Councils cannot ignore the benefits offered by major developments

PHOTO: Peter Urpeth

It is absolutely right and proper that the Scottish Government’s energy consents unit have extended the consultation period for the Stornoway Wind Farm planning proposal, to afford the Stornoway Community Council more time to make any representations with regard to any objections they might have.

All the statutory consultees have been aware of the development and its environmental impact assessment since being notified as far back as the 30th of May 2019 (and subsequently with supplementary environmental information, advertised twice in March 2020 and a second submission in November 2020).

The residents of Stornoway were also ‘leafleted’, grazing committees and councillors informed, and everyone was invited to view the public consultation events held in the town hall.

The matter concerned a section 36 application which detailed the material changes (bigger turbines) and invited all concerned to participate in the pre-application consultation with a view to gathering local opinions.
Not a single objection was forthcoming.

The conclusion that there was “no public interest in holding a public local inquiry” was, correctly, based on this.

A hastily cobbled together Facebook poll, quickly seized upon, concluded otherwise.

Stornoway’s own community council was only formed after the initial notifications were distributed, thereby missing out, initially, on the opportunity to participate.

They should be heard.

They are highlighting several impacts on the town area.

All of these were covered in the report that appeared before the planning application board, indeed all of the negative impacts of such a large-scale development were highlighted in the submissions (considerations given to ornithology, ecology, geology, hydrology and noise/light pollution), but, with the proviso that the comhairle work with the developer, statutory consultees and the Scottish Government’s energy consents unit to best mitigate these ‘impacts’.

In the board report the positive elements of the proposal were also highlighted — the significant economic benefits, the greenhouse gas benefits, the positive climate change impacts — and after debate it was agreed to proceed on the basis that the benefits outweigh the negatives.
As vice chairman of sustainable development, and also a member of the planning applications board and the Action for Arnish group, I could not ignore these benefits.

A lot does hinge on this particular application.

The consultation deadline is March 4th.

When it comes to visual impacts, down here in the ‘Republic’ of Point we have been subjected to the sight of no fewer than 10 turbines as we drive towards ‘Gotham’, for the best part of five years.

Only three are of any meaningful benefit to our economy and they belong to us.

Does this, to a degree, make them easier on the eye?

EDF (operating as Lewis Wind Power) has long been subjected to a well-orchestrated campaign of opposition.

The reasons are myriad, historical and complex.

That the comhairle, the Stornoway Trust and most other local landowners failed to capitalise on the potential bounty on our own doorstep in the early 2000s is hardly their fault.

Blame previous administrations, if you must.

Yet for having the temerity to be foreign, have a confirmed lease, have a business plan, a grid connection offer and the finance to capitalise on the potential that we so obviously missed out on; EDF have been hugely vilified at almost every turn.

Of course it would be better if the island was reaping all of these financial rewards for the complete benefit to the local community/economy (check out Point and Sandwick, Galson, Tolsta and Horshader schemes), but several factors must be taken into consideration.

Not everyone had the foresight of the above visionaries, the capacity to export energy has always been capped by the size of the connection to the mainland, and the marketplace isn’t as bountiful as it was 10 years ago.
Should the comhairle be looking to build turbines now?

The difficulty arises with the ability to fund a project on which the comhairle has absolutely no sighting on the energy price which can be realised at the forthcoming Contract for Difference auction.

The council needs to be looking to maximise the potential which can be gleaned from the renewables ‘regime’, while minimising its exposure to risk, unplanned spending, or speculation.

The time for building turbines, or investigating the possibility of building turbines, was10 to 20 years ago and the opportunity was missed.

Circumstances change and I’m sure that those trusted with the policy decisions of the comhairle, armed with all the facts they had at their disposal then, made what they considered the correct choice(s).

The council’s current energy strategy is to attempt to generate income for the people of these islands who do not directly benefit from the current crop of excellent schemes, as listed above.

The joint venture between the comhairle and the trust seeks to maximise, with no risk to either body, the potential income from their stake in Stornoway and Uisenis wind farms.

That being said, the ‘playing field’ has changed significantly and the days of ‘wine and roses’, currently enjoyed by those fortunate enough to have had the foresight to build historically, will not, in any way shape or form, be comparable to any future, post CfD, landscape.

It would be difficult to go to the bank, ask for a loan to buy an ice cream van, without any idea what the market price for ice cream was.

So why is the success of Stornoway Wind Farm so crucial?

The issue of windfarm development in Lewis is a challenging and complex one that requires negative impacts to be weighed up against significant benefits. It is always a balanced decision that requires a host of issues to be taken into consideration.

Here are a few things to consider for those asked to respond to Stornoway Community Council’s consultation.

The island grid, supplied by a shaky distribution link from Fort Augustus through Skye, is full to capacity and closed to new connections – it has been for years.

SSEN have decided to replace the failed Skye to Harris cable with a like-for-like 33kV cable.

The new 33kV cable will offer 40 per cent more export capacity, enough to provide firm connections for our existing community generators (they currently take it in rotation to switch off turbines).

SSEN will not build a second 33kV cable without solid demand for it, in terms of prospective wind farms with approved planning permission and solid grid connection contracts.

This effectively means that the only way to achieve additional capacity for the islands is to back the planned 600MW transmission link with its 180MW of ‘headroom’ for future projects.

Only the commercial wind farms, Stornoway Wind Farm, Uisenis Wind Farm and Druim Leathann Wind Farm (Tolsta), have the financial wherewithal to underwrite the planned transmission link (tens of millions in underwriting and cash securities).

Ofgem will authorise the transmission link only if Stornoway Wind Farm goes ahead.

These issues therefore lead me to the following conclusions:
• Any attempt to derail Stornoway Wind Farm is an attempt to derail the transmission link.
• Any attempt to derail Stornoway Wind Farm is an attempt to derail future community renewables schemes which will have no route to market.
• Any attempt to derail Stornoway Wind Farm is an attempt to derail low cost electricity for island consumers (through 20 per cent shared ownership for the community in Stornoway Wind Farm).
• Any attempt to derail Stornoway Wind Farm is an attempt to derail the prospects of the Arnish Yard, specially selected by Harland and Wolff to fabricate structures for west coast wind farms.
• Any attempt to derail Stornoway Wind Farm is an attempt to derail our nascent hydrogen economy since commercial wind farm owners will export hydrogen to Europe.
• Any attempt to derail Stornoway Wind Farm is an attempt to derail the £50 million deep water terminal, since it is premised on a renewables and a hydrogen economy.

With no transmission link, no commercial wind farms, no community wind farms, no low cost electricity, continued dependence on imported fossil fuels, an undermined deep water terminal, an undermined Arnish fabrication yard and a hydrogen economy set back by ten years; what is the alternative?

I love my wild and unspoilt vistas, my beaches and my hills as much as the next islander.

I’d love the notion of population growth and sustainability, based on gin, tweed, tourism, crofting and salmon farming to be a reality; but it isn’t.

There needs to be, and I’ve said this before, a ‘mix’ of the strands that make up the fabric of our island’s economy.

And we need to add another strand to move in anyway the right direction to reverse the current trend(s).

There are several sides to every argument.

We count the peatland, the visual impact and the hen harriers on the one hand and all the rest, outlined above, on the other.

We take everything on board and hope that we are making the right choices for the benefit of more than just Stornoway.

If there are any better alternatives, they’ve managed to remain hidden from view for far too long.