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Onshore Wind Farms - Frequently Asked Questions

Scotland's onshore wind resource is one of the best in the world for wind farms. However, the Government recognises the spectrum of views and public debate on wind farms, and that it can be difficult for people who are not familiar with power generation and the complexities of electricity grid management to distinguish myths from facts in relation to the arguments voiced by both sides.

What is the Scottish Government's position on wind farms?

The First Minister has said that "The Scottish Government is committed to taking full advantage of our twenty five per cent share in Europe's wave and wind power capacity. We are determined to get rid of harmful emissions from our environment while capitalising on the vast economic opportunities our natural advantage in renewable energy poses."

Ministers expect new onshore wind developments to continue to contribute to renewables targets in the coming years, but only in the right places where the planning system decides they should be granted consent, and as part of a wide range of other renewable technologies. It is not the case that wind farms can be built simply anywhere without regard to wildlife or scenery. Strict planning guidelines have been set out to make sure that we are able to make use of some of our wind resources without causing unacceptable harm to the environment. These planning guidelines and other environmental designations give significant protection to some areas.

More information on Government policy and strategy for renewable energy is available in the 2020 Routemap for Renewable Energy in Scotland.

The following points set out the Scottish Government's position in relation to some of the arguments made about onshore wind power.

How can electricity generation be 100% wind powered without any kind of backup?

Our target is for renewable sources to generate the equivalent of 100 per cent of Scotland's gross annual electricity consumption by 2020. Hydro, wave and tidal sources will help meet that target, as well as wind farms onshore and offshore, and smaller scale generation on buildings, homes and farms.

The Scottish Government has never proposed that all conventional electricity generation should shut down leaving us wholly reliant on wind farms or other renewable sources. Scotland is a net exporter of electricity and the Government's vision is of Scotland generating twice as much electricity as it consumes by 2020. Just over half of that from renewables, and just under half from other conventional sources. The Government's 100% target for renewable electricity will be met if the total number of units of electricity generated from renewables in 2020 is the same as, or greater than, the total number of units of electricity consumed in 2020. The 100% target does not relate to conventional sources of electricity generation. More detailed information on the need for conventional power generation in the energy mix is published in the Draft Electricity Generation Policy Statement.

I've read that wind turbines are inefficient and cannot be relied on for a steady source of power every hour of the day. What happens when the wind doesn't blow?

It is true that the electricity output from Scotland's wind farms is variable - sometimes a wind turbine may be highly productive and in other periods it may not produce power. But wind turbines are not all in one place, they are spread throughout different parts of the country which reduces the probability of many of them being out of action at the same time. Scotland is a windy country, and the probability of the whole of Scotland being without wind is relatively low.

Although the output of wind farms is variable and cannot be relied on as a constant source of power, this is not a significant problem where other sources of generation are available and does not mean the electricity generated is not useful. This may sound surprising but wind farms are part of a large national grid which is flexible enough to match the large swings in demand for power over the course of every minute of every day. Power supplied from wind farms reduces the need for power from other sources and helps reduce fossil fuel consumption and harmful emissions - on some days more than others. When wind power is not available, the solution is simple - electricity is generated from other sources, just like it was before we had wind turbines.

Is it true that wind farms need constant backup of 80-100% of their capacity?

Wind farms have a very small amount of impact on the reserve capacity the grid already has at any given time to cope with the sudden failure of large power stations or faults in the transmission system. Scientific studies show it is not true that new wind farms need new dedicated back up on a one-for-one basis. Scotland has more generating capacity than it needs to meet the peak demand for power, including a large amount of hydro electric capacity which is relatively easy to start up and shut down quickly as needed.

Are wind farms an efficient way to generate electricity?

Sometime it is suggested that gas or coal-fired power stations are a more efficient way to generate electricity. However, their efficiency at converting fuel to heat then steam then mechanical forces to generate electricity will be about the same as a wind turbine converting the energy of the wind to electricity. The fuel used by wind generators is renewable, abundant and without cost whereas fossil fuels are increasingly needing to be imported and are subject to extremely volatile pricing. Extracting, burning and dealing with the waste and pollution from fossil fuels is not without environmental impact or risks to health and safety. We need a balanced energy mix and onshore wind definitely has a role in that.

How can we be sure that wind farms actually help tackle carbon emissions?

