Love them or loath them, wind turbines have come to symbolise the energy revolution that is changing the face of Scotland. More than a thousand have been erected across the land in the last decade or so, and thousands more are planned.
They are the most visible aspect of one of the most important shifts in energy policy ever attempted. To prevent the climate chaos which scientists say is being caused by pollution from fossil fuels like coal and oil, the world has decided to switch to clean, renewable resources, including wind, solar and water power.
Crucially, we also all have to learn to use energy more efficiently, by cutting wastage wherever it occurs. So as well as wind turbines, solar panels and hydro schemes, we need home insulation, double-glazing, better boilers, heat pumps and the like.
None of this is rocket science: it’s common sense. Saving energy saves money, the more so the higher energy prices rise. It can also bring increased energy independence and self-sufficiency, and ultimately help keep the nation’s lights on.
But despite the obvious benefits, the Scottish government has not been doing all it should. The trouble is that some aspects of energy efficiency policy are just not politically sexy.
Thousands of small, sensible measures carried out in buildings and businesses across the land seem to be a hard sell to politicians. They don’t give them a huge, shiny machine to stand in front of, or a multi-billion pound mega-project to launch in a blaze of publicity.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the lamentable story of the Scottish government’s energy efficiency strategy. This was first mooted back in 2004, the year that Facebook was launched and the Liberal Democrat MSP, Ross Finnie, was environment minister.
That seems like an age ago now. The strategy, designed to help householders and business save energy and increase their use of small-scale renewables, was originally due to be published in 2005.
But it was delayed to 2006 and then to 2007. In June 2008 the new Scottish Nationalist minority government promised that its energy efficiency and microgeneration strategy would be ready that year.
But it too was postponed until 2009, then a very broad-brush consultation paper was published and the actual plan rescheduled to before the summer of 2010. Then, in June this year, MSPs were told that it won’t come until after September. It was eventually published on 6 October.
That’s at least six delays over six years to potentially one of the most vital policy initiatives of a generation. In addition, Scottish ministers have let three good, individual schemes lapse in the last few months.
A £2 million pilot scheme giving interest-free loans of up to £10,000 over eight years for homeowners to fit insulation, small-scale renewables and efficient boilers ended in June. Nothing has been said about any follow-up.
In July another scheme giving householders grants of up to 30% to install various microgeneration technologies ceased. And in August a third scheme giving community groups grants of up to 100% to put in energy-saving technologies closed.
That is not to say that the Scottish government is doing nothing. There are still two further schemes that survive, one offering cut-price energy-saving measures to 19 deprived areas, and the other offering 100% energy-saving grants for elderly people or young families on benefits.
Worthy though these schemes are, critics point out that they leave most households without any financial support to help them save energy. They also point out that future funding is highly uncertain because of the deep public spending cuts being forced on government departments by the recession.
The picture is not all bleak, however, partly because of the UK government’s new “feed-in tariff”. Introduced in April this year, it pays consumers to generate electricity from renewable sources like wind turbines, small hydro schemes and photovoltaic solar cells.
It has reportedly led to a boom in recent months in householders installing such devices, including solar cells; Scotland’s weather notwithstanding. Given the potential payback, that’s not surprising.
For £20,000 the owners of a four-bedroom house can install sufficient solar cells to meet most of their electricity needs, while being paid 41 pence per kilowatt hour. That’s about four times higher than the average price of electricity, and could bring in hundreds of pounds a year.
Any surplus electricity can also be sold back to the grid for three pence per kilowatt hour. The rates are guaranteed and tax free for 25 years for solar, and 20 years for wind devices.
But the problem with the feed-in tariff is that it only applies to electricity, and is only available to those who have the capital to install the devices in the first place. It doesn’t help people save energy by insulating their homes, which is by far the most efficient way to reduce carbon emissions, and it doesn’t help those who are less well-off.
It’s also not free of course, with the costs having to be met by energy companies increasing their prices. Some estimates suggest that next year an average of £90 from every power bill will go towards funding the tariff, a figure that could more than double before 2015.
That has led to some criticisms that the tariff is a regressive way of robbing the poor to help the rich, though it is strongly defended by the solar and wind industry. In addition, there have been suggestions from within the coalition government in London, that the scheme could face cutbacks.
There was also a plan to introduce a new ‘renewable heat incentive’ next April to give similar support to technologies that produce heat, as opposed to electricity, like heat pumps and wood-burning boilers. But this too has been thrown into doubt by the coalition government.
Although neither scheme is directly paid for out of the public purse, they are being reviewed by ministers in London. This is because they are regarded by the Treasury as a drain on the economy as they hit consumers.
Despite all these doubts, the Scottish government is confident of one success. It is going to beat its target to generate 31% of Scotland’s electricity from renewables next year, and is on track to deliver well over the 50% it originally promised by 2020.
So confident is the First Minister, Alex Salmond, that in September he announced that Scotland's renewable target will be boosted to 80% of electricity from renewables by 2010. "We already have some seven gigawatts of renewables capacity installed, under construction or consented around Scotland," he said. "It is clear that we can well exceed the existing 50 per cent target by 2020."
According to the industry body, Scottish Renewables, there are about 0.57 gigawatts of wind power under construction, with another 2.8 gigawatts consented and 3.5 gigawatts in planning. Further down the line, there could also be significant wave and tidal schemes.
Salmond was also in Bilbao in Spain to help the Spanish energy company, Iberdrola, launch a £3 billion investment in Scotland, much of it designed to boost renewable generation. One of Scotland’s main energy companies, ScottishPower, is owned by Iberdrola.
But Salmond’s much-quoted ambition to make Scotland the ‘Saudi Arabia of renewable energy’ is not without opposition. ‘The climate change zealots will not rest until our beautiful country bristles with towering windmills and pylons,’ the Conservative MEP, Struan Stevenson, complained recently.
Because wind farms only operate for about 30% of the time when the wind is blowing, Stevenson argued that they were unreliable. ‘Having already ruled out any new nuclear plant in Scotland, we can be certain of one thing,’ he said. ‘The lights are going to go out.’
It’s political point-scoring, and it’s probably wrong. Wind power is not unreliable, it is predictable, sometimes more so than nuclear power stations, which often have to be suddenly closed down for safety reasons. Sure, it needs a smart electricity grid and a flexible storage system to work at its best, but this doesn’t mean that it will make the lights go out.
The energy farmed by wind turbines is free, as is the energy of the sun, the waves and the tides. It does not depend on digging a fuel out of the earth, transporting it around the globe and then burning it. Nor does it create climate pollution or plutonium.
For any government to ignore such advantages would be questionable. For Scotland, blessed as it is with such a huge abundance of natural energy, it would be foolhardy.