Martin Hannan: Let’s rein in the winds of change

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When the world embarked on using nuclear power to create electricity, we were all assured that here was a clean, cheap, carbon-free form of energy that was perfectly safe.

Experts said that there would be little or no risk from nuclear facilities, and that the chances of a major accident – officially defined as “an event that has led to significant consequences to people, the environment or the facility” – would be one in a thousand years.

By my reckoning on major accidents that we know about, we can all sleep safely in our beds until the year 3950 as that’s when the next major nuclear power station incident will happen.

We have had 50 years of nuclear power, give or take a few, and in that time we have had the much hushed-up Windscale fire, and the disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Actually there have been plenty more accidents and incidents at nuclear installations – Google the subject and prepare to be shocked – but the International Atomic Energy Agency records these four as the best-known serious incidents and I’m happy to go along with that, secure in the knowledge that nuclear power is so safe that there won’t be any more such problems for 4000 years. Oh, aye.

Nuclear power is not safe. Coal, oil and gas are diminishing and cause carbon dioxide emissions. The only sensible alternative is renewable sources of energy.

Right now Scotland faces a serious energy gap. We will run out of North Sea oil and gas sometime this century, our coal supplies are abundant but open-cast mines will contribute to global warming, Torness and Hunterston will not be replaced, and while we are leading the chase for tidal and wave power, it will still be many years before these are commercially available.

For numerous reasons our hydro electricity sources can’t be exploited fully and even if they were, they would not fill the gap. That is why we need wind power, which can be quickly achieved and be feeding the grid almost as soon as turbines are installed.

Offshore wind turbines present the best chance we have of becoming self-sufficient in renewable energy in the near future, but that desperate need to fill the forthcoming energy gap is the main reason why I recognise the nation’s requirement for onshore wind farms as well. That they will get us off our crazy dependence on our own and other countries’ carbon fuels is a huge bonus.

Its detractors say wind power isn’t much use as a renewable, mainly because the wind doesn’t blow all the time, but frankly the turbines are a whole lot more sensible than digging an open-cast coal mine or building a nuclear power station.

So why am I so uneasy about the possible proliferation of turbines across the Lothians and especially in West Lothian? The latest plan for 22 turbines at Harburnhead Hill in West Lothian could provide power for 40,000 homes so must be seriously considered. Yet for once I must agree with Edinburgh Council and question why an area which abuts the Pentland Hills Regional Park should host such giant installations.

People who live to the south of Edinburgh will say why was there no such objection to the Soutra wind farm? I’d say it was a different case entirely. With all due respect to its fans, Soutra was nothing more than a flat boggy moorland plateau with absolutely no scenic value that I can recall. It was a place that tourists careered through on the A68 precisely because there was nothing to see. These days people go to Soutra just to see the turbines, and I have to say there is something majestic about watching them work.

Now I know there is a case for leaving wilderness as wilderness, but right now the overwhelming need is for the world to get off its huge carbon trip and switch to renewable energy. That’s why Soutra and other areas of no great natural beauty such as Fenwick Moor west of Glasgow were chosen for wind farm development.

Harburnhead Hill and other parts of West Lothian unquestionably have scenic value, however, and that’s why we should tell the developers to think again and look elsewhere. We do need wind farms, but we need them in places where they are as unobtrusive as any 400ft tall whirlygig can be.

There is a simple solution to the problem not just in the Lothians but across Scotland. At the moment, developers can look at any area of the country outside of the two National Parks around the Cairngorms and Loch Lomond and propose the building of a wind farm.

I would have thought it would be relatively straightforward for a panel of experts, including tourist bodies, to come up with a list of areas in Scotland that are absolutely out of bounds to developers. The Pentland Hills themselves, for instance, are surely sacrosanct, while large parts of East Lothian, Midlothian and the Borders are also areas where scenic value outweighs the need for wind power.

Onshore wind turbines will hopefully only be a temporary solution to our energy needs – what goes up can surely come down – but until we have tidal, wave and offshore wind providing all our energy, we need wind farms. Let’s just have them in the right places, please.