Who are the winners and losers from Scotland's dash for wind?
The Scottish Government insists it is a win-win situation and dangles the prospect of secure, affordable, clean green electricity powering a prosperous independent Scotland. Very conveniently for the SNP, it is feed-in tariffs from the UK Government that are currently footing the bill for building up green energy capacity. With wave and tidal power as yet unproven on a commercial scale, limited scope for further expansion of hydro-power, and cuts in the subsidy for solar power, most of the activity is now focused on onshore wind, which costs around three times as much as conventional generation.
The big subsidies on offer have resulted in an overheated market and a dash for development. At the bottom end of the market are single turbines of 225Kw or 500Kw, which many farmers and other landowners view as a handy source of revenue in hard times. Though the Feed-In Tariff Scheme is designed to support the non-commercial production of renewables, venture capitalists too are finding this Government-guaranteed income stream extremely lucrative. The range of deals on offer ranges from partnership agreements with landowners to simple rental schemes.
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As The Herald reports today, one company, Hamilton-based Intelligent Land Investments, is planning 260 turbines, including 26 applications in Argyll and Bute alone. If all get the go-ahead, the company could collect up to £30 million a year in subsidies. Was this the intention of the legislation?
Councils that reject such applications, because of objections to their visual impact or inadequate grid capacity, risk finding themselves overruled by a Scottish Government convinced by its own propaganda. It is vociferously supported by vested interests, including manufacturers, landowners, financiers and investors.
The Scottish Government simultaneously trumpets expensive energy while wringing its hands about fuel poverty. With the harshest climate in the UK, disproportionate numbers of hard-to-heat homes and households living beyond the gas mains, as well as high levels of poverty, around 900,000 Scots households (one in three) struggle to pay their power bills. Helping them heat their homes in a way that is both economically and environmentally sustainable should be at the core of Government energy policy.
Like those in the solar panel business, windpower companies see themselves as the good guys. That depends on whether these technologies can be demonstrated to make effective contributions to meeting climate change targets and energy security at a reasonable cost to customers, once feed-in tariffs are scaled back. Scottish and UK energy policy both suffer from a worrying avoidance of independent technical advice and an abundance of wishful thinking.
Increasingly, questions are being asked. Sir Tim Rice, owner of an estate in Wester Ross and who has spurned lucrative offers from the wind turbine industry, has just described feed-in tariffs as "a scam". On the right, there is growing public concern about the visual intrusiveness of turbines as they spread from the most suitable sites to more sensitive landscapes. On the left, the issue of fuel poverty is generating doubts about affordability. On both sides, given the amount of back-up generation required for windless days and the lamentable state of the grid, there are questions about whether windpower satisfies any of the three basic policy objectives for electricity generation: security of supply, affordability or emissions reduction. Renewables are important but more honesty is required in this debate.