The Answer Is Blowing In the Wind

Lively as the debate is becoming in rural communities about the evils of wind turbines near them, the ‘big picture’ actuality is that they are something of a sideshow, as compared to the great majority of wind turbine installations. This is not to say that a number of legitimate complaints (see previous blog) have not been handled with either foresight or sensitivity. As a local councillor and member of ELC Planning Committee, I bear my share of responsibility for that.

But, while a local farmer with a couple of 30m turbines may have a disproportionate impact on the local view for the sake of a few tens of kilowatts of green energy, that is a drop in the bucket when it comes to generation on a national scale. Scotland’s ‘base load’ for power (that which needs to run 24/7) is around 5Gw (billion watts or 5 with 9 zeros or 5 million one-bar electric fires). For the last couple of decades, this has largely been furnished by two nuclear stations running round the clock, plus three coal-fired stations and some hydro schemes that are run as required.

Far from us being close to the lights going out, there is a net export of about 20% of our power to Northern Ireland and England through interconnectors and just recently we passed through the point of having 2GW of wind capacity on Eaglesham Morr, the Lammermuirs, etc. But, as with hydro, most of the easier sites have been exploited for onshore wind and its further development is meeting increased resistance—in no small part due to outrage at the small local schemes that benefit landowners but not the communities they are sited next to. The future appears to be in the third and rapidly developing sector for wind—offshore.

This week, attending the Offshore Wind & Supply Chain Conference at Aberdeen’s Exhibition Centre at Bridge of Don, I had a series of rapid lessons in why. Not only were the usual suspects—SE, Marine Scotland, local councils and other such good-to-show-face public bodies there, but a whole slew of people who are developing  (Inchcape; Scottish Renewables) and supporting (Aggreko; Buckie Shipyard) this rapidly area were there to show their wares to 800 attendees. There was a significant Scandinavian presence too.

For once, the Scottish Government appears to have lined up the necessary players to put this whole segment on the fast track. In conjunction with the Crown Estates, development segments right round the Scottish coast have been identified, with several smaller ones closer to the coast (at 20km minimum still barely visible) and some massive one farther out in the relatively shallow North Sea. The Danes and Dutch had been ahead of the Scots in this field and even the English have installed medium-sized fields on Sheringham Shoal (Norfolk) and Thames estuary.

But Scotland is now catching up–with the Beatrice field in the outer Moray Firth and the Inchcape and Neart na Gaoithe fields off the Forth. Even the ‘smaller’ offshore wind farms under consideration will generate around 1GW, which is approximately half the generating capacity of either Torness or Cockenzie. This will be achieved with up to 50 towers whose blade tips will be as much as 200m above sea level. At the planned distance from shore they will be visible on a very clear day. However such days with no haze are rare and even on such days, a 4m wide mast at that distance will be as prominent as a 0.1mm thick line at 1m distance.

Now I now that there is an appreciable number of people out there who are hostile to wind power in all its forms. While I sympathise with those opposed to opportunistic turbines popping up in pristine rural environments and believe the Scottish Government is wrong to give these the same planning urgency as the larger and less visible farms, I simply do not understand how a monstrosity like Cockenzie, sited where it is visible to 1m people, is any less of an outrage–quite apart from its lack of green credentials. That’s without considering what a spectacular shorline development between Musselburgh Lagoons and Seton Sands (bikeways; marina; watersports; revitalised harbours; waterside restaurants; chandleries; ferry port; shopping…) might take its place.

Scotland’s entire present capacity being planned offhore from the Forth alone (and none visible unless you’re up Berwick Law on a rare clear day). The further potential scattered around our long coast in our everpresent wind, added to still-untapped tide and wave power means a lucrative export market. The thousands of jobs would build on our already rich marine engineering capability giving Scotland the kind of leading role in an industry with a global future that others bcan only dream of.

The many construction jobs will continue with installations for others, as will service jobs for ours and theirs in the long term as these many turbines will need maintenance and eventual replacement.

Some public bodies have expressed concern about environmental impact. All of our present means of generation exert a heavier toll than do wind turbines. Some marine agencies are concerned with collisions but sincve they must follow certain channels to avoid oil rigs and the like, this does not complicate matters much. Indeed by being planned for the Wee Bankie & Dogger Bank, they maypersuade larger ships not to risk those waters anyway.

RSPB are concerned about bird strikes and there is little doubt these will occur. But since we continue to fly in ever-increasing numbers and airport bird strikes are common, we should keep things in perspective. Also, short-ranged species like auks will not reach out that far during the breeding season and will be far out to sea the rest of the time. Gannets will be among the casualties; but since they use wave-skimming formations for any distance, they will pass untouched: to avoid storm damage, 200m turbine blades won’t come within 10m of MHWS (the very top of spring tides).

There may, in fact, be considerable benefits to marine wildlife. In the English Channel, several ships have been deiberately sunk as artificial reefs. As seaweed, corals, barnacles, etc attach theselves, habitats for small and then larges sea creatures come into existence where there were none, increasing biodiversity. For those reasons, the Forth Islands off North Berwick provide a particularly rich marine environment. An offshore wind farm can be seen as a gathering of small, steep islands; each turbine tower lush with growth underwater in just a few years and fisheries benefitting accordingly.

Coming back from Aberdeen, which should itself boom from these developments, ports like Montrose, Dundee, Methil and Leith could each play a part in building and installing this lucrative, sustainable part of Scotland’s future. Not only that but even ports like Dunbar or Eyemouth–too small for heavy lift but located perfectly for maintenance and inspection craft–could play a role so that the long-term benefits reached out to the whole coast. And with the connector coming ashore at Torness to mate with an existing underground grid, very little disturbance on land would be visible at all.

It’s all as neat a low-impact answer to our energy problems and financial future as you could wish.

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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