Becky Rae, our graduate placement for Planning & Renewables looks at the legacy for young people in Scotland of planning onshore wind farms in perpetuity.
The Scottish Planning Policy (SPP), published by the Scottish Government in June 2014, identifies a clear need for further wind development in Scotland, in order to meet energy generation targets and mitigate climate change. It advocates a long-term approach to onshore wind, stating that ‘areas identified for wind farms should be suitable for use in perpetuity’ (Para 170).
In Scotland all wind farms are consented as time-limited developments, with planning permission typically granted for a 25-year period. Planning documents will generally specify that at the end of a wind farm’s operational life, all above-ground infrastructures will be removed and the site will be restored to its former state in accordance with an agreed decommissioning plan.
The inclusion of the word ‘perpetuity’ in SPP however, implies that wind farms should no longer be viewed as temporary constructions. Since the introduction of this policy, when permission to build an onshore wind farm has been granted, it can be assumed that the decision maker has deemed the site acceptable for this purpose for an indefinite period of time.
Despite sites being considered for use in perpetuity, wind farm infrastructure is not designed to last forever and will need replaced periodically. This process is commonly referred to as ‘repowering’.
Repowering generally involves fully decommissioning the existing turbines at a wind farm site and replacing them with newer, larger and more powerful models. It has many potential advantages; the most obvious one being that by installing higher capacity turbines, a site’s wind resources can be better exploited and considerably more electricity can be generated. A further advantage of repowering is that some of the site’s infrastructure, such as the access tracks and grid connections, can be re-used. This can reduce the construction costs and environmental impacts of the process compared to building an equivalent wind farm in a previously undeveloped area.
Disadvantages of repowering include that the process will generally result in taller turbines being installed. In some locations this will intensify the landscape and visual impacts of developments on the wider environment, although these effects may be mitigated if the total number of turbines erected is reduced. In addition, a component of wind farm infrastructure that cannot be easily reused is the turbine foundations. At present, redundant foundations tend to be left in-situ when a wind farm is repowered. This practice is not in line with the circular economy and the long-term ecological impacts of abandoning such vast quantities of concrete in the ground are not yet fully understood.
SPP promotes repowering and even states that the current use of the site as a wind farm will be a ‘material consideration’ (para 174) when deciding whether or not to grant planning permission for a proposed onshore wind development. It can therefore be assumed that many sites that are presently used as wind farms in Scotland will be repowered in the future.
Significance for Young People in Scotland
In the ‘Year of Young People’, it is important that we consider what the legacy of building wind farms in locations where they may be used in perpetuity will mean for Scotland’s youth. As a consequence of SPP and the Scottish Government’s ambitious renewable energy targets, it is probable that many onshore wind farms will remain in place throughout the lifetimes of people living in Scotland today. In addition, through technological advances and repowering, wind turbines are likely to get larger and potentially more visually intrusive over time. Temporally, these changes will affect young people more than any other age group.
But does this mean that onshore wind farms have become an unwanted burden that has been imposed on the younger generations? Onshore wind has been present in Scotland long enough that many of today’s young people will not recall a time when wind turbines weren’t a common feature of the countryside. Consequently, it is likely that young people will consider wind farms less invasive than those from older generations, who will clearly remember a pre-turbine landscape.
In addition, figures suggest that younger people tend to be generally supportive of renewable energy initiatives. YouGov Poll data from a 2015 survey indicated that only 2% of people aged 18-24 believed that the building of onshore wind farms should be banned compared to 25% of those aged 60+. In contrast, 43% of respondents surveyed in the younger age category thought that the Government should actively encourage the construction of new wind farms. A separate poll conducted by ComRes in 2016, identified that just 9% of respondents aged 18-24 were opposed to onshore wind farms, in contrast to 31% of their counterparts aged 65 and over.
Such surveys highlight a distinct age-based divide in public attitudes towards onshore wind farms however it is difficult to determine the precise reasons for this split. Possible options include a generational shift in perspective regarding climate change (and the role of renewable energy in mitigating it), an absence of nostalgia for a pre-wind farm landscape amongst younger people or the fact that young people are less likely to live in rural locations than those in other age categories.
What is evident is that with sites now being selected for use in perpetuity, many of Scotland’s wind farms are set to be in place for the foreseeable future and overall, young people appear to be supportive of this prospect.
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