Wind farms or peat bogs: Scotland's green dilemma
Campaigners say building wind farms on peatland will release the very carbon dioxide that renewables are meant to reduce.
POETS and scientists alike have sung its praises. The vast swathe of peatland that covers much of Lewis is held in high regard for its environmental qualities and the rich wildlife it sustains.
Scotland's vast expanses of peat bogs are regarded as our equivalent of the rainforests, and 17 per cent of the world's "blanket bog" is in this country. In all, Scottish peatlands cover some 1.9 million hectares and contain about two billion tons of carbon – roughly four times the UK's annual output – as well as "sucking in" carbon from the atmosphere.
But the wild land on Lewis could be turned into an industrial landscape if the building of 176 turbines is granted approval, and other vital peatlands face the same fate.
Campaigners against the proposal say building a renewable energy facility on an area of peatland is a massive contradiction, as it will release the very carbon dioxide that renewables are meant to reduce.
The Scottish Government has said it is "minded to refuse" the £500 million project but has yet to make a final decision. If it does go ahead, thousands of tonnes of peat would be excavated from the moor and huge amounts of concrete and aggregates poured into the ground to accommodate the foundations, roads and sub-stations.
The effect on the peatland, which has been built up over thousands of years, is a growing concern, not just on Lewis but in other parts of Scotland under pressure from the renewables race.
Last week, the Scottish Government approved an application for a 35-turbine development at Gordonbush, on the edge of the Caithness and Sutherland Peatlands Special Protection Area, despite local and national objections.
With dozens of applications either approved or awaiting a decision, a campaign is being stepped up for a moratorium on erecting wind farms on peatlands. Today, a meeting in the European Parliament in Brussels will hear of the damage that can be done to such land by the building of turbines and surrounding infrastructure. It has been arranged by Scottish MEP Struan Stevenson, who said peat bogs formed a crucial part of the world's "air-conditioning system".
He said: "Peatlands and wetland ecosystems accumulate plant material under saturated conditions to form layers of peat soil up to 20 metres thick – storing on average ten times more carbon per hectare than other ecosystems.
"In the headlong rush to cut carbon emissions, the EU and the UK government are throwing money into renewable energy without any coherent planning strategy to determine where wind farms should and shouldn't be built.
"The result is there are dozens of outstanding planning applications to build giant turbines on blanket peat bog in Scotland, causing immense damage to the environment and releasing vast quantities of – in other words, achieving the exact opposite of what was intended.
"The first thing a contractor does before constructing giant wind turbines, access roads, pylons and associated infrastructure on peatland is to drain the area, thus releasing all of the stored into the atmosphere. The peatland is also subsequently destroyed as a carbon sump, stopping any further carbon storage.
"Damage to peat can extend as much as 250 metres on either side of any excavation, so the peat will gradually dry out over the years, resulting in an ongoing release of carbon.
"The whole hydrology of the area will change forever and once damaged, peat can never be replaced. By destroying peat bogs in this way, these wind farms would create more carbon emissions than they would ever save." At today's seminar will be Sutherland residents who objected to the Gordonbush plan. Victoria Reeves, of the Landscape action group, said: "In other parts of the UK, people are trying to restore their peatlands because, as they gradually deteriorate, they are no longer able to absorb from the atmosphere and are also releasing it into the atmosphere, so you have a double whammy."
The John Muir Trust is commissioning new research on the effect of carbon releases from peatland. Helen McDade, its policy officer, said: "It's clear the science on this is not well established. One of the key things on carbon emissions from disturbed peat is how much of a peat bog is disturbed if a (wind-farm] scheme goes ahead. Until that is clear, it would be foolhardy to carry on."
Clifton Bain, climate change policy officer with the RSPB, said the effect on peatland depended on the location and size of development.
He said: "You avoid the most important, best condition peatland – these are places you just cannot replace. After that, it may be possible to design a wind farm in such a way that it reduces the carbon, but you have to think what effect it will have on the wildlife. This is a habitat that supports incredibly important bird populations. We have been calling for a long time for guidelines to help steer wind-farm developments away from these important habitats."
According to the Scottish Government, blanket bog is the most widespread peatland type in Scotland, particularly in the uplands, and is the one most commonly affected by electricity-generation developments.
A spokesman said: "We recognise the role peatlands play in storing carbon. Maintaining and enhancing carbon stores will play an important role in our overall approach to tackling climate change."
Jason Ormiston, the chief executive of Scottish Renewables, the green- energy trade body, said: "Struan Stevenson pitches a theory that has at its heart a fatally flawed premise and chooses to ignore experience of existing wind-farm development on areas of peat, where not only have the projects proved significant cutters of carbon emissions but have involved habitat restoration with a net gain of peatland in and around the site."