I am unashamed of my opposition to wind farms in wild areas of Scotland. The industrialisation of our landscape is a disgraceful policy by a government that has no understanding of landscape value or, indeed, of the requirements of a secure energy supply.
A recent email from my pal Ian (last seen in Maol Bhuide) made the point – what’s the alternative? It is perfectly reasonable to ask this and those of us who reject the Gadarene rush to wind power should indeed put up or shut up and propose a viable alternative energy strategy.
In the long term, it makes sense to move to sustainable natural energy from wind, waves, tide and sunlight. Irrespective of your views on climate change and CO2 emissions, burning natural resources to create electricity doesn’t really make sense. I believe that tidal and wave power, in the longer term, has the potential to generate much more energy than wind turbines at a much lower environmental cost. But this technology still needs several years of development and we have to address our energy needs now.
One of the key advantages of carbon-based energy production is that we can store energy (in the fuel) and this allows us to coordinate energy generation and energy demands. Storage of natural energy is currently impossible so we have to over-provision so that we have the ludicrous situation of paying wind farm operators not to produce energy when demand is low. Therefore, it seems to me that a natural energy policy will only become viable when we have cost-effective energy storage facilities. This is a long-term research challenge so it will be tens of years before we can move away completely from other methods of energy generation.
The most sensible current alternative to wind farms is nuclear power, where a single power station could generate more energy as all of the turbines currently installed in Scotland put together. The costs of nuclear power are high and subsidy is certainly required – but this subsidy is in practice not that different from our current subsidy to the landscape vandals for wind turbines. The era of cheap energy has passed and we may as well get used to this.
But what of the environmental costs of nuclear power I hear you ask. There’s the issue of storage of irradiated material for hundreds of years and, of course, the possibility of nuclear accidents such as that in Fukushima in Japan where a tsunami overwhelmed a nuclear power station. Let’s deal with each of these:
1. Waste storage. This is certainly a problem but it’s one we have already. We have had nuclear power for 50 years and have the problem of storing waste. Building new facilities may actually make the currently problem simpler as it will be more cost-effective to create long-lifetime storage technologies if waste continues to be generated.
2. Accidents. There is a theoretical possibility of a nuclear accident in Scotland although it is unlikely that natural disasters such as those in Japan will strike here. However, the chances of death or injury from a nuclear accident are some orders of magnitude less than those from travelling in a car so these kinds of concerns are irrational. Fukushima also led to widespread land contamination and this is certainly a concern. However, all recent nuclear accidents were from older stations and modern containment technology and safety systems mean that the chances of this happening here are extremely low. I think that the environmental benefits of nuclear power are so great that it’s worth the risk.
Of course, nuclear power stations are ugly things. But, unlike wind farms, they don’t take up a lot of land and we don’t build them on hills. In fact, the sensible place to build new nuclear stations is on the site of existing stations so landscape despoliation is minimal.
There are no easy answers to assuring a secure future energy supply. Some people will disagree with my conclusions, including those who, like me, have no time for wind farms in wild areas. However, what we lack at the moment is a reasoned debate on energy strategy that takes into account landscape damage as well as CO2 reductions.
Sadly, it seems to me that the current Scottish Government is unwilling to engage in such a debate.
PS There is no doubt that fewer people have been killed by wind farms than nuclear installations. So wind farms are safer – unless you’re a bird where somewhere between 140, 000 and 328, 000 are estimated to be killed each year by wind turbines (not clear if that’s a worldwide or a US figure).