Scotland has an energy policy but is it sustainable?

A precursor to the tensions ahead was indicated yesterday when Highland councillors rejected plans for a major windfarm on the borders of the Cairngorm National Park. The application must now go to a public inquiry before Scottish ministers decide whether to give it the go-ahead.

A public inquiry will delay this proposal by months or years but it will allow Scotland to have a debate it desperately needs about the relative merits of Scotland's spectacular landscapes and its ambitious renewable energy targets. The Cairngorms is one of the most celebrated areas of mountain wilderness left in northern Europe. Scottish tourism is heavily dependent on the country's majestic scenery. Opinions are divided but many visitors as well as homegrown tourists find large manmade structures such as pylons and turbines intrusive.

The application for 31 huge turbines at Allt Duine, west of Newtonmore, is only the latest. Recently campaigners claimed that if all the turbines currently in the planning system or approved were added to those already under construction, the national park would be ringed by more than 400. Is that really what Scotland wants?

Many of the most obvious sites for turbines, both because of the wind conditions and because of their proximity to power lines, have been taken already. Yet Scotland remains dangerously dependent on onshore wind power to meet its green energy targets. As First Minister Alex Salmond has made clear, the cost of offshore windpower needs to come down by 20% to become commercially viable. Wind and wave power – the subject of an announcement yesterday for Orkney – are still in their infancy. Carbon capture and storage remains unproven on a commercial scale, raising questions over plans to expand generation from gas and coal. And while 11 new nuclear power stations are being built south of the Border, the SNP Government remains committed to running down Scotland's nuclear generating capacity. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers claims that renewable capacity will have to grow at five times its current rate to hit the target. Besides, windpower relies on other forms of generation to provide baseload for all those days when the wind does not blow enough or blows too hard.

Is Scotland going to become the Saudi Arabia of green energy by sacrificing its most spectacular scenery? The outcome of the Allt Duine public inquiry can perhaps answer that question. Meanwhile, Scotland needs a sustainable and robust energy policy.