A battle is looming in Scotland over plans for a 700 MW wind farm in the Western Isles which, its critics say, could damage an area of rare peatland habitat important for bird populations. The controversial 234 turbine wind project on the Isle of Lewis is one of two for which project management company AMEC has recently applied for building consents. The other is a 300 MW proposal for south-west Scotland. The decision on whether either or both projects should be permitted rests with the Scottish Executive.
The Lewis project would be the world's largest wind farm. It is being developed by AMEC, a British company specialising in infrastructure projects, and nuclear generator British Energy in a 50/50 joint venture known as Lewis Wind Power Ltd. If built, the project will supply enough electricity for some 1.1 million people, over 20% of Scotland's population, and will meet around 6% of the UK's renewable energy target.
The proposal is one of three large wind farms planned on Lewis. In the south of the island, Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) is developing plans for a 125 turbine wind farm at Pairc, and owners of the Eishken Estate hope to submit an application soon for 133 turbines at Beinn Mhor-with 33 owned by the local community.
AMEC says the Lewis Wind Power development justifies investment in a new electricity interconnector with the mainland to feed power from the wind farm into the Scottish grid. The company stresses the plant's benefits for the local economy. It would create conditions for turbine component manufacture and assembly at the Arnish Point industrial redevelopment site on Lewis; its four year construction would create more than 300 jobs locally; and over its 25 year lifetime it would support 350 further jobs. Moreover, the Western Isles would receive an income of £6-8 million per year through rents, payments to crofters, property taxes and community funds. Lewis Wind Power is also looking into giving the community an opportunity to invest in the wind farm, a concept for local involvement that was agreed in principle with the Western Isles Development Trust in November 2003.
A major barrier remains, however. The powerful Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), a wildlife charity with over one million members, is vehemently opposed to the project. It accuses Lewis Wind Power of ignoring its advice to avoid developing areas with wildlife designations. Over 80% of the proposed wind farm -- 190 turbines -- are slated for erection within the huge Lewis Peatlands Special Protection Area (SPA), which covers a large swathe of the island. SPA is a European designation of important sites for birds and habitats.
best sites for birdlife
RSPB's primary concern is the wind turbines' impact on populations of wading birds such as dunlin, golden plover and greenshank. But the site also supports golden eagle, merlin and divers. "This is part of a network of the very best sites for birdlife in Europe, protected under European law," says the RSPB's Stuart Housden. "We believe [the development] would damage the site, that there are suitable alternatives and that the public have a greater interest in maintaining the moor as a wild place than in allowing industrial development on it." He adds: "The AMEC proposals are a serious challenge to the network of SPAs, not only in Scotland, but throughout Europe. We are very disappointed that AMEC has chosen not to examine less damaging alternatives."
Lewis Wind Power argues that the footprint of the wind farm -- including buffer zones -- would take up less than 1% of the area of the SPA. It says it has proposed measures to mitigate its effect on birds, such as avoiding nesting sites and bird flight paths, and will phase construction to avoid breeding times. In addition it plans to re-create peat habitats and restore an area of coniferous plantation to its original habitat. The Scottish Executive is now to undertake its own assessment into the proposal's impact on the SPA.
From AMEC, David Hodkinson says: "We acknowledge there are concerns about the impacts of the proposal on birds and on the landscape of north Lewis and have worked hard, including commissioning the largest bird survey ever undertaken in Europe, in developing the design to minimise these impacts."
RSPB disputes AMEC's claim that the wind farm would disturb less than 1% of the SPA. The figure is "misleading," it says. "The impact of AMEC's proposal will have an effect much greater than this erroneous 1%," says Housden.
Hodkinson says that local reaction to the proposal has been mixed, but he hopes the community will be supportive once it have viewed the plans at public exhibitions on Lewis at the end of last month. The developers expect a decision from the Scottish Executive during 2005.
A suitable site
Far less controversial than its Lewis project is AMEC's plan for Kyle wind farm, to consist of 100, 3 MW turbines near Dalmellington on the border between East Ayrshire and Dumfries and Galloway. The 8000 hectare site has no special conservation or landscape status and sits within an area earmarked by Scottish Natural Heritage as suitable for wind energy development.
Part of the development will be sited in the Kyle and Carsphairn forests, and will co-exist alongside forestry and opencast coal mining operations. AMEC says it reduced the number of wind turbines to 100 from an initial development plan for 150 as a result of environmental assessments and consultation with the local community. Hodkinson says the project will benefit the local community through an annual payment of £300,000 from a community fund.