IN FOCUS: Profits and power key to Isle of Skye wind farm debate

The view from the Heaste road of the proposed Breakish wind farm site. Pic Willie Urquhart

MICHAEL RUSSELL examines the impact of wind farms in Skye – past, present and future……

In 2006, work started on building the first wind farm on Skye.

On moorland belonging to MacLeod Estate, a few miles south east of Dunvegan, the original Ben Aketil project started generating electricity in 2009.

Italian firm Falck Renewables put up twelve turbines, each just under 100 metres high. As well as electricity, the wind farm started generating money. Everyone got their share.

On the north shore of Loch Caroy, crofters from around Feorlig were content enough with the annual payments they got from Falck.

“But we could have been happier,” one of the eight original grazing shareholders told the Free Press this week.

He asked to remain anonymous. “What we negotiated with them was the going rate at the time. Our payment is based on production of electricity rather than a ground rent.

“The bigger turbines they want to put up will increase production so our payments will increase.”

As these things have a habit of doing, Falck Renewables – which in 2006 was partnered by an outfit called RDC Scotland Ltd – has morphed into Renantis.

They’re still a global player, headquartered in Milan, with offices in London and Inverness.

“We are happy with the deal that we made”, said crofter Angus Munro. Pic Willie Urquhart

Renantis want to take down the 12 100-metre high turbines and erect nine that are twice the height. This is one of 10 projects planned for Skye – a total of 145 new turbines, most of them 200 metres high – over the next few years.

Initially, Falck also paid £30,000 into a community fund every year, which has increased since then but is still a tiny fraction of the profits the ‘repowered’ wind farm will generate.

“I can see where people are coming from on that,” the anonymous shareholder commented.

Like the shareholder at Feorlig, over at Struan, Angus Munro, one of the shareholders on Eabost common grazing, said crofters there are content with the original deal that covered the Glen Ullinish wind farm, when it was being developed by Kilmac Energy in 2015. 

“This has been superseded by Muirhall Energy,” he told the Free Press. “We are happy with the deal that we made at that time.

“As far as I am aware, all the local community councils, including Portree and Braes, were happy with what we negotiated and agreed, with their involvement.

“As it stands we are in the lap of the gods because Muirhall have expanded their ideas, but the gate is only open there because Glen Ullinish 1 stands in planning and has the go ahead.”

One of the key concerns, of course, is money.

Over the span of their lifetimes, around 30 years, the 10 projects planned for Skye stand to generate an income of at least £8.6 billion, according to Faye MacLeod, one of the most vocal opponents of what’s happening.

She lives in Park Bernisdale and will be able to see some of the turbines at the Glen Ullinish 2 wind farm extension, as well as others near Dunvegan and Edinbane.

Faye MacLeod wants smaller, community-owned schemes Pic, Willie Urquhart

Compared to total income, the community benefit to be doled out by the 10 projects will be miniscule.

Ms MacLeod said: “Assuming that the full 741.9 megawatts are consented, then £5,000 per MW of consented capacity would give community organisations over the 30 years around £111 million, but this would only be worth around £74 million in today’s value as we know in 30 years’ time that £5,000 per MW will be worth so much less than it is today.

“Muirhall Energy [Glen Ullinish 2] are looking at a higher rate of £7,000 per MW, but some projects are paying a rate below the £5,000 per MW set out in the Scottish Government guidelines.  Even if they were all to pay £7,000 per MW, this would only be around £155 million, or £103 million in today’s value.”

In other words, this equates to specific communities – households within strictly defined boundaries, not the entire island – being given between one and two per cent of the income generated by these 150 new turbines.

Teasing out accurate figures from company accounts is tricky. However, it’s easier with Ben Aketil, said Ms MacLeod,  as it was set up as a subsidiary company operating just the one site.

Using these figures, to date the 12 turbines around Feorlig have generated £107 million for Falck/Renantis, but just £589,000 in community benefit. This is 0.5 per cent of turnover.

Community-owned turbines – such as those belonging to Point and Sandwick Trust in Lewis and Storas Uibhist at Loch Carnan – produce, in relative terms, much bigger returns for the community from a much smaller visual and environmental impact.

A report commissioned by PST put an exact figure on this: community owned turbines deliver 34 times the amount generated by commercial developments, £170,000 per MW versus £5,000.

