exactly twice the height of Nelson’s Column! There will be 27 turbines on one site, 28 on the other. Visible within an area of 1,000 square miles, and plain to see from 20 miles away.

One of the proposed sites, in the hills directly opposite Cardhu Distillery, will be oppressively visible from almost the entire length of the road between Aberlour and Grantown-on-Spey – an uncomfortable and constant reminder that industry and the hand of man is everywhere. The other will intrude upon the distillery road between Rothes and Elgin.

Farewell the lonely glens! Where once they echoed only to the autumnal roar of stags, now, day and night, year in year out, they will hum with the spooky sound of electricity being generated.

We need the electricity, and renewable resources such as wind power are surely better than nuclear or fossil fuel power stations. But why choose to locate them in an area of outstanding natural beauty, which is also a key tourist destination? VisitScotland tell me that in 2000, over two million trips were made to the Grampian region, where Speyside is, by visitors from the UK and overseas. They stayed in the region for 7.8 million nights, and spent £375 million! Why put this at risk?

The applicant, Natural Power (a subsidiary of the Fred Olsen shipping line), acknowledges that the development “may cause significant landscape and visual effects” but says that these are “within localised areas … and not considered to be unacceptable”. They go on to say that, anyway, the visual impact “could be perceived as being either positive or negative, depending on the predisposition of the viewer”! Just as electricity pylons – and there will be lots of these in the Spey Valley to feed the power into the national grid – have a certain swaggering charm for some people, so the awesome space-age majesty of gigantic wind turbines may have aesthetic appeal in an appropriate landscape or context. I cannot imagine tourists flocking to Speyside to enjoy viewing such things. On the contrary …
No jobs will be generated – the largest wind farm in Europe has only two employees, and even the turbines come from Germany. The only people to benefit will be the developer and the landowner, the Laird of Ballindalloch Castle.

There is a curious legend about the building of Ballindalloch Castle, some 500 years ago. Seemingly the Laird of the day (and the castle is still owned by the same family) wanted to build on a site above the present location, still known as the Castle Strip. His men began work and raised the walls some feet above the ground, but when they returned to work next day, they were astonished to discover that all their work had been undone, and the building stones had vanished. Again they built it up, and again the new walls vanished overnight. This happened three times, according to the story.

The Laird was certain the stone was being removed by an enemy and ordered a body of men to guard the site overnight. It is said that “certain of them provided themselves with flasks of a certain beverage which would, if need be, give them additional courage” and now believing that their very presence had scared away the hostile intruders, they settled down to sleep in a nearby wood. Soon after they had wrapped themselves in their plaids, a terrific wind began to blow, mingled with unearthly howls and the sound of large stones being hurled into the River Avon, far below.

When the Laird heard their story he was furious, refused to believe it and threatened to hang them all. He was persuaded to inspect the river, and, sure enough, there were the slabs of masonry. He resolved to stand guard himself the next night with a trusted companion, and, sure enough, after some hours, the quiet night was rent by a sound “as if a thousand tempests were rushing onwards from Ben Rinnes, shrieking of devastation to come”. The Laird and his friend were blown off their feet into a holly tree, while huge blocks of granite flew past them and crashed into the river. Suddenly the wind subsided. Then an eerie voice was heard, crying: “Build in the cow-haugh. Build in the cow-haugh”. And this was what he did, building his splendid castle in the pasture below the hill, where it stands to this day.

So who knows what might happen if the Scottish Executive, in their doubtful wisdom, decide to hazard a beautiful region of Scotland for dubious gain!

Harnessing our natural resources in combating climate change is a desirable and necessary goal. Scotland has been blessed with an abundance of natural resources, not least of which is the wind. In fact, there is sufficient power in the wind to meet Scotland’s peak winter demand for electricity twice over from land-based wind turbines. Taking all renewable resources into account, Scotland has the capacity to be self-sufficient in electricity from renewable energy and have plenty left over for the rest of the UK.

