The Great Wind Debate

In Scotland over the last few weeks there has been a fair amount of controversy over four wind farms due to be constructed on the East coast of Scotland. These wind farms were initially approved, then were put on hold after the RSPB appealed, but have now been cleared to proceed once again after a recent court ruling.

4 wind farms proposed on the East coast of Scotland

4 wind farms proposed on the East coast of Scotland

This could be an issue as the wind farms, one in particular, are due to be constructed in the vicinity of some of the country’s largest seabird colonies, colonies which could be decimated by the wind farms. These colonies contain threatened birds such as puffins and kittiwakes along with the worlds largest Northern gannet colony.

The RSPB initially had their appeal upheld after pointing this out and calling for more evidence. Some new evidence arose which showed that gannets, previously though to fly too low to be affected, actually would be affected. The issue was still under investigation when the ruling was overturned last week meaning the windfarms can now go ahead.

Critics are extremely angry and point out though that the wind turbines may kill several thousand birds per year as they are located in a common flightpath and are constructed with the blades being at the height many birds fly at. One windfarm in particular is very close to the Firth of Forth and located very near to several special protection areas, special sites of scientific interest and special areas of conservation. The SPA status was set to be applied more widely to the area, something that was taken into consideration initially.

Recently though the court ruled that :

“this petition questions whether the respondents ought to have treated certain draft SPAs as if they had been approved”.

This means that as some of the SPA’s were still under consideration rather than set in stone, they should not have been included in the RSPB appeal and upholding the appeal was wrong since this was the case. The SPA is still under consultation and it is not clear what would happen if SPA status was granted after giving a windfarm permission. Given that the Scottish Government were the ones appealing against the RSPB you would have to think is likely the windfarm would be given the go ahead over the SPA if it ever came to that.

SPA Firth of Forth Wind farms

The existing SPA areas are marked in squares around the islands. The entire area is under consulation for SPA status with the Neart na Gaoithe wind farm being close to existing SPA’s and well within the newly proposed SPA.

Clearly this is a tricky issue. Many of the threatened birds are threatened due to climate change forcing fish stocks to change distribution meaning birds have to go further to get food and fewer survive. Wind power is seen as a green way of producing energy and would reduce fossil fuel usage which was the driver of the climate change that made the birds rare to begin with.  However the main problem with this is that we don’t know what will happen. Seabird mortality around windfarms is relatively unknown, as indeed are things such as the height birds fly at and their own ability to avoid the blades.

There are of course several ways to reduce bird strikes such as painting the turbines and technology that turns off the turbine when a bird strike is detected. A company even recently released a wind turbine that has no blades at all. It is not clear which, if any of these measures will be used, something which concerns the animal groups involved. Mainstream Renewable Power, the group in question say:

“We have worked closely with a range of partners on the project, including the RSPB and we look forward to continuing to do so as we take the development forward. Rapid advances in offshore wind technology have enabled us to reduce the number of turbines to be installed from 125 in the original consent application in 2012, to a maximum of 64 turbines today.”

The other proposed wind farms on the East of Scotland also had the number of turbines reduced meaning that, of the 488 turbines planned, 335 will be built.

The plus side of all this is that if the windfarms are built it is likely that mitigation measures will be put in to place. Given the scale of the objections to construction the companies involved would surely do what they can to avoid any more damaging news reports. If it turns out thousands of birds do die it will be disastrous for the energy company’s reputations now that they have spoken publicly about how they value the wildlife in this area. Proponents argue that fossil fuels and oil spills have killed more life than all the wind turbines combined. A point that is true though doesn’t actually prove that this particular farm should be built.

This isn’t to say the projects will necessarily be devastating. Evidence is lacking on both sides and there was an environmental impact assessment done by Marine Scotland who concluded that the project could go ahead. Admittedly this was before research showed that gannets fly higher than expected and could be at risk. All the major groups were involved in this and all official environmental procedures were followed as they should have been.

Regardless, we do need renewable energy and we do need to value our wildlife. Given the amount of locations available it seems a very strange decision to put a windfarm next to the “Nature reserve of the Year 2016″ and next to an area containing so many protected areas . The biggest problems though are the sheer lack of evidence, confusion amongst the judge’s ruling on the case and  no one really being clear on what is going to happen. Whilst lack of evidence does not mean guilty, it doesn’t necessarily mean innocent either and you’d have to think it is unlikely anyone will take down a wind farm if it did prove to have a negative effect.

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Scott Thomson
Recent ecology and conservation graduate. My blog is here https://wildchatblog.wordpress.com/
Scott Thomson

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