Work begins near Glasgow on biggest windfarm in Europe

After a five year-battle for planning approval, developers have started work on Europe's biggest onshore wind farm - a 140-turbine creation at the heart of Scotland's drive to become the "Saudi Arabia" of renewable energy.

The 140 turbines of the £300m Whitelee wind farm, which will be built in moorland and forest near East Kilbride, south of Glasgow, will provide enough electricity to power 200,000 homes. Though the prospect of generating 322 megawatts of energy - enough to power all of Glasgow - has seen off concerns about environmental impact, supporters of onshore wind energy in the UK admit that a project of its ilk may never secure planning permission again.

Whitelee will supply one-eighth of the capacity needed to meet the Scottish Executive's ambitious target of generating 40 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Westminster has been less ambitious about renewable targets, setting a 10 per cent UK target for 2020, towards which Whitelee will also contribute 2.4 per cent of the capacity. The station's developer, Scottish Power, estimates that it will also prevent the emission of 650,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.

The Trade and Industry Secretary Alistair Darling said Scotland had long been the UK's "powerhouse" and was establishing itself as the vanguard on renewables. Around 16 per cent of Scotland's electricity already comes from these sources, compared to 4 per cent for the UK as a whole.

Plans for Whitelee have not progressed smoothly. Officials at Glasgow Aiport initially opposed the project because of concerns that the spinning rotors might confuse the airport's radar. As a result of the objection, Scottish Power agreed to build a £5m radar installation 30 miles away in Kincardine, on the site of a former power station. Scottish National Heritage also expressed concerns about the potential impact on black grouse and liverwort populations. Other groups were unhappy about the site's visibility: it can be seen from a distance of 10 miles.

But the Scottish Executive's faith in such projects is enabling the nation's developers to succeed where English wind farm developers, in areas such as Cumbria where the 27-turbine Whinnash scheme was rejected seven months ago, have failed. Whitelee will take three years to complete and will be three times the size of the UK's current biggest wind farm, at Blacklaw in South Lanarkshire.

The start of work at Whitelee coincides with a new period of Government consultation over which renewable emergy forms should be used to enable the UK to hit its 20 per cent target. Mr Darling launched the consultation process at Whitelee, where he underlined the fact that more energy would have to come from wind, wave, tidal and biomass technologies.

Scottish Power has voiced fears that funding for onshore schemes, unpopular among some environmentalists, may be reduced at the expense of untested forms of renewable energy, such as marine or solar power. The British Wind Energy Association estimates that the UK's potential offshore resource amounts to three times the annual UK energy consumption.

Wind farms

By Ian Herbert and Stephen Habberley

* Whitelee might be big but it's nothing compared with the next wind power giant Scotland is planning near Stornoway on the island of Lewis. This would be the world's largest farm with 200 wind turbines, each 120m tall. The electricity generated would be "exported" via a 350-mile under-sea cable.

There are also plans for a London Array farm in the Thames estuary: 1,000 megawatts of electricity from 270 turbines, powering 750,000 homes.

The Danes lead the European industry, though their farms are more modest than those in Scotland. The biggest is Horns Rev, near Jutland, with 80 turbines supplying enough power for 150,000 homes.

Britain's biggest wind farm before Whitelee is Hadyard Hill, in South Ayrshire, with enough output to supply 60,000 homes. England's largest is in Barrow (30 turbines) generating enough energy for 50,000 homes.