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Whitelee: Largest UK Onshore Windfarm Comes Online Amid Turbulent Times

The Whitelee development on Eaglesham Moor, East Renfrewshire, just South of Glasgow, in Scotland, is the UK’s largest onshore windfarm which from Tuesday this week is now actively contributing enough power to the UK National Grid to power over 180,000 homes.

The windfarm, however, has launched at a time when UK wind energy sits in a precarious position: just a fortnight ago, on 2nd May 2009, Vestas, one of the world’s largest wind energy companies, announced their decision to withdraw entirely from the country.

A lack of progressive legislation which made their work in Britain slower, and therefore unprofitable, in comparison with that undertaken in other countries, have been labelled by industry insiders as major contributory factors in this decision.

The company is instead concentrating on China and the USA, who, it would seem, are more committed to green energy.

Vestas take with them over 620 jobs in the process of their withdrawal, as they are closing a factory in the Isle of Wight, where they produced wind turbines.

Though much of the debate regarding the Vestas withdrawal has focused on this as a business decision, this is arguably largely as a result of a lack of support for wind energy in the UK. In a nutshell, the problem is that so many wind farm applications are denied – or slowed to a large degree – that orders for new equipment are sporadic at best: far from ideal if your business is the manufacture of this technology.

Many point to the fact that Vestas were already exporting much Isle of Wight produce to the US and China, and the weak pound has surely exacerbated any problems, but such sentiments serve only to highlight the problems Britain faces: why, if British Government is truly committed to Green Energy, is the country not producing many more orders for wind turbines?

Whatever the root cause for the lack of UK windfarm creation, in the eyes of those who write the Vestas business plan, clearly the situation is unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future.

The Whitelee development has not been without its detractors, either, and progress on the largest windfarm in the UK has met with opposition from several corners. Indeed, a local council, Eaglesham Community Council, opposed the development due to its size and location, but there was enough support for the project within Holyrood to see it reach today’s fruition.

Even as the announcement came that this massive development – there are 140 huge turbines – was now generating power, many reports highlighted the perceived detrimental impact of large scale onshore wind energy developments, such as Whitelee.

The British media have claimed that to fully supply the UK’s energy needs using onshore wind alone, a windfarm would have to be created “the size of Wales”. Such a statement seems absurd: no one is proposing that all of Britain’s power must be generated using onshore wind energy.

Further, television news reports have given equal time, and rightly so, to lobbyists who claim, among other things, that wind turbines such as Whitelee lead to: an increased lightning danger; destruction of forestry; and damage to moorland habitats.

Such claims, though impassioned, are presented without scientific evidence, and are therefore neither confirmed nor rebuffed by today’s media. What is certain, however, if the most moderate to worst climate change predictions are to be believed, is the fact that the world faces a greater risk from continued emissions than from any suggested localised environmental impact.

Recently, an animal rights based argument that opponents of onshore wind were using has been debunked by the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), as reported by UK Government’s Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR):

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) make clear that the available evidence suggests that appropriately positioned wind farms do not pose a significant hazard for birds.  The RSPB’s conclusion is supported by a report last year for the Swedish State Energy Authority, which found that only 14 of the total 1.5 million migrating seabirds that each year passes two wind farms at Kalmarsund in south east Sweden are at risk of being killed.

Interestingly, the same interviewee who claimed habitat destruction in one interview, also claimed that being near a wind turbine was like “standing next to a cement mixer” in reference to the noise these turbines create.

Given the location of the development at which he was being interviewed – on the top of a relatively remote piece of moorland – it is difficult to see precisely what impact, if any, this noise has on the world at large, and exactly what, other than his dislike for turbines, the audience should glean from this information.

It seems most arguments about the various threats posed by windfarms can generally be stripped back to one underlying displeasure: the elephant in the room; the (detrimental) aesthetic impact of such massive wind turbines.

Arguments, though they have moved up several notches to scientific claim and rebuttal do generally come back to one thing: those most opposed to windfarms are those living nearby who believe them to be ugly objects, in many cases ‘ruining’ what would otherwise be a beautiful view.

In a country with the population density of Britain, it is difficult to create windfarms onshore which are not, in one way or another, in at least someone’s ‘back yard’.

That being said, those who support green energy are horrified that more is not being done in the UK – a figure regularly trotted out is that Britain has the potential to generate 85% of Europe’s wind energy.

If such a forecast is ever to be achieved, the country needs legislators prepared to make unpopular decisions for the greater good: in the eyes of Vesta, who have a huge financial interest in green technology, quite clearly this is not happening at present, though Alex Salmond’s Scottish Government is vastly outperforming its big brother in Westminster.

It seems unlikely, in the current political climate, that another windfarm of the scale of Whitelee will be constructed onshore in the near future – at least not before several key dates in the UK’s commitment to renewable energy have passed.

One important indicator will be the success or failure of two planning applications by Scottish Power, the company behind Whitelee: one which is currently being considered by the Scottish Government to add a further 36 turbines; and one which is to be tabled this summer to add a further 45 to the development.

Both sides of the debate will surely be watching the development of these applications very closely, though the duration of this process itself does not seem conducive to meeting energy deadlines: the first application has been under scrutiny since 2008.

The Scottish Government have set ambitious targets for wind energy – 50% of Scottish power by 2020 and 31% by just 2011.

With the planning system as it is, there will have to be some speedy decisions made in order to meet these targets. And if they are, it remains to be seen whether the companies involved will be able, any more, to source their equipment particularly quickly.

It may well be that the turbines for these future applied for additions are eventually transported in from elsewhere around the world, at great expense, and burning a not insignificant amount of carbon based fossil fuels in the process.

Progress, it would seem, has taken a knock in the name of politics.

About Science Desk

Science Desk
Editors and staffers from the Science Desk at The Global Herald.

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