Conservationists have called on a power giant to scrap plans for a wind farm in sensitive peatland after independent findings questioned its green credentials

RSPB Scotland claims that a 39-turbine development, due to be examined a delayed public inquiry starting today, could take almost 25 years to 'pay back' the carbon impacts of its construction.

Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) Strathy South wind farm in north Sutherland, would operate for 25 years.

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It is supported by the local community, who sees the financial support it would provide as a means to fighting depopulation. In particular that it would expand the existing 33 turbine Strathy North scheme, which has created jobs and generates more than £170,000 a year for community projects.

RSPB agrees that wind farms reduce carbon emissions by displacing more polluting power stations from the electricity grid. However it stresses there are significant carbon emissions associated with manufacturing and installing the turbines and other infrastructure, and when they are built on peatland sites any environmental benefits can be significantly reduced.

Strathy South would be on a site in the heart of the internationally important peatlands of the Flow Country and is being vigorously opposed by RSPB Scotland because of the harm it would cause the peatland habitats and the birds they support.

The charity commissioned an independent expert review of the carbon impacts of the proposed development. The review found that while SSE claimed the carbon payback period would be between -0.5 and 4.6 years, it would in fact be much more likely to be between 4 and 16.1 years. In one scenario, where the electricity from the wind farm displaced a mix of energy from the national grid rather than just fossil fuels, it could even be up to 24.8 years.

Aed�n Smith, Head of Planning and Development for RSPB Scotland said: "Most wind farms pose no serious threat to wildlife and we therefore object to only a very small number of proposals each year. However, projects must be sited to both minimise impacts on wildlife and to make the biggest possible contribution to cutting our greenhouse gas emissions - otherwise what is the point?

"This independent analysis of SSE's Strathy South proposal shows that the benefits from this wind farm could be minimal. The results from this analysis are startling but not entirely surprising given the sensitivity and importance of this peatland site."

He said SSE should abandon its plans for this site and concentrate on developing sites which could make a bigger difference to Scotland's climate objectives.

But a spokesman for SSE said "The RSPB is clearly entitled to put its anti Strathy South spin into the media based on arguments that it is putting into the inquiry process, but there are two sides to every story. Getting to the bottom of such issues is part of the purpose of the inquiry, and we look forward to the process. SSE is confident in our own evidence showing very significant overall environmental gain for the Flow Country and for peatland restoration. It is important to note that no statutory body has objected to the project on peat impact or carbon payback grounds."

He said SSE had set out to design the Strathy South project to deliver positive environmental gain overall.

"That is, to both generate clean energy whilst restoring and positively managing thousands of hectares of damaged peatland. We also intend to create significant investment in the local and wider Highland economy, as is already happening through Strathy North wind farm."