Plans may hit Scottish onshore wind

Draft documents published today on future planning policy in Scotland include significant new restrictions on where onshore wind farms can be sited, in a move with potentially major consequences for both the onshore and offshore sectors.

Earlier this month it emerged that Scottish Natural Heritage, a public body responsible for advising the government on where to establish natural parks, was drawing up a map for the Scottish Planning Policy (SPP) that would rule out significant tracts of land to wind developments.

Initial reports suggested 28% of Scotland – particularly areas in the north and west Highlands – would be deemed “wild lands” whose natural beauty made them unsuitable to onshore wind farms except in special circumstances.

However, in the event the SPP consultation document proposes that 31% of Scotland’s land area fall under that category. Some 19% would be made totally off limits, even in special circumstances.

“By providing a clear vision, the proposals will be used to guide future development that will help Scotland achieve its ambitious renewable-energy targets, and also increase protection for our country’s most environmentally important areas,” says Scottish planning minister Derek Mackay.

In addition to the off-limits areas, the government has proposed extending its “guidance” on a buffer zone between onshore wind farms and towns and cities to 2.5km, from its existing “up to 2km” recommendation.

The move is in part a reaction to the larger turbines being used by the industry, which often have a bigger visual impact, says Jenny Hogan, director of policy for the trade group Scottish Renewables.

“It’s important to be clear that the separation distances are a form of guidance rather than blanket restrictions,” Hogan tells Recharge.

Several weeks ago a judge at the UK High Court in London ruled against a local council in the English Midlands which tried to extend its pre-existing guideline on the buffer zone from 350 metres to 1.2km.

Taken together, the new planning guidelines would make it significantly harder to build large onshore wind projects in Scotland if implemented, possibly leaving the country more reliant on offshore wind farms to meet its targets.

Although significantly less densely populated than England, local objections to onshore wind farms are rapidly increasing in both volume and intensity in Scotland.

Scottish Renewables says the proposals “could potentially slow progress” on the country’s climate and renewables targets.

“Ultimately decisions over where wind farms can and can’t be built are for democratically elected politicians, both locally and nationally,” says Hogan.

The SPP and the related Third National Planning Framework are intended to guide future planning decisions in Scotland across a range of critical sectors, including energy, transport and infrastructure.

The government of First Minister Alex Salmond is widely seen as among the most pro-renewables in the world.