Three-quarters of the energy sold by Scottish and Southern Energy comes from burning fossil fuels, but its portfolio also incorporates the dams and reservoirs of the former North of Scotland Hydro Board, not to mention the shiny plate-glass greenwash of the Scottish Hydro Centre for Renewable Excellence in Hope Street, Glasgow, just across the road from Glasgow Central station, where we were going to catch our train. We didn’t get to test-drive the electric car, unfortunately, because it was a Sunday and the centre was closed. But we did admire the bit on the window about Scotland being in the vanguard of ‘a new renewable industrial revolution’ – as romantic, almost, as the Neart nan Gleann motto of the old Hydro Electric. They should put it in an ad for Tennent’s lager, or for the SNP.
The day before, I’d been to see Kay Siddell, whom I’d met online via Communities Against Turbines Scotland. I’d read about her in CATS’s submissions to the Scottish Parliament, and in the Sunday Post last year. She’s prominent among the campaigners who suspect that vibrations made by wind turbines cause a disease they call Vario-Acoustic Disorder.
‘The aerodynamic noise generated by wind turbines has a large low-frequency and infrasound component,’ the British Medical Journal said in March. ‘A laboratory study has shown that low-frequency noise… can cause nausea, headaches, disturbed sleep and cognitive and psychological impairment.’ Earlier this month, however, the New Scientist said the syndrome was ‘psychogenic’. Turbines bring money to the owners of the land they’re on, but not to their immediate neighbours. ‘The perceived injustice can eat away at some, fomented by organised groups… People can worry themselves sick.’
The 52 turbines of SSE’s Hadyard Hill development sit on rough upland just across the road from Kay’s smallholding of ten acres. On one side, there’s a ridge with sheep on it, and turbine blades. On the other, there’s a track running up to an old white longhouse with some battered byres. Kay moved here from Hampshire in 1988 with her husband John, a land surveyor with the Royal Engineers. They planned to bring up their son, run a few sheep, extend the property, then sell up when they got too old. One by one, however, circumstances went against them: planning laws, post-BSE food-safety regulations, flooding, and wave after wave of illness: ‘rheumatoid arthritis, including cranial arthritis, several events of a shingles-related phenomenon whereby the right side of my face freezes… and finally breast cancer,’ Kay wrote in the letter that CATS sent to the Scottish Parliament. Her house, she believes, is now worthless, though she says she can’t get a valuer to visit. She sits for much of the day in a single room with a striplit ceiling, curtains shut against the view. When the turbines are especially active, she hides from the whooming noise and shadow flicker by sitting in the bathroom with a blanket on her head.
I feel for Kay, but being a member of what anti-wind Tories call ‘the metropolitan elite’ can’t really see the problem. To my eyes, the turbines don’t destroy the view but add another layer to it, like the fences and pylons there before them. I even quite like the whooming noise too. But Kay says it gets under your skin gradually – and besides it’s not my dream of rural self-sufficiency that’s being shattered.
According to Kay, one reason so many wind farms are concentrated on her patch is that nobody there votes SNP. There’s also a feeling that wind has become a sort of gold rush, with landowners piling in to throw up turbines wherever they can, and that the Scottish government is colluding with them because the more wind it has to blast at its renewables targets, the better the propaganda in the run-up to the independence referendum in 2014.
What’s certainly true is that ScotGov’s headline energy policy – 100 per cent of electricity to be generated from renewables by 2020 – is not quite as fabulous as it sounds when you consider that, according to government figures, ‘electricity contributes only about 21 per cent of delivered energy’ and that making it ‘contributes 30 per cent to CO2 emissions’. Domestic heating is mainly gas, which is one reason the Route Map for Renewable Energy in Scotland’s target for heat is an unglamorous 11 per cent.
And behind these caveats come more. However well Scotland manages on its 2020 targets, it’s unlikely that even the windiest country in Europe will ever run entirely on clean energy, in spite of all the tidal barrages and pumped storage and Donald Trump-annoying offshore arrays now planned. In his brilliant, lucid and witty Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air, David MacKay, the DECC’s chief scientific adviser, posits five energy plans for a ‘cartoon country’ with proportions like Britain’s, but greatly simplified. In spite of boosting efficiency and pushing renewables as much as he can, every one of Mackay’s options features nuclear, and/or ‘clean coal’, and/or buying in solar from the Sahara. Alex Salmond, on the other hand, is adamant that any independent Scotland run by him will have no new nuclear in it, and won’t need to buy in energy from anybody. The hole England needs to top up with the nasties, Scotland can fill from its lovely North Sea emissions. Which makes for a patriotic, even romantic energy policy, but is not particularly green.
On the Sunday morning, we went to the visitor centre at Scottish Power’s Whitelee wind farm: 140 turbines on high moorland just south of Glasgow, and the biggest wind facility in Europe until an installation in Romania overtook it a couple of weeks ago. My son twisted a knob to balance lulls in the wind supply with back-up gas and hydro, then watched the CO2 pop in his glass of Coca-Cola. I dried my hands in a Dyson Airblade and bought him a reduced-price end-of-line model turbine in the shop. It was a gorgeous day, clear and sunny. A dial showed the turbines generating 16MW out of a possible 322.