In the spring of 2023 Scottish and Southern Energy Networks (SSEN) dropped a bombshell on stunned communities right across the Highlands, with proposals to spear hundreds of giant pylons into iconic landscapes and through their peaceful villages. It appeared to shellshocked locals that slick SSEN already had their ducks lined up and ready to quack before they even got a look in.
All three 400kv lines are intended to converge in Beauly, an attractive Highland village that legend says was named by Mary Queen of Scots when she visited in 1564 and exclaimed “c’est un beau lieu” –“this is a beautiful place”. SSEN staff openly said Beauly would become like “spaghetti junction”. The spectre of thick glistening transmission lines dominating our skylines and hovering over us like a metallic industrial spider’s web is terrifying. Not their problem. They don’t live here.
Gentrifying our glens
Almost a decade ago the overbearing Beauly-to-Denny pylon line landed at what used to be a small rural switching station, originally built for the hydro dams several decades before. This inconspicuous development at Balblair has grotesquely swollen into a 42-acre sprawl of noisy industrial kit and is a nightmare for local residents. Highland Council slapped a noise abatement notice on it as people couldn’t sleep, reported glasses of water rippling on their bedside tables, and the sound of the now notorious vibrating Beauly Buzz filled the air for miles around.
SSEN are proposing another ‘substation’ in a quiet crofting community at Fanellan in Kiltarlity. This is to be 60 acres – the size of 35 professional football pitches with space for expansion.
To live here in this world-famous landscape is a privilege. It is something many have chosen to do and I don’t know of anyone among those who have embraced the wonders of the Highlands who doesn’t want to protect them. As the seasons change, the Highlands change with it. Vibrant yellows in the spring, spellbinding purples cover hills in autumn and frosts and snow sparkle in winter. The wildlife is magical. Protected birds of prey, including our magnificent golden eagles, soar above, and majestic red deer, elusive pine martens, wildcats and red squirrels delight us when we are lucky to catch a glimpse of them. The roar of the red stag in the rut, the rare calls of curlew and capercaillie defending their lek are things you never forget once you have heard them.
Throwing caution to wind
For over a decade the Highlands with their dispersed settlements has been an easy target for speculative wind developers. I have seen the distress caused to communities torn apart, people having left their homes, marriages faltered, years of stress and depression. Folk were accused of being ‘nimbys’ whereas the truth was they wanted to protect the environment and wildlife from ruthless industrialisation, particularly because once an area was ‘trashed’ it appeared there was little point in protecting it further. Extensions to wind farms and new wind farms came so thick and fast communities were left reeling.
It was confirmed by a previous energy minister, Fergus Ewing, that the Beauly-to-Denny was built for wind farms. After construction, mainly foreign developers targeted the area until 2015 when Westminster withdrew the renewable obligation certificates – public subsidies – and what had felt like a relentless invasion ceased.
Here we are again only this time it is so much worse.
The proposed huge pylon lines, larger than the Beauly-to-Denny, are for new wind developments and driven, we believe, by the wind industry itself. These are new turbines, thousands of them and their infrastructure: miles of wide access tracks snaking up once pristine hillsides; batching plants for hundreds of thousands of tonnes of concrete required to pour into the environment for turbine bases; borrow pits where rock will be blasted out sending shockwaves through the land; multiple lorry journeys used in construction of what can only be described as an assault on nature.
This is eco vandalism. Our country roads would once again be filled with heavy traffic. Where trees are felled to make way for the turbines, massive logging transporters will rumble through. Our rural lanes were never built for this kind of abuse and we have seen how they crumble under the weight of this huge machinery.
What’s it all for?
Energy security? Government and Ofgem targets for ‘clean’ energy?
The ‘clean’ issue would need several more pages to investigate. Let us simply say that grid connections from remote wind farms, felling of CO2-absorbing trees, digging up of ancient carbon-holding peat, the pollution overseas from mining for rare earths and metals, should all have the reader compelled to research more before judging the Highland objectors.
We should strive to have our own sustainable electricity, but security means having it available on demand and not depending on the weather. Here in the Highlands we often have freezing winter weather highs and not a puff of wind for weeks. A million turbines cannot produce electricity if there is no wind. This is already evident in existing wind farms.
Adequate, cleanly sourced, affordable battery storage to give us electricity for extended periods is not yet available. Many doubt it will be for decades, if at all.
Evidence of need?
So do we need it for ‘targets’? The industry and Scottish and UK governments have repeatedly told us that we do and we believed them. However, a recent niggle has grown into demands for showing us the evidence of need. The realisation that all these new pylon lines are to give wind developers a hook-up through our treasured glens and mountains with new turbines four times the height of the proposed giant pylons has shocked even the most pro-wind supporters and some are now asking ‘why?’
The truth is, we don’t need these transmission lines or turbines to meet Scottish government targets or Ofgem’s 20-year predictions.
We have already paid nearly £1.4bn on our energy bills in constraint payments to stop wind energy being put into the national grid when demand is low. The English grid cannot take more wind power from Scotland and probably won’t for a decade. As they install more offshore wind themselves, nuclear and sub-sea cables to Morocco, it is highly likely they won’t ever need to buy it. Norway has just refused a license for a sub-sea cable from Scotland too.
Communities before power companies
Why should we allow SSEN – 75% owned by SSE, one of the most prolific wind developers in Scotland and recipient of a sizeable percentage of constraints paid for not generating – to do this to the Highlands with no guarantees the increased wind energy will even have anywhere to flow to?
Highland communities are standing up to this government-backed onslaught by SSEN. We have formed a new campaign group called Communities B4 Power Companies. No more ignoring us and no more development without the facts and figures to indisputably prove need. We will no longer accept enriching their shareholders at the environment’s and consumers’ expense just on their say-so.
People say wind energy is renewable. Our mountains and glens are not. We are merely their custodians and protectors and we will stand united to save them from unnecessary and violent industrialisation.