Wind turbines in Nether Monynut, Scotland. Scotland plans to use all renewable energy by 2020. (Photo by Flickr user cowrin.)

Scotland, the windiest place in Europe, plans to harness its wind power and rely on only renewable energy by 2020, a plan that's drawn criticism from Donald Trump.

The turbines, however, do more damage than simply disrupting Trump's golf game. Many are concerned with building wind turbines on peat bogs because the bogs contain massive amounts of CO2, and the turbines release carbon from the bogs into the atmosphere. They may even release more carbon than they save.

Dave Gilvear, professor and River Science expert at Stirling University, pointed out the distinction between renewable energy and going green.

"I think most people understand what renewable energy is," Gilvear said. "It’s getting power from the sun. It’s getting power from water. It’s getting power from the wind. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s green, in that the construction of a wind farm, the construction of a hydropower station, is going to have an environmental impact, so if you put a dam across a river, for example, and you don’t have a fish pass built into it, it’s going to stop the migration of fish. And that’s an environmental impact."

Gilvear was one of the first to discover the environmental impact of wind turbines built on peatland. He said four or five years ago, his team monitored dissolved organic carbon in streams near the turbines and found a higher concentration of carbon in the water than in streams near peatlands without it. He noted, however, that turbine planning has improved since his discovery.

"We’ve also been monitoring another wind farm down in Ayrshire. We’re not finding the same results there, in that best practice methods of construction are being adhered to. The Brazer Dune site is now seen as sort of poor practice, and hopefully those sorts of construction won’t be happening again," Gilvear said.

As a response to this, the Scottish government launched a carbon payback calculator, an estimator of how much time it would take for wind turbines to save more carbon than it cost to build them.

"The initial estimates that this group came up with, I think, were kind of between 3 and 30 years," Simon Drew, biologist at Stirling University said. "Now the operational lifetime of a wind farm is about 25 years, so, potentially, although you have a sort of non-fossil fuel energy source, it’s not carbon neutral if it’s going to be for that long."

Drew said that improvements to the calculator now produce estimates on the low end of the initial range. He said carbon is released from the peat bogs by digging into them. The wind turbines require concrete bases in their construction, and that means burrowing into the peat bogs.

"Also, the pads for the cranes that put these huge turbines in, and there also might be bits of drainage that are put in locally," Drew said. "So there is peat and carbon that’s lost through all these different ways."

Gilvear said he thinks wind turbines will benefit Scotland's renewable energy needs for the short-term but not the long-term. He believes they will eventually need to look elsewhere.

"It’s very difficult, if you destroy a peatland, to bring it back. There are restoration methods, but they’re never going to bring back a purely, naturally functioning peatland system," Gilvear said.

While Scotland may be less reliant on fossil fuels in the near future, it may have to continue looking for alternative energy sources.

Related Stories