Wind farms, like almost any manufactured product, have a carbon footprint. That is, energy is used and carbon emissions are associated with manufacturing, installation, maintenance and disposal processes. The construction work on site may disturb significant volumes of peat and forestry which could release carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. On the other hand, replanting forestry, environmental improvements and reducing the need for electricity generation by fossil fuels may help make a saving of carbon emissions. If wind farms are to help reduce the overall carbon emissions associated with the generation of electricity then the net carbon emission "cost" of the electricity they supply must be better than the grid average. The carbon impact of a proposed wind farm is one of many factors the Government takes into account when deciding whether it should be given the go-ahead. The Scottish Government has commissioned independent research and guidance which now requires that new wind farm applications use the Government's tool for estimating carbon savings and losses.

There is too much emphasis on wind farms - what about other sources of power?

The Scottish Government is encouraging all forms of renewable electricity generation, not just onshore wind farms but also new hydro, biomass, wave and tidal. Scotland has the resources and capacity to meet all of our electricity needs and the Scottish Government approach to reducing carbon emissions from energy supply is broad. By embracing renewable energy, carbon capture and storage along with low carbon technologies, energy efficiency, and the promotion of microgeneration we will help meet our climate change targets and ensure Scotland's energy security.

Won't wind farms destroy the landscape and ruin tourism forever?

As explained above, planning guidelines are in place to ensure that only wind farms in the right place, where the impacts are acceptable, are given the go-ahead. By continuing to only allow wind farms which are sited sensitively to go ahead, the interests of tourism and sustainable energy production can remain compatible. This is the key finding of the research publication entitled The Economic Impacts of Wind Farms on Scottish Tourism.

Wind farm developers must satisfy the local authority that they have a suitable and robust plan for decommissioning and restoration as one of the conditions of being given permission to build and operate the wind farm, and must also satisfy the local authority that a financial bond is in place to meet the expected costs. The plan must be agreed and the financial bond must be in place before any site works can commence. The purpose of this condition is to return the site to as near to its original state as is feasible in a practicable and environmentally sound way. Consent decisions are time-limited, with a requirement that the decommissioning and restoration take place at the end of this period, or sooner if the wind farm ceases operational use before then.

Where is the independent scientific evidence behind the Scottish Government's position?

A technical review by the UK Energy Research Centre considered over 200 studies and papers from all round the world for the UK Government and concluded that "it is unambiguously the case that wind energy can displace fossil fuel-based generation, reducing both fuel use and carbon dioxide emissions". It also found that "there is no need to provide dedicated 'back-up' capacity to support individual generators. These terms have meaning only at the system level". There was a comprehensive and international peer review of this report before its publication was approved.

The Sustainable Development Commission has produced a leaflet entitled Wind Power - Your Questions Answered which explains the benefits of wind power, drawn from its more extensive report, Wind Power in the UK.

A report entitled Managing Variability produced by a prominent wind industry analyst for Greenpeace also explored how the variable output from wind farms can be integrated into the grid.

A report entitled Wind Power and the UK Wind Resource by Graeme Sinden of Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute looked at the variability of wind and weather patterns over the UK and what it means for onshore wind farms. It finds that the probability of low-wind conditions covering the whole of the UK is extremely low. Other key findings are that

  • wind power availability is greater in winter than at other times of the year
  • wind power delivers two and a half times as much electricity in periods of high electricity demand than low demand periods
  • low wind speed conditions affecting ninety per cent or more of the UK would occur in one hour every five years during winter
  • the chance of wind turbines shutting down due to high wind speed conditions is very rare - high winds affecting forty per cent or more of the UK would occur in around one hour every ten years.

Why are we continuing to build wind farms while pioneering countries like Denmark are now scrapping their turbines and abandoning wind power?

It is sometimes suggested that Denmark has now abandoned onshore wind power with a policy for scrapping turbines. The Promotion of Renewable Energy Act does indeed contain a scrapping scheme for old wind turbines. However it is far from abandoning wind power: according to this scheme, a scrapping certificate can be earned and attract financial assistance for replacing old inappropriately situated wind turbines with new and more efficient turbines, to help Denmark generate more electricity from wind power.

Wind power capacity in Denmark does not appear to be declining according to official statistics published by the Danish Energy Agency. Similarly, the official statistics of the German Government show a steady increase in wind power capacity every year between 1990 and 2009.