Fyson on ... the refusal of the Western Isles wind farm

The refusal of the Western Isles wind farm and the optimisation of renewable sources of energy.

The Scottish Government's decision to reject the proposed wind farm on the Isle of Lewis leaves renewable energy policy still floundering in uncertainty across the country.

No-one is any closer to knowing by what measurable criteria major wind energy sites may in future be designated as developable and there is no mechanism in place that encourages the private power firms to do more than meet their modest renewable obligation target by the most economical route.

Environmental quality and habitat considerations overrode the socio-economic benefits that the local elected council highlighted in its support for the Lewis project. This may have been what European law required and it did command the support of bird protection interests. But it will hardly do for the determination of all such issues, much though the nimbyist interests might like it to.

Where climate change and benign energy generation are concerned, a national and even global interest cuts across all but the most exceptionally significant landscape and habitat conservation considerations. Without a coherent and preferably internationally agreed measure of "significance", however, the efforts of most nations to provide alternative energy streams will be obstructed.

The problem of persuading energy companies to invest in renewables sites optimally rather than just cheaply is thankfully more of a national problem, capable of being directly influenced by government. The Germans are demonstrating this by subsidising domestic microgeneration and arranging a feed-in tariff system that allows a fair price to be paid to consumers for surplus electricity donated to the grid.

In a welcome sign from north of the border, Scottish energy minister Jim Mather has announced that he is still determined to develop renewable energy in the windy Western Isles without the "significant adverse impact" that the Lewis peatlands would have suffered. More smaller schemes would be a way forward in the current framework of European law, but whether local conservationists would regard this as a preferable option is doubtful.

The government should be more ready to intervene in the market and subsidise the less economical locations, especially offshore sites. Gaia guru James Lovelock declares pessimistically that wind energy is so inefficient and intermittent that even covering the entire country with "the blasted things" would have no beneficial effect. But the figures suggest that big wind farms have a place in the mix of renewable energy sources, if not the dominant one that was once expected.

- Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues.


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