Small surprise then that many want to realise this potential, from farmers, businesses and electricity companies right up to the Scottish Executive itself. This is certainly the plan of the Scottish Executive, which has set a higher target for renewable energy than the rest of the UK, with the aim that 18% of Scotland’s electricity is met from renewable generation by 2010. All renewables will have their role to play in meeting this target, but wind power will be a vital component.

The technology is well established with the first of the mass-produced turbines having already celebrated its 21st birthday, without requiring the replacement of any of the principal components. There are no harmful emissions or waste products and the energy used in the manufacture of a wind turbine is repaid within the first three to five months of that turbine’s working lifetime of 20 years. Moreover, every unit of electricity generated from the wind replaces one that would otherwise come from conventional fossil-fired power plants and prevents the release of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide into our atmosphere. In the UK, and Scotland in particular, wind turbine technology has lead to some of the cheapest electricity prices in Europe, from a fuel which is free and will never run out.

Yet for all their obvious benefits, wind turbines do have a perceived disadvantage: you can see them. Blades of 30 to 40 metres mounted on steel towers standing as much as 50 metres high cannot be easily hidden in the landscape, and some people do not like the way they look. Of all the objections raised against wind farming, this is the only one that can be upheld.

Beauty however is in the eye of the beholder. Ask people what they think of when they see a wind turbine: “Fascinating view of the future”; “Relaxing, very quiet, elegant"; “Inspiring. The future now looks a little rosier”; “Pretty and in harmony with the landscape and farming", "Graceful, elegant and beautiful – I want one". These are real answers from real people. In 10 years of wind farming in the UK, more people think wind turbines are an interesting feature of the landscape rather than a blot.

The way people perceive the effect of wind turbines on the landscape will always be their personal opinion. However, not many have the opportunity to experience wind farming for themselves and form their opinions based on the working reality. They may read about it in the local paper but with just under 1000 turbines operational in the UK, far fewer will have direct experience of a wind farm in their area. What are the views of those who may be better qualified to have an opinion, those who live near Scotland’s wind farms? This is exactly what the Scottish Executive established when they conducted a major study into the attitudes of local residents near four wind farms. Interestingly, the people who live close to working wind farms are positive about them and the closer they live, the more positive they become. Equally revealing was that the problems residents had anticipated due to the development of the wind farm did not materialise in the vast majority of cases. Every opinion poll conducted shows the same results: a consistently high level of support for wind energy. More than eight out of 10 people are in favour of wind energy and less than one in 10 against it. However, this 5% often have the most to say and certainly say it the loudest, which often creates the impression that wind farms are very unpopular.

Opponents of wind farms often make unsubstantiated claims about the adverse effects of wind farms. There is no reliable evidence to support their claims, a fact highlighted by the recent ruling of the Advertising Standards Authority about such an opposition group formed against a proposed development in Aberdeenshire. Noise is not an issue; birds are in more danger from overhead power lines than turbines; house prices most certainly do not decrease and wind farms are tourist attractions in their own right.

Take Cornwall, the location of the UK’s first wind farm and six further projects over the following years. Of tourists surveyed, 94% said the wind farms had no impact whatsoever on the likelihood of them visiting Cornwall again. Of the remaining 6%, the majority said that the presence of wind farms would actually encourage them to visit Cornwall again. Or how about the 30,000 visitors who flock to Swaffham in Norfolk each year to climb the wind turbine at the EcoTech Centre. In Wales visitor numbers have increased and wind energy is being positively marketed as part of a tourism initiative with a renewable energy trail. Eco-tourism has become an industry in its own right.

Here’s a vision for the future: houses, businesses, farms, public buildings, factories, schools, warehouses, pubs, restaurants, shops and distilleries in Scotland powered by the wind. Why shouldn’t Scotland profit, economically and environmentally, from the utilisation of this abundant free fuel? First Minister Jack McConnell has made it clear that he wants Scotland to reap the benefits of green industrial revolution, working towards not only 30% of Scotland’s electricity from renewables by 2020, but also the economic opportunities this presents. "I want Scotland to be a world leader in renewable energy generation and use” said the First Minister, as he opened a new factory on the Kintyre peninsula. And what does the factory make? Wind turbines.
 

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