Scottish "wind rush" whips up enthusiasm and anger
MOFFAT, Scotland, Apr 20: Driving from England into Scotland, one of the first sights to catch the eye amid the green hills and pine trees could one day be a series of giant wind turbines, each higher than London landmark Big Ben.
The planned project would be an apt welcome sign from a region in the grip of a ''wind rush''.
Dozens of wind farms are up and running with hundreds more planned as developers scramble to take advantage of Scotland's blustery climate and lucrative subsidies for renewable energy.
Local businesses, environmentalists and politicians see a chance for Scotland, with its abundant wind and other renewable resources, to lead the world in finding ways to cut the carbon emissions that are widely blamed for global warming.
''Scotland's the Saudi Arabia of the renewables industry,'' declared Maf Smith of trade body Scottish Renewables Forum, who says the country is the windiest in Europe.
But enthusiasts face opposition from activists who say their disapproval is more than the usual cry of ''not in my back yard''.
Apart from the impact on scenery, they say wind power will not make a serious dent in carbon emissions as it is intermittent and needs to be backed up with thermal power.
They see the drive for wind power as little more than a state-sponsored scam to make money for power firms.
Wind power emits virtually no greenhouse gases, which is one factor helping it grow faster than any other alternative energy in a power-hungry world grappling with global warming.
''When I first started hearing about wind, I thought 'that sounds nice','' said Sarah Burchell, who runs an organic farm with her husband near the town of Moffat in southern Scotland.
After utility company ScottishPower announced plans in 2004 to build one of Scotland's biggest wind farms near Burchell's home, she studied the issue and changed her mind.
''I think it's absolutely not a sustainable or appropriate technology,'' she said in a bustling cafe in Moffat, a small town near the M74 motorway which links Scotland and England.
''TREES NOT TURBINES'' Burchell and others in this area named the Forest of Ae formed a group called ''Trees Not Turbines'' to oppose the project, which would put 71 turbines among the pine trees here.
Each turbine would stand 125 metres (410 feet) high from its base to the tip of a rotor in its highest position.
The activists' campaign helped force a public inquiry, which is due to start in June.
For supporters of wind power, such delays to planning applications mean Scotland could be blowing big opportunities.
''Often it can be a very tortuous, long drawn-out process,'' said Smith, chief executive of the Renewables Forum. ''We don't think that helps anybody.'' The pros and cons of wind and other renewable sources are being examined as part of a government energy policy review.
Ministers have already made clear they favour a mix of energy sources, including nuclear generation, and aim to make renewable power a growing part of that mix. They want 10 percent of Britain's electricity to come from renewable sources by 2010. Scotland -- home to around 5 million of Britain's 60 million people -- has set much loftier targets, aiming for 18 per cent by 2010 and 40 percent by 2020.
Industry figures believe that is achievable. Scotland already has substantial hydro power and they see its blustery climate and long coastline as ideal for harnessing energy from tides, waves and offshore wind.
But onshore wind farms are the most advanced technology and must provide the lion's share of the effort, they say.
''Wind energy is certainly where it's at at the moment,'' said Smith, adding that around 15 percent of the electricity Scotland uses already comes from renewable sources.
GREEN GROUPS BACK WIND
Big environmental groups, despite their roots in local protests, are lining up with energy firms to back wind power.
''Sadly, many wind farms are failing to get built because of small but vocal local opposition groups,'' says yes2wind.com, a Web site run by Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and WWF.
Opponents of wind farms say this alliance may be well- intentioned but it is not well-informed.
''The problem with wind power is you don't know when it's going to come and when it's going to go,'' said David Bruce, chairman of anti-wind power umbrella group Views of Scotland.
His group says wind cannot be a major energy source as thermal power will always be needed to back it up.
It also fears one of Scotland's greatest resources -- its wild landscapes which attract tourists -- will be harmed by both wind farms and new taller pylons to transport renewable energy.
Wind power's backers say electricity networks can cope with fluctuations in supply and that methods of predicting wind are improving. Wind may not replace thermal power stations entirely but it can greatly reduce their output, they argue.
For them, beauty is in the eye of the beholder -- many people like the giant windmills, they say, and new pylons planned for the Highlands will be taller but fewer in number.
The two sides will have another chance to do battle at the public inquiry in Moffat.
''We are confident with this one,'' declared Alan Mortimer, ScottishPower's head of renewables policy. ''These large wind farms -- on the few locations that they're viable -- are needed together to make their contribution to the (energy) targets.'' Anti-wind campaigners are hopeful the inquiry chairman will back them, taking heart from the rejection last month of plans for a wind farm at Whinash in England's scenic Lake District.
''Whinash has shown that it can be won,'' Burchell said, standing in tranquil countryside near her farm. ''He will see that this is not an appropriate place for a wind power plant.''