There have been a number of controversies in the U.S. over the location and construction of wind farms. But in Scotland, opinions regarding the benefits versus the downsides of wind power seem to be spinning faster than turbine blades on a blustery day.
“We have a cultural blind-spot when it comes to this habitat [peatlands] because they are too wet to farm, but too dry to fish.”
Scientists from Aberdeen University, whose research was funded by the Scottish government, are about to publish a paper stating that the thousands of wind turbines located throughout Britain will create more greenhouse gases than they save.
Yet, according to a report in The Telegraph, these same scientists wrote in a previous paper that “it is important that wind farm developments should not be discouraged unnecessarily because they are a key requirement for delivery of the Scottish government’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
Why the change of heart? Location, location, location.
In Scotland two thirds of all planned onshore wind development is on peatland, and many existing and future wind farms in England and Wales are also on, or will be located on, peatland.
Like trees and plants, peat bogs can contain and absorb carbon but in even much higher quantities. Peat is typically about five percent organic matter and 95 percent water. According to The Telegraph, “British peatland stores at least 3.2 billion tons of carbon, making it by far the country’s most important carbon sink and among the most important in the world.”
Richard Lindsay, head of the Environmental Research Group at the University of East London, tells TakePart that, “The main harm to the peat habitat resulting from wind farm development is not the turbines themselves, but the roads required to construct and maintain them. These cut across the natural drainage of the peat moorlands, in particular causing areas downslope to be drier than they were before. Peat only forms because it is waterlogged. If it is no longer waterlogged it shrinks, cracks, and oxidizes to carbon dioxide, literally vanishing into thin air.”
Although developers have claimed that these roads “float,” Lindsay says that’s a fallacy because crushed stone is denser than peat, which contains less solids than milk. “They sink steadily into the peat over the years, forming an increasingly marked barrier to water movement.”
So why aren’t people more upset about this?
Lindsay explains that although the world’s peatlands have four times more carbon than all the world’s rainforests, they are what he calls a “Cinderella habitat” that is invisible to decision makers.
“Ask anyone in your local shopping mall to draw a picture of a woodland, or a meadow, and you will be presented with a picture which is a passable indication of a woodland or a meadow,” he says. “Ask the same people to draw a peat bog and you’ll be met with blank stares.”
“We have a cultural blind-spot when it comes to this habitat because they are too wet to farm, but too dry to fish, and therefore we have rendered them invisible to our consciousness because we cannot do anything ‘useful’ with them—other than drain them and turn them into something which we do regard as useful,” says Lindsay.
“Consequently peatlands are the Cinderella habitat—doing an enormous amount of productive work and providing a whole range of services but nevertheless completely invisible, with most people unaware that peatlands even exist. Setting aside all the other services which peatlands provide, such as water supply, flood-relief, water purification, local climate control to name but a few, and considering only their capacity to soak up carbon from the atmosphere and store it for millennia, it is now estimated by reputable scientific papers that, globally, peatlands contain at least 1,500 Gigatonnes of carbon in their top one meter thickness alone—and some peatlands are 10 meters deep,” says Lindsay.
He goes on to explain that this quantity of carbon is twice the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and three times the amount of all the world’s vegetation. “It is thus easy to see that rainforests are a comparatively limited repository of carbon compared to the world’s peatlands, though in fact significant areas of rainforest are also peatlands,” Lindsay says. “Yet we are probably damaging or destroying our peatlands at an even faster rate than we are destroying the rainforests. And much of this damage is, in effect, invisible because if you cannot see something, then you cannot see that you are damaging it.”
How, or whether, the Aberdeen research report will affect government policy is still unclear.
Lindsay notes that since the findings come from an eminent Scottish university it’s possible that will have some influence on the Scottish Parliament.
“It is worth noting that the Scottish Parliament has just recently announced that it has allocated $1.8 million to the restoration of damaged peat bog in Scotland,” he says. “So continuing to approve wind farms which will cause further damage to Scottish peatlands would not seem particularly logical. But then is politics ever logical?”