Places to Visit in Scotland
- Whitelee Wind Farm, East Renfrewshire

Turbines as far as the eye can see!

Most wind farms, certainly in Scotland, do not set out to attract visitors. But the Whitelee Wind Farm is different. It is currently not only the largest onshore wind farm in Europe, it has a visitor centre which is the first of its kind in Scotland. Many wind farms, are in wild, inaccessible places and do not encourage people getting too close. Whitelee is certainly on moorland but is only a few miles south of Glasgow, Scotland's largest city, and there is a decent road running along its edge, an access road to the visitor centre and adjacent parking. There are also access trails (closed to visiting motorised vehicles) running to every turbine which provide extensive walks and mountain bike trails. The aim has been to create easy access to the moorland and woodland areas and its wildlife.

Whitelee was the first wind energy project in Scotland to join the Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions. And no wonder - by 2012, nearly 250,000 people had visited the site since opening in 2009, despite being closed in the winter months. It is also claimed that at least a further 100,000 people have directly accessed the wind farm’s trails for recreational purposes such as jogging and cycling.

You'll Be Blown Away

The facts about Whitelee are staggering. It began supplying power to the electricity grid in January 2008 and covers ten square miles. The number of turbines has been increased since then and in 2013 it had over 200 turbines creating a total generating capacity of up to 539 MW, with a potential to generate almost 600 megawatts of renewable energy. Of course, that assumes that the wind is blowing - and at the right speed. There are over 40 miles of trails for walkers cyclists and even horse riders, if you can get a horse there in the first place! The renewable industry is fond of quoting the number of houses a wind farm can power and the total claimed for Whitelee is over 300,000 homes. Critics point out that the figures are usually calculated on the assumption that the turbines are all operating at an optimum speed - which rarely happens. From the base of the tower to the tip of the blade is 360 feet (110 metres) and each of the blades is nearly 150 feet (45 metres) long, made of fibre glass and wood.

Whitelee is owned by a subsidiary of Scottish Power which in turn is a subsidiary of the Spanish utility Iberdrola.

Visitor Centre
The smart-looking visitor centre is open from 10am to 5pm, seven days a week from March to November and access to that and the trails is free. The cafe is open from 10am-4.30pm. Outside of these hours the car park is open and there is pedestrian and cycle access to the trails within the site.

The visitor centre also has a cafe and a shop and an informative exhibition about wind farming with hands-on interactive activities. There is also a "learning hub" for activities and workshops for members of the public and school groups. The café has large glass windows and an external deck that provides great views of the windfarm. The cafe serves hot and cold drinks and light meals and snacks.

The visitor centre is managed by Glasgow Science Centre and offers activities for education and community groups.

The visitor centre and the trails are of course part of a public relations exercise to "sell" the idea of wind farms to the general public and overcome the frequent strong resistance to them.

Windfarm Controversy
In 2011, around 35% of Scotland’s electricity came from renewable sources, exceeding the Scottish Government’s target of 31% set some years earlier. Indeed, due in part to its earlier hydro-electric schemes (Scotland has 85% of the UK's hydro-electric energy resource) as well as the more recent wind farm developments, Scotland contributed almost 40% of the UK’s renewable power output in 2011. The revised Scottish government target is to meet an equivalent of 100% demand for electricity from renewable energy by 2020.

While existing hydro-electric power schemes make a contribution to achieving these targets, a major expansion in the number and size of wind farms (with a contribution from wave power schemes) will be required. But there is frequently public resistance to what many regard as the "industrialisation" of the wild places of Scotland. In recent years, most proposals have been met with vociferous local campaigns to reject them. Landowners are usually in favour as they obtain significant payments from the power companies for allowing them to be sited on their property. In a number of cases, local government council planners have listened to their constituents and turned down the power company proposals - only to find that the power companies appeal to the ministers in Edinburgh - who approve them "in the national interests".

An added problem has been that much of the renewable energy is being created in areas of low population (and thus low demand for electricity) and needs to be transmitted long distances to reach the users. A controversial scheme, with huge pylons running from Beauly, north of Inverness to Denny near Stirling, (with part of the line running through the Grampian National Park) will be required to transmit the power to areas of higher demand. Despite more than 18,000 objections being submitted, the energy minister gave the go-ahead to the plan by the power company. Suggestions to run at least part of the line underground was rejected as "too expensive.". As the Scotsman newspaper put it, renewable energy power schemes have created "a "battle that pitches environmentalists against conservationists."

The issue rears its head for everyone who travels north to Stirling. The Ochill Hills north of Stirling, regarded as the southern edge of the Highlands, is now covered with the wind turbines (see graphic above) - hardly in keeping with the view that locals or tourists from abroad have of the wild Highlands. On the other hand, the Scottish government has sponsored a number of surveys. One of these examined the attitudes of people near Scotland’s ten largest wind farms and found there was strong support for more of Scotland's energy needs being produced by wind power. Another survey commissioned by the renewable energy industry in 2005, showed that 74% of people in Scotland agree that wind farms are necessary to meet current and future energy needs. When people were asked the same question in 2010, 78% agreed, despite there being twice as many wind farms in 2010 as there were in 2005. The 2010 survey also showed that 52% disagreed with the statement that wind farms are "ugly and a blot on the landscape".

Although public opinion appears to suggest that wind farms are considered a better option than nuclear energy or shale gas extraction, there is a growing lobby that thinks that areas of wild, natural beauty should not have them. Unfortunately, such areas are a prime target for such developments because these are in an environment where high winds are commonly found. However it appears that the Scottish Government, which has been striving for the growth of renewable energy projects, is proposing a rethink of the current planning set up that could see wind farms being banned from our national parks and “designated scenic areas”. Of course, there are many projects already in the pipeline, such as Clyde Wind Farm under construction near Abington in South Lanarkshire, which will overtake Whitelee in size and become Europe's largest onshore wind farm when completed.

Although the moors on which Whitelee is located have been used in the past by walkers, few would argue that it was an area of great natural beauty - although there are those who enjoy desolate moorland. So if the largest windfarm in Europe was to be built anywhere, it might be thought that Whitelee should not given rise to much protest - but there was a vociferous local campaign against it, in part based on nearby Eaglesham being designated Scotland's first outstanding conservation area in 1960 and the impact of construction traffic and the wind turbines on the village.

Nature Trails and Mountain Bike Trails

There are 40 miles of trails connecting the visitor centre to each turbine and all the turbines are numbered - a site map available online or at the visitor centre shows all of them, making it easy to navigate this large area (see small graphic on the left, showing the overall layout). For those who are less energetic, there is a bus (powered by electricity, of course) that takes visitors for a tour of the site for a nominal charge, allowing you to get up close to the wind turbines. And if you go to Whitelee in a car powered by electricity, there is an electric charging point there where you can "fill up"!

There are also plans for a purpose built single track mountain bike course near the visitor centre in a former borrow pit, created to supply stone during construction of the windfarm.

How to Get There
From Glasgow, take the M8 motorway and take the slip road at junction 22 to the M77. Continue on that road to junction 6 and bear left at the end of the slip road and then take the first right onto the B764 heading for Eaglesham. About 3 miles further on you can't miss the wind farm and its high turbines! There is no public transport to Whitelee although there is a bus service from Glasgow to Eaglesham, 2.5 miles from Whitelee visitor centre.

YouTube Video Clip
While some of the illustrations of Whitelee convey an impression of the scale of the wind farm, a video clip of a panorama of the site gives an even better view - see the YouTube Video Clip - Whitelee Wind Farm

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