Harvesting the energy of local communities

Lisa MacDonaldBY LISA MACDONALD

“Aim high. Be ambitious. Initiative can be taken by a wider range of forces [than government] and we can achieve a lot.”

These words were spoken recently during a podcast by Andy Wightman, one of the newly-elected first-time MSPs — a group whose commitment and dedication is matched by real warmth and approachability and who, it appears, seek not to rule but to serve. Andy, in particular, is a tireless and fastidiously knowledgeable campaigner for land reform, people power and the environment.

Every time I switch on a light or the kettle I am aware that energy is one of the pressing issues of our time: how much we use, how much we are prepared to pay for it, how we produce it, how we can store it, what impact our choices have on our world and its future. These all need considered answers, and quickly, too.

We can still look away and carry on regardless, but only just. While we’re busy not looking, the consequences continue to mount up and shape the choices for future generations. In the face of Westminster’s short-sighted energy policies we need groups and individuals with great vision and conviction in order to drive forward positive change.

When that drive and vision unites local communities then its scope can go far beyond energy production alone. Communities are trying to empower themselves and create greater resilience and viability. Community trusts and development companies are seeking to establish routes for strengthening local economies in order to retain inhabitants, attract new families and make life that bit easier.

From land buyouts to sustainable housing, from eco-tourism to renewable energy and many more projects across the country, volunteers give their time and energy because, as one community company director said: “It needs doing and it’s worth doing and there’s nobody else to do it. It’ll make our local world a better place.”

Communities are trying to empower themselves and create greater resilience and viability.

Local government reform and the re-design of boundaries to make significantly smaller council areas would afford true local accountability and empowerment, allowing communities to allocate spending according to their needs and priorities. Until then, however, rural communities will often find themselves geographically, emotionally and factually distant from the centres of decision-making. In the case of Highland Council, that applies to about 80 per cent of its land area and almost 60 per cent of its population. I am deliberately avoiding the word ‘remote’ in all its misleading prejudice.

Everywhere is remote from somewhere: a Welsh friend once heard his elderly aunt explain that she never went to London because it was too remote. This relative term has become implicitly fixed and is increasingly used to mean peripheral, even unimportant. To locals, these communities are central, not peripheral. They are simply home: a place where folk live, where they’d like to find housing, work and activities for their children. A family I know are moving mother and children nearer Inverness because their home village (going back generations), about a hundred miles away, simply cannot offer the opportunities they need: dance classes, instrumental tuition, sports facilities, clubs.

Even employment is scarce. Contrast this with the Norwegian contingent who visited Ullapool Community Trust recently. Broadband, infrastructure, investment in public services and quality of life were basic expectations for them; my description of the broadband service suffered by our more rural communities was met with incredulity. Surely, they asserted, places which are already disadvantaged by physical inaccessibility must be properly supported with regard to virtual infrastructure and services in order to level the playing field and to be economically competitive.

IN WESTER ROSS, the renewables sector is beginning to make headway this summer as work is underway on three ambitious and inspiring local energy schemes which are expected to bring tangible benefits to their communities alongside the production of clean energy.

BroomPower, the Lochbroom community hydro scheme at Lael, near Ullapool, has cleared the hurdles of planning permission and feed-in-tariff pre-accreditation and is now at the fundraising stage.

Surely, they asserted, places which are already disadvantaged by physical inaccessibility must be properly supported with regard to virtual infrastructure and services in order to level the playing field and to be economically competitive.

Lochbroom Community Renewables, a subsidiary of Ullapool Community Trust, have opted to raise the money by offering investment in community shares with a probable annual return of four per cent. A total of 133,000 of 900,000 community shares have been sold since the share issue was launched at their Hydro Hoolie at the end of April. The process must be completed by 31st August of this year in order for the project to go ahead; this would allow the company to progress the turbine order in time to begin construction in 2017.

It is hoped that the scheme will be operational by the winter of 2017-18, thereby closing a neat historical circle. Sir John Fowler, of Forth Railway Bridge fame — who lived nearby at Braemore — considered installing the second hydro-electric scheme in Scotland there around the turn of the last century but found his project hampered by the fact that nobody would be able to use all the power he intended to generate.

The residents of Coigach, too, have seen recent developments with regard to both of their renewables schemes.

The wind power project at Ach’ a’ Bhraighe was subject to an agreement under Section 19A of the Crofters’ Act which governs remuneration to crofting shareholders for the temporary release of common grazings in order to site the small single wind turbine. Objections to the Section 19A proposal resulted in a 10-week delay in an already tight schedule as the matter was referred to the Scottish Land Court. Having already secured planning consent, Coigach Wind Power, a subsidiary of the Coigach Community Development Company, recently received the eagerly-awaited decision from the Land Court who sat for two warm May days in Ullapool to hear evidence.

The Court Note and Order is detailed, balanced and thoroughly considered, implying that the officers were very aware of their responsibilities: with this case, they are setting precedent in clarifying a section of the law that had remained untested until now, every single one of 15 previous applications having been submitted unopposed. The scheme must be commissioned by March 2017 in order to qualify for its pre-accredited feed-in tariff.

This arbitrary date is the direct result of last year’s decision by the UK Government to phase out the guaranteed (pre-accredited) tariff which is negotiated in advance, thereby allowing accurate financial projections in the absence of which risks can be incalculable. If the project were to miss the deadline by even an hour, the electricity production payment would decrease to such a degree as to render a project like this bankrupt with immediate effect. These artificial deadlines now apply to all such enterprises and cause enormous strain for the committed, unpaid volunteers involved as any unexpected delays have the potential to derail projects entirely.

All of these schemes will provide their communities with an independent means of income and in these turbulent times that is a very precious thing indeed.

Coigach Wind Power must now finalise their arrangements with funders, contractors and suppliers and begin work by August if it hopes to complete in time.

Work underway at the hydro scheme at Acheinver

Work underway at the hydro scheme at Acheinver

IN THE MEANTIME, building works have commenced on the Allt a’ Bhraighe hydro scheme at Acheninver.

Contractors began building tracks and trenches and installing infrastructure in early May. A temporary bypass water supply serving all of Coigach is almost completed and the foundations for the turbine house are beginning to take shape while the trench holding the penstock — the intake pipe — is beginning to snake its way up the hillside. It is anticipated that installation will be completed within six months: another tight schedule as the deadline for commissioning is December of this year.

Immense pressures were placed upon this project by the feed-in-tariff pre-accreditation deadline, both directly and indirectly; contractors are extremely busy trying to deal with the many projects nationwide which are approaching similar deadlines, causing prices to rise and contracts to be difficult to secure.

The scheme was originally a 50:50 joint venture between Ben Mor Hydro, another subsidiary of CCDC, and largely made up of directors from the same small group of dedicated local volunteers, and the Scottish Wildlife Trust who own the land. In the end, they were faced with the stark choice of handing over control as well as risk or jettisoning the project altogether. Locogen, an Edinburgh-based renewables company with years of experience of community energy schemes, came on board in December 2015 offering a 25 per cent share of profits to be split between the community and SWT who have, in turn, given a commitment to keep their share of profits within the community.

All of these schemes will provide their communities with an independent means of income and in these turbulent times that is a very precious thing indeed. Ultimately, thanks and admiration are due to the folks who are prepared to give so freely of their time and energy to make their communities viable and vibrant.