It wasn’t exactly a stand up row - environmentalists don’t do that kind of thing. But there was certainly a free and frank exchange of view at the Friends of the Earth Christmas reception between an officer of the Ramblers Association and a senior figure in Friends of the Earth. The bone of contention? Highlands against pylons.
Essentially, Friends of the Earth think pylons are, well, friends of the earth because they allow the transmission of renewable energy from places like the Isle of Lewis wind farm, the biggest in Europe, to urban centres. Renewable energy tends to be in the remoter places where there is a lot of wind and tide and high water.
But ramblers and bird watchers take a rather different view. They don’t see why saving the planet should have to involve the destruction of some of the most precious wild land in the world. Nor do the birdies and bobbles see it as a fair environmental trade to destroy habitats and endanger species like Golden Eagle, just so we can go on being profligate with our central heating thermostats.
At first, the anti-pylon protesters were dismissed as nimbys and what the West Highland Free Press called “nouveau highlanders”. However, the pylonophobes are not going away. 12,000 people have signed a petition against upgrading the 137 pylon line between Beauly near Inverness and Denny in Stirlingshire. The Presiding Office rof the the Scottish Parliament no less, George Reid, has declared his opposition.
There is talk of bird “genocide” as a result of onshore windfarms - there will be another 55 of them if Scotland is to meet its 20% renewable target by 2010. That means thousands of pylons marching across Scotland. The very least we should do, say well-heeled activists like Lord Love, is to bury the cables under ground or in the sea.
There are other potent factors in the pylon mix. Cover the Highlands with 65-foot tall steel leviathans and you can wave goodbye to the tourist industry. High tension electricity cables are implicated in in a range of health problems from leukemia to chronic depression. Then there is the small matter of house prices.
Pylons revive ancient enmities between highland and lowland Scotland. But it’s not just in the Scottish glens that the sound of battle is being heard. Pylons are causing divisions in the conservation movement from the Romney Marshes to the Minches. And unlike nuclear power - which all environmental groups are united against - the transmission issue represent a real philosophical schism between techies and animal-lovers. Between those who think mankind has a right, not only to consume natural resources, but to promote economic welfare at the expense of animal kind and wilderness. And those who don’t.
The nuclear power industry doesn’t have a dog in this fight. However, its lobbyists are watching the pylon wars very carefully. Discord over the environmental impact of wind farms can’t do any harm to their claim to be the only truly “green” energy source.
I’m no conspiracy theorist, but it has struck many as curious that the largest wind farm in Europe - 234 turbines - had to be built on a peatland Special Protection Area which is the last redoubt of the White Tailed Sea Eagle and other rare species. It has also struck many as curious that this project should be run jointly by AMEC, Britain’s largest private nuclear services company, and British Energy, which owns and operates Britain’s nuclear power stations.
Now, I’m sure their search for renewable alternatives to nuclear power generation is wholly sincere . However, the row over Highlands against Pylons conveniently diverts attention from the problems with nuclear. It also sends a message to government that so-called “alternatives” aren’t so alternative after all - just at the moment when Tony Blair is contemplating a new generation of nuclear stations.
The Lewis wind farm has also been criticised by some environmentalists, not just because of the habitats, but because it disturbs a peatland which is a “carbon sink” - a bog which locks greenhouse gas under the soil. Planting three hundred wind turbines each five hundred feet high, causes massive disturbance which releases the very gas, CO2, which we are trying to remove from the atmosphere.
But, hey, there is no free lunch. Every solution to climate change has its drawbacks. You have to weigh up the consequences and try to find the least damaging alternative to the present cycle of climatic self-destruction.
Everyone has to make their own decisions, but I personally will not be marching against the pylon menace. Nor do I intend to chain myself to the wind mills of Soutra Hill. Pylons are ugly and unpleasant, and I wouldn’t want one in my back yard, but they do have a number of advantages.
Putting power cables underground is hugely expensive - about twelve times the cost - and burial poses its own serious environmental and health problems. An undersea power line to Dounreay or the North of England is a theoretical possibility which shouldn’t be ruled out, but is also prohibitively expensive.
The great advantage of pylons is that they are essentially temporary structures which do not fundamentally alter the landscape they cover. Eyesores they may be, but we already have a lot of them, and the plan to upgrade the Beauly to Denny line will actually lead to fewer pylons, albeit taller ones. Opponents have every right to protest and campaign for their early removal. But for the time being they will remain a visible reminder that our extravagant use of energy has a cost.
In time another technology will emerge which will allow the pylons to be dismantled - and the sooner the better. But time is short, and the temperature is rising. It is almost impossible to envisage significant exploitation of wind, wave and tidal energy in the short term without an overland means of transmission.
Scotland has 25% of Europe’s wind and tidal energy potential; Lewis alone will generate 1% of the UK’s energy needs. There’s no getting away from it: if we are serious about meeting CO2 targets, we are going to have pylons.
However, it doesn’t end there. We urbanites cannot just walk away from the environmental consequences. There needs to be a new deal struck between the city and the countryside; between highland and lowland Scotland.
First of all, we need to generate as much power as possible in our own back-yards. Every house could become a micro-power generator by exploiting the central heating boilers; by using roof-top windmills and solar panels and - most important of all - by conserving energy through insulation. It is quite possible to build houses today that actually contribute energy to the national grid rather than draw power from it.
And a final thought. The Firth of Forth is one of the windiest estuaries in Scotland, as every resident of Edinburgh knows. Why not a bank of offshore windmills there? Wind turbines look much better in an urban context where they can look almost beautiful. What better way to show the Highlands that we don’t regard their environment as expendable? If Scotland’s capital city were to embrace the windmill, it would be a lot easier to ask highlanders to embrace the pylon.