SSE and RSPB lock horns on eve of Strathy South wind farm public inquiry

Members of Strathy community show their support for the wind farm plan.
Members of Strathy community show their support for the wind farm plan.

A heated debate erupted last night over the environmental pro-s and cons of a proposed new SSE wind farm in the Highlands.

A public local inquiry is due to start today (9 Jun 2015) into SSE’s planned new Strathy South wind farm in Sutherland.

The Perth-based utility giant – one of ‘Britain’s Big Six’ – claims that its wind farm and peatland restoration proposal ‘guarantees significant net gain for the environment’.

The Strathy South plan includes restoration and conservation management of degraded peatland on the proposed wind farm site and beyond – equivalent to an area the size of 6,400 football pitches. 

The application has triggered a local inquiry on the basis of concerns maintained by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) on two bird species – greenshank and red-throated diver.

However experts have judged the approach taken by SNH to assess bird impacts in this case as over-precautionary.

Martin Scott, an ornithology specialist at the RPS Group energy consultancy, said: “The very detailed analysis of the Strathy South site by professional ecologists since 2003 has concluded the approach adopted by SNH is over-precautionary.

“All other bird and habitat issues have been successfully concluded, except in relation to greenshank and red-throated divers. 

“There is no recorded evidence that these birds are susceptible to collisions with wind turbines, and the benefits of commercial forestry removal and peatland restoration proposed by SSE would be positive for habitats, birds and other wildlife. 

“Our detailed investigations have concluded that no concerning impacts are likely from the Strathy South project, and that overall it is guaranteed to deliver a significant net gain for the environment.”

The comments come as one of the UK’s leading experts on the impact of wind farms on peatland, Dr Tom Dargie, also confirmed the benefits to be gained from restoring forestry-damaged peat back to bog habitat, including renewed capture of atmospheric carbon. 

Dr Dargie said: “RSPB is a valued conservation charity that does much good work through its reserves, research and in environmental education.

“We are particularly disappointed therefore that on this occasion, key aspects of the project are being misreported, including the carbon payback figures being put into the public domain.

“In addition to the likely short carbon payback period for the wind farm itself, the large scale peatland restoration proposed will, over time, capture further substantial amounts of atmospheric carbon”. 

Windfarms reduce carbon emissions by displacing more polluting forms of energy generation from the electricity grid, such as coal fired power stations. However, there are carbon emissions associated with manufacturing and installing the turbines and other infrastructure. 

Whilst most windfarms generate significant climate benefits by reducing emissions, when windfarms are built on peatland sites these benefits can be significantly reduced. 

SSE’s proposed Strathy South windfarm would be situated on a peatland site in the heart of the internationally important peatlands of the Flow Country in Sutherland and is being vigorously opposed by RSPB Scotland because of the harm it would cause the peatland habitats and the birds they support. 

RSPB Scotland commissioned an independent expert review of the carbon impacts of the proposed development. The review found that while SSE claimed the carbon payback period would be between six months and 4½ years, it would in fact be much more likely to be between 4 and 16 years. In one scenario, where the electricity from the windfarm displaced a mix of energy from the national grid rather than just fossil fuels, it could even be up to 24.8 years.

RSPB Scotland is a strong supporter of renewables, including windfarms because sensibly sited turbines reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and are an essential part of the solution to climate change, which is a major threat to wildlife and people around the world. 

However, peat ‘locks-up’ and stores carbon that would otherwise be released to the atmosphere, preventing it adding to our greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Scotland’s peatland habitats are therefore a critically important carbon store.

Aedán Smith, Head of Planning and Development for RSPB Scotland, said: “RSPB Scotland firmly supports wind energy. Most windfarms pose no serious threat to wildlife and we therefore object to only a very small number of proposals each year. 

“However, projects must be sited to both minimise impacts on wildlife and to make the biggest possible contribution to cutting our greenhouse gas emissions – otherwise what is the point? 

“This independent analysis of SSE’s Strathy South proposal shows that the benefits from this windfarm could be minimal. The results from this analysis are startling but not entirely surprising given the sensitivity and importance of this peatland site. 

“SSE should abandon their plans for this site and concentrate on developing sites which can make a bigger difference to Scotland’s climate objectives.

“Ultimately, Scottish Ministers are likely to make the final decision and will want to be sure that any windfarms they consent both avoid harming Scotland’s most important wildlife sites and deliver guaranteed climate benefits. Clearly that will not happen at Strathy South.”

Strathy South is in the heart of the Flow Country peatlands of Caithness and Sutherland – one of the most important expanses of blanket bog in Europe which is protected under European law for its importance for wildlife. However, the area was damaged by non-native commercial forestry planting in the 1980s.

SSE had argued that a large wind farm would remove the trees and pay for restoration of the peatland. That plan would mean the installation of 39 turbines of up to 135 metres high, large concrete foundations and over 30,000 metres of track, which would prevent the area from ever being fully restored.

However, an independent study commissioned by RSPB Scotland, has found that all the funds needed to carry out full restoration of the site could be raised by as few as two commercial scale turbines. These turbines could be located elsewhere in the wider local area, on a much less sensitive site.

Pete Gordon, RSPB Scotland Conservation Planning Officer, said: “It is now clear that if SSE really cared about the protection and restoration of the Flow Country peatlands they wouldn’t be pushing to build a wind farm on this scale at this unique site.

“Building a 39 turbine wind farm on this sensitive site in order to fund its restoration, when it’s clear that as few as two turbines located elsewhere may be able to deliver the same benefits, is like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

“One also has to question where all the additional revenue from the remaining 37 turbines SSE is proposing for Strathy South would go.”

But last night Paul Cooley, SSE’s Director of Renewables, said: “Not only will the Strathy South wind farm create significant environmental gain through the generation of renewable energy, it will also fund the long-term restoration of extensive areas of degraded peatland, with associated carbon benefits. 

“Strathy South also enjoys strong public support from within the local Strathy and Armadale community. 

“If consented, it would join SSE’s existing Strathy North wind farm in contributing millions of pounds to local projects and initiatives in a very rural part of Highland Scotland through community investment plans –  while, in tandem, bringing economic benefits to a range of Highland businesses.”

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