In South Uist, for instance, just three 100-metre turbines at Loch Carnan generate between £800,000 and £1 million every year for the community.

On the face of it, locally owned turbines win hands down.

However, the anonymous shareholder from the Feorlig area had another view.

He warned: “Ben Aketil didn’t cost us anything, and the servicing and repair work – one turbine just a couple of weeks ago, they had the head off it.

“The likes of that costs a fortune. To put one big one up for a community, what happens when it stops working?

“The cost is absolutely huge and repairing it could wipe out all the profit you’ve made for years.

“Because of that, I felt more comfortable with a development company coming in.

“It is very difficult to get community turbines insured now after what happened when the subsea cable across the Minch broke and wind farms in the islands couldn’t export their power.”

In terms of direct local jobs – which used to be a selling point for commercial developers – Ben Aketil’s legacy, and probably for every other onshore wind farm too, is negligible.

“There is a workshop in Portree, but where the guys that come and do the maintenance are from I’m not sure,” said the north Skye source. “The crane they had up there a couple of weeks ago was from Invergordon. Someone cuts the grass; local boys do that.”

Since Ben Aketil, there have been quite a few other commercial projects, all in north Skye. Now there’s one planned for south Skye too.

In fact, along with so many upgrades and repowerings of existing sites, it’s easy to lose track of just what is happening, and where.

This is exactly why the website was set up by Faye MacLeod along with Charles Macdonald, a landowner from nearby Skeabost Bridge. It went live last week.

The website states: “This website has been compiled from publicly available information by residents on Skye wishing to provide a centralised resource of data and links to other wind farm related information which is often difficult to access.”

That is one of the issues flagged up by those who want the Scottish Government to intervene: the proliferation of these larger turbines on Skye needs to be examined as a matter of urgency before we go and do something stupid, like drive all the tourists away.

To avoid this happening, new projects must be halted, and a public inquiry held to establish what the impacts are likely to be.

This is the position of Portree and Braes Community Trust and the local community council.

“The cumulative size of the industrial-scale wind developments being planned for the Isle of Skye is beyond what the island can cope with,” a recent joint statement added.

Rhona Coogan is objecting to the plans near her home in Breakish Pic Willie Urquhart

Tourists may recoil at the sight of these metal behemoths. What remains of the island’s crumbling council roads could be pulverized by transporting turbine components into place. Concerns of this nature are spreading.

Rhona Coogan from Lower Breakish is one of those fighting plans for 20 turbines on land owned by Fearann Eilean Iarmain, between the Sleat and Kylerhea roads, close to the A87.

Breakish common grazing shareholders also stand to benefit from a share of the ground rent.

“So many people come to the island for the Cuilllins and all these wind farms are going to be blighting the world-class landscape of the island,” she said.

“People will not come from the cities to holiday in an industrial landscape like that. The Skye reinforcement line planned by SSE is only happening because of these wind farms and they are not replacing like with like, but with massive pylons which will further blight the precious landscape we have here.”

Landowner Fearann Eilean Iarmain points out that Broadford and Strath Community Company will also receive “substantial annual funding” from the development, which is being overseen by Swedish firm Arise.

Speaking to the Free Press, FEI director Malcolm Younger acknowledged that there may well be a “cumulative impact” from the 10 projects currently earmarked for Skye “which will be a question for the planners to consider relative to each application.”

He added: “The Breakish development proposal will be subject to further wide public consultation following the planning application to the Scottish Government.”

He reminded objectors that FEI has a “long track record” of over 50 years of “investing in the economy of Skye, supporting local communities and contributing in many areas.”

Locations selected by developers are those with the “best wind speeds to support the substantial development cost, combined with the availability of transmission capability”, Mr Younger added. “The configuration and dimensions of turbines are those which best utilise that resource and minimise any adverse environmental and commercial impacts,” he said.

Famously, back in the noughties, a few high profile celebrity objectors like Channel 4 boss Jeremy Isaacs, part of an elite band of Nimbys, sought to derail the first wind farms on Skye, most notably at Edinbane.

They did not succeed.

This time around, the turbines dwarf the old models and they number in the hundreds.

Consequently, it isn’t just TV producers and Tory candidates who are concerned about what is happening on Skye.