Tuesday’s meeting of the East Lothian Cabinet was pretty light on council business but it carried one paper that will have long and deep repercussions for the whole Firth of Forth. Nine miles off Fife Ness and nineteen from North Berwick is an area of the North Sea outside the three-mile limit of council planning; the Neart na Gaoithe (pron: ‘nersht na goy-eh’—Gaelic for “Power of the Wind”) offshore wind farm is to provide 450 MW of power from around 100 wind turbines, each the height of Berwick Law.
Formerly a submarine exercise area known as “The Wee Bankie“, putting turbines on this scale out so far is an engineering challenge but not as difficult as it might appear. The floor of the Firth of Forth falls away quite rapidly from both coasts but is relatively flat around 40m deep. Out in the North Sea past Isle of May, this flat profile continues, with the Wee Bankie rising up to only 30m depth and never getting below 60m. Wind engineering has developed such that building 200m tall turbines, each capable of generating up to 7 MW is quite feasible in places like that.
Even though this new field can generate half of the power Torness is capable of when running flat out, that is still only a fraction of an original plan by Scottish & Southern and is now only the closest of four fields being considered in an area that stretches over 50 miles offshore and runs from Berwick up to Montrose. Similar fields have been producing large amounts of power in the shallow waters off Norfolk, Denmark and Holland for the last decade.
The power is to be brought ashore close to Torness at Thorntonloch in two large cables that will connect into the National Grid there. Construction of the turbines is likely to be done at some yard in the Forth, possibly Leven, with most of the economic benefit of some 3,000 jobs over three years going there. However ongoing operational maintenance and repair would involve another 100-140 jobs over the lifetime of the wind farm—expected to be 30 years or more.
The discussion in Scotland over wind farms has grown more intense as the Scottish Government has championed renewables and an increasingly vocal protest against the spread of wind turbines culminated in a noisy demonstration of several hundred at the SNP Conference in Perth in October. To date, this has not diverted the Government from its enthusiasm but there may be areas of compromise.
Wind farms can be broken into three rough categories:
- large land-based wind farms, typically sited on high moorland
- large offshore wind farms, typically sited no closer to shore than the horizon
- small ‘personal’ wind farms, typically 1-5 smaller ones sited on private land
While there are vocal objectors to all three, the bulk of objections relate to the last category. They often occur at farms in scenic areas and they are seldom major contributors to the grid, partly because their location requires them to be small and therefore less efficient—around 100 KW capacity, rather than the 5 MW each in this new proposal. As it is clear their construction is more driven by benefits from feed-in tariffs than the need for electricity, it’s little wonder they garner objections. The local community sees plenty turbines but little benefit.
While the bulk of Scots would rather have plentiful, clean green energy than more beached monsters like Longannet or Torness, they are not for despoiling our wild, beautiful landscape to do so. It seems these small ‘personal/local’ small wind farms should not be given priority unless the local community wants them and if they derive community benefit from them. Though Aikengall in East Lothian is badged as a community wind farm, it is nothing of the sort. A better example is the 2.5 MW, 3-turbine scheme at Melness in Orkney, which is owned by Melness Crofters.
But whoever owns these smaller systems, they will never make Scotland self-sufficient in green energy. The Scottish Government is simply stirring up resistance to wind energy in general by promoting this kind of small project. On the other hand, the large farms on the moors and especially the even larger ones out to sea provide serious alternatives to achieve the 5GW that Scotland needs on a daily basis.
The key issue is not to offend the tourist as well as the local. When questioned, 20% of visitors said they would be put off by intrusive views of wind farms on any scale. Given that this year is being touted as The Year of Wild Scotland with a £3.4m promotion in England, Europe and the States, we need to get this right. Other agencies have voiced concern but none seem to have substance. RSPB thought the gannets would be affected but it;s not clear how. SEPA were concerned about “the introduction of non-native species” but didn’t make clear why or how. SNH has yet to make an observation. One aspect entirely overlooked is that biodiversity has been enhanced in the English Channel by sinking ships as artificial reefs. Seaweed and kelp provide habitats and species proliferate. This should have the same effect.
Whereas the paper for Neart na Gaoithe described its visual impact on East Lothian’s Areas of Great Landscape Value as ‘minor to none’. However he Council’s Principal Landscape and Projects Officer does not agree with this and considers the effect to be at least Medium and possibly High. His view was supported by a number of the Administration members, based in part on a series of mock-up photos of the horizon from several points in the county. If these fears were grounded, it is an excellent reason to refuse such a development.
However last year Statoil (Norwegian) completed the 317MW/88-turbine Sheringham Shoals wind farm 15 miles off the Norfolk coast. I am sure they are visible in very clear weather but the two clear days when I was at both Cromer and Wells-Next-the Sea last month, they were not visible. This is because average visibility in the North Sea is less than 15 miles, largely because of the amount of vapour in the air forming a haze. The nearest turbines in Neart na Gaoithe will be 17 miles from Dunbar and 19 miles from Berwick Law. On those few cracking clear days we sometimes get they are easily tall enough to be visible; on every other day they will be lost in the haze.
The best view from East Lothian may well be from 60m-high Innerwick Castle, just off the A1—except that you’ll have a dirty great nuclear power station blocking your view.