In this blog Rebecca Bell, our senior policy officer for climate and energy, takes us through how strategic spatial planning, using a variety of maps, could be better used for Scotland’s long term development projects.

Mapping for the future

Wind turbines - where to put them?  How does Scotland decide whether an area of land is best used for nature conservation, or generating energy, or growing food?

RSPB Scotland thinks this is something that government can – and should – do up front: identify suitable sites, and direct developers to those.  It’s already done with housing, so why not with other forms of development?

Strategic spatial planning, as this is known, saves money, and helps good decisions get made quickly. It makes sure that the main issues are taken into account early in the process – and long before a planning application falls into the laps of local councillors.

RSPB has proven that it can be done with renewable energy, through our 2050 Energy Vision: we worked out which parts of the UK are suitable for wind energy, solar farms, biomass planting and tidal technology using data such as wind speed, solar radiation, ground conditions and wave heights.  This gave us an idea of where it would be technically possible to put renewables and generate electricity efficiently. 

Of course, this doesn’t take into account the fact that there may already be roads and houses and other forms of development in these areas; nor that some of this land and sea may be already designated as a protected site for nature and so be unsuitable for development.  So our next step was to overlay the maps with maps of all these physical barriers, and of areas that would be safeguarded from development by existing government policy: such as shipping routes, Ministry of Defence areas and national scenic areas.

That narrows the maps down to sites that could actually be built on - but what about wildlife?  Renewable energy, like many forms of development and land use change, can disturb, displace or even kill wildlife, so it’s important to keep development away from species that are most at risk.  So the next stage was to map where these species are, and to overlay that onto the maps for each technology. 


These maps show the potential for solar farms in the UK:

A: Resource availability: nearly all of the UK gets enough sunlight to generate electricity

B: Physical constraints: roads, houses, and other existing development that mean there is no space for solar panels

C: Policy constraints: areas such as MOD land, National Scenic Areas, buffer zones around settlements – where development might be physically possible, but wouldn’t be supported by planning policy

D: Ecological sensitivities: areas of protected habitat, or where populations of birds and other species would be harmed by the development of solar farms.  Once all of these constraints have been taken into account, the areas of green on the map are the places where solar farms could probably be developed with low ecological risk.


The result is a set of high-level maps which indicate areas which are more likely and less likely to be suitable for renewable energy development.  They are not completely prescriptive and are not a substitute for up-to-date, site specific data but what they do is to give an indication of the likely sensitivity of an area to renewable energy development.

The Scottish Government could use these maps to help decide where wind farms, solar farms, biomass plantations and tidal electricity schemes should go.  Making these decisions at a national level (with proper consultation and engagement with people and interests that are likely to be affected) would give communities and developers more opportunity to participate at an early stage and more certainty about where renewable energy would be acceptable.  The challenges of climate change for people and wildlife are only becoming greater, and as many of Scotland’s less problematic renewables sites become developed there need to be new ways to help reduce conflict and progress renewables in the most sustainable locations.   These maps are a crucial part of meeting these challenges.

You can find out more about our mapping work in our technical report – including the environmental risks associated with each renewable technology and the particular species that are affected.