September was an impressive month for onshore wind in Scotland. Output rose by 36% from last year, and on two days, wind turbines provided output equivalent to more than our total electricity needs – the first time this has happened twice in one month. Renewables now provide around 60% of our electricity needs, with onshore wind providing the lion’s share.
This is good news for the climate, which in turn protects our wildlife. The recently published 2016 State Of Nature report showed that species we know and love, such as the kittiwake and capercaillie, are already suffering from the effects of our changing climate, and tidal habitats like saltmarsh are being lost because of rising sea levels.
There is an urgent need to reduce emissions to tackle these issues, and we therefore continue to support more renewable energy in Scotland. However, it remains vitally important that wind farms are located to avoid harming our special species and habitats. Poorly sited projects can harm birds, and damage habitats like peatlands, which store vast amounts of carbon in addition to providing homes to many species. However, our experience tells us, where projects are located away from these areas, they are unlikely to pose significant threats.
RSPB Scotland continues to invest a great deal of time engaging with onshore wind. Between 2005 and 2015, we reviewed just under one thousand applications – around two every week. We objected to between13% of proposals between 2011 and 2015 – compared to 9% from 2005 to 2010. However, of this 13%, we withdrew our objection around a third of the time, after more information was provided or plans were dropped or improved. The slight increase in objections over time reflects the fact that appropriate sites are, understandably, becoming harder to find. Having said this, our recent report, The RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision, has shown there is still significant scope for more onshore wind in Scotland, if we plan this carefully.
We will always fight hard against proposals which threaten sites and species of conservation importance, such as our current campaign to protect the Flow Country in Sutherland from the proposed Strathy South wind farm. Proposed on a site completely surrounded by land designated for its wildlife importance, and home to iconic species like red-throated diver, hen harrier and the rare wood sandpiper, this is clearly not the right place for a large wind farm.
We also aim to ensure that the wind farms that do go ahead incorporate benefits for birds and other wildlife. For example, we provided conservation advice to inform the recently consented Aikengall IIa wind farm in the Scottish Borders. This scheme includes various measures to improve the condition of the upland heathland and mire habitats and also improve the diversity of the native ‘cleugh’ woodland.
Wind farms are far from the whole story when we’re talking about planning energy systems for the future though. Whilst good progress has been made in electricity, change has been slow in heat and transport, which account for the majority of our emissions. Our new report with WWF Scotland and Friends of the Earth Scotland, shows we should be aiming for 50% renewable energy by 2030, and delivering low carbon heat and transport is key to this.
In the coming months, the Scottish Government will publish a draft ‘Scottish Energy Strategy’, aimed at securing the transition to low carbon energy - the first time we have had this kind of long-term plan for our whole energy system. RSPB Scotland will work hard to make sure the strategy takes wildlife into account, as well as being bold on emissions reductions. Only by achieving both of these aims will our energy future be truly sustainable.