Lessons from south west Scotland

Published: 5th January 2018

A local approach to energy generation could protect Scotland's landscapes, argues Dr Alan Jones of campaign group Dumgal Against Pylons

BD012I came across an interesting fact in a 2014 SNH document recently that made me stop and think.  Rather alarmingly, the document, which seeks to provide an indication of how Scotland’s rich and varied landscape is changing,  suggests that some form of built development can theoretically be seen from 73 per cent of Scotland’s land area – up from 65 per cent a few years earlier.   

Against this backdrop, the Scottish Government, in the latest National Planning Framework, describes Scotland’s landscapes as “spectacular, contributing to our quality of life, our national identity and the visitor economy.”  The challenge thus becomes: how can Scotland sustain this national identity and afford strong protection for the wildest landscapes when our built environment is increasing at such a pace?  Wild land is, after all, considered a nationally important asset, while landscapes that are closer to settlements have an important role to play in sustaining local distinctiveness and cultural identity, and in supporting health and well-being.

Dumfries & Galloway, where I stay, is a good case in point. In this region of south west Scotland, the quality of the landscape is one of the area’s major assets, providing an attractive environment for residents and tourists alike, and acting as a catalyst for economic growth and employment from a range of tourism-related industries.  Yet a 2016 report for the BBC revealed that 1000 turbines over 50 metres tall are now visible either within or from the boundary of the region (and this excludes the many hundreds of smaller wind turbines less than 50m in height).

This creep of built development, arising from the rapid growth of renewable electricity, may ultimately end up degrading and devaluing the natural resource for which Scotland is famous worldwide – the quality of its landscapes. And, while the aim of Scotland’s renewable energy policy is noble – to reducing carbon emissions while at the same time providing a lever for sustainable economic growth – we should be mindful of Robert Burns message in the last verse of his poem, To a Louse, where he describes a well-dress and pretentious woman at a Kirk service oblivious to the presence of an insect in and around her bonnet.

“O wad some power the giftie gie us; To see oursels as ithers see us!; It wad frae mony a blunder free us.”

The analogy here is that before the built development visual indicator increases further, maybe we should better appreciate how those who live, work and visit Scotland perceive our changing landscapes. As the ‘Bard’ infers, taking time out to consider this question may prevent us, as a nation, from making one almighty blunder!

Let’s not forget either, that sustainability works both ways. While the use of sustainable energy is to be encouraged we also need to sustain the natural environment in which the source of sustainable energy is located.  We should be mindful that many rural communities support renewable wind farm energy projects – often encouraged by the prospect of community payments.  But would such motives be better served if the support for renewable energy were for smaller-scale, embedded generation to enable local communities  to become self-sufficient, rather than for commercial-scale developments capable of producing huge amounts of excess energy that require new electrical transmission infrastructure to transport the electricity generated to areas of demand, often many miles away?

As one of my colleagues remarked recently, such transmission infrastructure projects are likely to give rise to negative externalities (i.e. costs incurred by those who have no control over them).  Thus, communities end up paying the social costs arising from factors such  loss of visual amenity, devaluation of the natural landscape, erosion of place making and loss of identity in order to satisfy consumers in urban areas who want access to renewable electricity at a price that only takes account of the economic cost.

Beauly-Denny is a good example of a negative externality arising from transmission infrastructure, and the Dumfries & Galloway Strategic Reinforcement Project proposed by Scottish Power Energy Networks (SPEN) in 2015 would have become yet another example.  Here, SPEN’s proposal included a new 175km 400kV overhead line running west-to-east from the South Ayrshire coast to Harker in Cumbria, together with four new high voltage substations and a new 132kV overhead line running north-to-south between Kendoon and Tongland. Its purpose was to modernise the existing and ageing 132kV network, provide transmission capacity to accommodate the growth of onshore renewable generation, and re-establish the capacity of the Moyle Interconnector with Northern Ireland.

Had the proposal it gone ahead as planned with pylons up to 50m tall, there would have been serious consequences for the landscape and for the rich cultural and historic heritage the Dumfries and Galloway region enjoys.  Its knock-on effects would have reverberated throughout the tourism and food and drinks sectors, with the potential to reduce economic growth and employment opportunities.  The scheme would also have had a negative impact on the people and communities of the region, from falling health and well-being to loss of place and identity.

Fortunately, in this instance, communities and various groups came together under the umbrella of a campaign group called Dumgal Against Pylons (DGAP) which, with a mandate from 59 Community Councils across the region, called for a more sympathetic and realistic solution.  With a listening and understanding local authority, and the backing of all political parties, DGAP was able to articulate its arguments at the highest level. This, together with some good fortune – the early withdrawal of the Renewable Energy Contracts and an evaluation of this and other proposed transmission infrastructure projects by National Grid – caused SPEN to withdraw the scheme in favour of a much reduced plan to simply replace and upgrade the existing 132kV overhead line between Kendoon and Tongland.

In addition to mitigating the scale, and hence the impact of this project on the region and the people who live, work and enjoy the natural assets, DGAP gained a great deal of experience in how to conduct an effective campaign.  To be fair, SPEN too, have learned from the experience and have since improved their processes and procedures for other projects going forward. 

The spin-off benefits from DGAP’s successful campaign have gone beyond protection of the landscape. For example, DGAP has published a paper that discusses the conflicts that can arise in an era of low-carbon generation located mainly in rural communities at a time when demand is growing for additional transmission infrastructure. This paper, entitled Electricity Transmission Planning in the 21st Century, calls for earlier engagement of rural communities in the planning process, including operational matters that give rise to the perceived need for new infrastructure. The paper calls upon Ofgem to take the lead in such an initiative.

In a further paper – An investigation into the potential impact of a high-voltage electricity transmission infrastructure project in Dumfries & Galloway – DGAP has also put forward the case for research to investigate and evaluate the social impact and allied costs arising from new transmission infrastructure. During a visit to Holyrood DGA activists presented a summary of both papers to Paul Wheelhouse, Scotland’s Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy. It is pleasing to note from his reply that the Minister recognises the need for a methodology to quantify the socio-economic impact of infrastructure investment. Furthermore, he sees the methodology being applicable to a range of investment projects throughout Scotland.   

DGAP is keen to work with SPEN and other transmission operators to help guide the development of this methodology so that, once available, it is recognised by the public at large as a valuable, transparent and unbiased assessment framework. 

Beyond this, meetings with Scottish Government officials led to them recognising the need for guidance on the consenting process undertaken by the Energy Consents Unit.  Productive meetings were also held with Ofgem, leading to improved guidance for local and national planners.

Whilst these are all positive steps, the question remains: will they help arrest the rapid creep of built heritage in Scotland?  Perhaps they may; perhaps they won’t.

So, taking the Bard’s advice to heart and applying it to a modern dilemma, maybe it’s time for a serious rethink before it becomes too late.  To afford protection to Scotland’s remaining quality landscapes, including wild lands, should we now think about moving away from large or commercial-scale energy generation and distribution in favour of more smaller-scale, embedded renewable projects, where the majority of the electricity produced is consumed locally. 

Yes, we will have to address obsolescence issues with the existing distribution and transmission infrastructures, and possibly consider modest upgrading where and when necessary. But a fundamental change in direction could minimise the need for further built development, leaving us and our future generations free to get on with enjoying and preserving what is left of our spectacular landscapes in Scotland.

Dr Alan Jones

E: alan@dumgalagainstpylons@btinternet.com

M: 07777 607767