DOUGLAS, Scotland — When the breeze blows the wrong way over the grassy hilltops above this quiet Scottish village, coal dust from the mines below can darken the air that powers rows of slim, white wind turbines.
The two coal pits, providing one of Britain’s oldest and dirtiest forms of energy, are just hundreds of yards from the sleek modern windmills that many environmentalists hope will lead the way toward a future of clean, renewable power.
Britain’s tiny wind-power industry is in the midst of a major expansion, with vast wind farms being constructed from the Scottish highlands to the Welsh countryside. More are on the way, thanks to new government rules requiring power companies to seek renewable energy sources.
The wind sector will have to grow even more quickly if Britain is to achieve its goal of getting 10 percent of all electricity from renewable sources by 2010, part of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s plan to confront the threat of global warming.
Backers tout gusty Britain, one of Europe’s windiest nations, as a natural home for wind energy. The same stiff breezes that turn Londoners’ umbrellas inside out, they argue, could light homes and run refrigerators and air conditioners around the country.
“There’s more wind than anyone knows what to do with,” boasted Alison Hill, spokeswoman for the British Wind Energy Association. “Our wind speeds are much higher [than elsewhere in Europe]. I’m sure anyone who lives here will tell you that for free.”
Britain has lagged far behind its Continental neighbors in developing ecologically friendly power sources, but Mr. Blair’s government is taking seriously the need to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that come from burning fossil fuels and are blamed for warming the planet.
The prime minister said in February that confronting environmental problems, including global warming, is as important as battling terrorism. He argued that the Kyoto Protocol regulations to reduce greenhouse emissions — rejected by President Bush as too costly for the United States — did not go far enough.
Mr. Blair pledged that Britain would seek to cut 60 percent from its carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, an ambitious goal that the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution recommended as necessary for the country to confront climate change seriously.
That same commission chastised Britain in a 2000 report for failing to develop renewable energy as aggressively as other European countries.
Brian Wilson, who recently stepped down as energy minister, said Britain had missed its chance in the 1980s to become a leading wind-turbine manufacturer, a role Denmark grabbed instead. He added that the government hopes to make Britain the main producer of equipment to harvest power from the ocean’s waves and tides, technology still being developed.
Germany now leads Europe in wind-energy production, with enough turbines installed to generate about 12,000 megawatts of power, or 5 percent of its electricity, compared with Denmark with 2,900 megawatts, or 20 percent of its needs, and Britain with 552 megawatts, or less than 0.4 percent of its electricity.
The United States has a capacity to produce 4,685 megawatts, or less than 1 percent of its electricity consumption, from wind. One megawatt is enough to power between 500 and 600 European homes — or 300 homes in energy-guzzling America. Energy-producing capacity is measured by the number of megawatts generated at any given instant.
Britain’s lack of a major wind industry, combined with a deregulated energy market, strong winds and last year’s renewable-energy requirement for 2010 make it Europe’s most attractive locale for wind-energy development, consultants Ernst & Young said in a report.
The government is investing millions of pounds to boost the sector — which causes no pollution — and is speeding approval for new projects.
The 2010 target is “very challenging,” Mr. Wilson said. “We’re capable of meeting it, but it will take a tremendous effort and commitment.”
Scotland, with its strong winds, mountains and open spaces, is at the heart of Britain’s wind aspirations, and many new sites also are planned in England and Wales.
At the Hagshaw Hill wind farm above the old Scottish coal town of Douglas, just south of Glasgow, the winds blow strong and steady even on a day that feels calm at sea level.
Twenty-six slim turbines, each 115 feet high, create no sound louder than a faint rustle as they turn, and sheep and cows graze in their shadows.
The 8-year-old wind farm run by Scottish Power already is being overtaken by new technology. Newer turbines are 330 feet tall and generate far more energy than Hagshaw Hill’s. The machines are expected eventually to grow to 530 feet.
Many believe the biggest wind-power boom eventually will be in huge sites planned at sea, where winds are high and giant turbines can be installed without ruining residents’ views. Offshore wind-farm technology is less advanced than that of land turbines, however, and startup costs remain high.
Supporters say wind energy is growing so fast that it will account for more than half the 2010 renewable requirement, with hydropower contributing most of the rest.
“We’re definitely behind” in developing renewable power sources, said Alan Mortimer, head of wind development at Scottish Power. “But we’re catching up.”
Additional information on these subjects is available on the Internet at the British Wind Energy Association: https://www.bwea.com; the British government renewable-energy program:https:// www.dti.gov.uk/energy/renewables; the European Wind Energy Association: https://www.ewea.org, and American Wind Energy Association: https://www.awea.org/.