A former Scottish planning minister has slammed the building of battery energy storage parks on greenbelt land – and called for a presumption towards them being built on brownfield sites.

“Greenbelt,” said former SNP MSP Alex Neil, “should be a last resort”.

The call echoes that of local campaigns, such as Save our Countryside – Cochno Road, fighting back against plans to build these parks on green and agricultural land.

These battery energy storage systems (BESS), giant parks of lithium-ion batteries, are considered key in providing a green energy grid that can cope with fluctuating renewables and supply and demand.  As such they form an element in Net Zero efforts and the battle against climate change.

Mr Neil, said: “There is absolutely no need for these storage systems and storage facilities to be on greenfield sites. Why use greenfield when brownfield sites would do – or land zoned for development?”

Far from being against battery energy storage systems, Mr Neil is an advocate. He said: “This is a huge economic opportunity for Scotland because clearly battery energy storage systems are absolutely vital to the expansion of renewable energy – and in particular onshore and offshore wind power.

"It’s an opportunity to massively expand our renewable energy capacity to include and provide for a major export industry in renewable energy, provided the grid gets upgraded.”

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He also believes this is “an opportunity” to make good use of “vacant and derelict land to facilitate immediate economic development opportunity – ie BESS facilities.” Local authorities with high levels of vacant and derelict land, he noted, include Glasgow and North Lanarkshire.

“Across Scotland,” Mr Neil said, “there are a vast number of vacant and derelict sites. North Lanarkshire has most of the vacant and derelict sites in Scotland –for any authority. It seems sensible to  have a presumption in favour of brownfield sites for these developments where brownfield sites are available - and if not brownfield, land zoned for development.”

However, not all authorities have available and suitably located brownfield sites.

“In such cases," Mr Neil said, "you would then go for land zoned for development and treat greenbelt as a total last resort. I think we need to write that into the policy – that the use of greenbelt land should be a last resort, not a first resort.

"The important thing is to maximise the use of brownfield sites, or land sites zoned for development before you allow anything on greenbelt."

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A criticism of having the sites solely on brownfield or land zoned for development is that the batteries come with a fire risk, and such locations may be nearer to housing and other infrastructure.

However, Mr Neil said, that could be dealt with at an assessment stage.  “Before any planning should be given for anything there is an assessment and fire risk is part of it. Clearly, for those sites where there is a fire risk, there would either be an insistence on measures to mitigate and eliminate the fire risk or planning permission would not be given for that site.”

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 If greenbelt land is the only option, he suggested, “an upfront bond payment” should be made to the local authority as funding for reinstatement of the land when the battery storage comes to the end of its life, which in general would be between 25 and 30 years.

“That special fund would be there to reinstate the greenbelt land," he said. "This would be similar to the arrangement was in place for opencast coalfields – where a bond had to be lodged with the local authority. Very often the bonds weren’t big enough and we would need to make sure the BESS bonds were big enough to ensure that in 25 years they could fund reinstatement of the land.”

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Among those fighting a proposed development in greenbelt countryside is the Save our Countryside - Cochno Road group. Margaret Hamilton, a key voice in the campaign against the Clydebank proposal said that the group hoped, instead, to set up a community agricultural farm on the land.

“While we understand the government's push towards net zero, our endeavor to preserve the greenbelt for a community agricultural farm complements these goals," she said. "A sustainable local farm can contribute significantly to carbon sequestration, biodiversity, and community resilience.

"Our vision aligns with broader environmental objectives, and we welcome dialogue to find a balanced solution that supports both local initiatives and national net-zero targets.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Fourth National Planning Framework (NPF4) places climate and nature at the centre of the planning system and makes clear the Scottish Government’s support for all forms of renewable, low-carbon and zero emission technologies, including energy storage.

“Potential impacts on communities, nature and other receptors are important considerations in the decision-making process. All applications are subject to site-specific assessments. In addition our planning and consenting systems ensure local communities can have their say on planning applications.”