Looks like the French multinational with grand designs on the crofting ground of Lewis is strengthening its grasp on the Hebrides.
Lewis Wind Power (the disingenuously titled partnership of EDF Energy and Amec-Foster-Wheeler) is setting up a new base in Stornoway on Cromwell Street — at 9 Harbour View, through the cut behind Rhoda Grant and David Stewart’s office.
The office is being officially opened tomorrow (Wednesday), with invitations having gone out to councillors at the end of last week.
There will be a number of speeches, including one from Lewis Wind Power director Mark Vyvan Robinson and another from Roddie Mackay, leader of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.
A speech from Roddie Mackay to mark the occasion? Well that’s cosy.
But before we get any further into this, let’s remind ourselves of a few salient points.
As the driving force in LWP, EDF want to develop a 36-turbine wind farm on a massive swathe of crofting land surrounding Stornoway. There was never any consultation with the crofters over this. Stornoway Trust’s elected board of trustees — around 10 men — granted a lease to the land that could last for 70 years. (They have done the same at Tolsta too, apparently, but that is a story for another day.)
The total community benefit — the pot of money to go to the community as ‘compensation’ for hosting the 36 turbines — will be approximately £900,000. There is also the much-touted offer from EDF for the community to buy a 20 per cent share of the wind farm after completion to reap further benefits.
In a previous blog post, I wrote about how that would cost around £50million and has been dismissed by a renewables finance expert as a “hollow offer”. (Read it here.)
Stornoway Trust commissioned a report on the financing of this 20 per cent a couple of years ago but has not yet made it public. It is time they did make it public, given how much is made of it in ‘the case for EDF’ and because it deflects attention from the basic comparison between how much money the community can get from community-owned projects compared to corporate ones.
Community-owned projects are around 10 times more valuable, because all the profits get returned to the community instead of to shareholders.
Point and Sandwick Trust made £900,000 profit last year — exactly the same as EDF plan to give the community — but they did that with three turbines compared to 36.
Point and Sandwick’s success is part of the reason that four crofting townships are trying to develop similar projects of their own and have applied to the Crofting Commission for permission under Section 50b of the Crofting Act.
These townships are Melbost and Branahuie, Sandwick East Street, Sandwick North Street and Aignish.
However, LWP have also made a legal move, applying to the Scottish Land Court for the final piece of permission they need for the Stornoway Wind Farm — and there is a big clash over these plans because it’s a fight over the same ground.
Without getting too tied up in legalities, the argument is basically about who has the right to go ahead with these developments on the common grazings – the big corporations with the Council and Stornoway Trust backing them, or the crofting townships who want to follow the successful model of community ownership pioneered by Galson and Point and Sandwick Trust among others.
And a lot of common grazings are affected by this. If you look up the documents on LWP’s website, ‘stornowaywind.co.uk’, you can see them all listed.
The common grazings that will have infrastructure (ie turbines) on them are: Aignish; Garrabost and New Garrabost; Holm; Melbost and Branahuie; Newvalley, Guershader and Laxdale Lane; Sandwick and Sandwick East Street; Sandwick North Street; Sheshader and Stornoway General.
The common grazings with shares in Stornoway General, which will be affected, are: Bennadrove; Garrabost and New Garrabost; Holm; Lower Bayble; Melbost and Branahuie; Newmarket, Laxdale and Coulregrein; New Valley, Geurshader and Laxdale Lane; Portnaguran, Newlands and Broker; Portvoller; Sandwick North Street; Shulishader and Newlands; Steinish and Upper Aird.
If this development is granted, the land will be taken away from the crofters.
Yes, there will be some financial compensation but it’s peanuts compared to how much a community can make when they own the projects.
This influx of big business interests seeking to exploit the natural resources of the Highlands and Islands has been described as a modern-day clearances by quite a few.
And this idea of the ‘community benefit’ pot, with all its meagre compensation, does rather remind me of the landowner paying the fare across the Atlantic for those tenants who were being forced to emigrate.
Meanwhile, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar stand at the pier and wave the boat off.
We are told to support EDF because they are “the only game in town” — the only developments big enough to secure that amount of government investment and until we get the interconnector any more development is stymied by a lack of cable capacity.
Except… are LWP and EDF really “the only game in town”? How do we know? We cannot take that on the say-so of the Stornoway Trust or the council leader because, astonishingly, they have never commissioned any kind of independent assessment or due diligence for themselves but, instead, relied entirely on what they were being told by EDF. The Comhairle should be commissioning an objective report into the potential development of the island’s renewables resource, which is significant. They should be setting up a taskforce or a forum and getting input from as many people as possible.
Look at Shetland. They have the right idea. A 50/50 arrangement between the community (Viking Energy Shetland LLP) and SSE. If you look up the Viking project’s website — www.vikingenergy.co.uk — you can read all about it.
Viking Energy Shetland, or VES for short, represents the interests of the Shetland community in large-scale wind farm development in Shetland.
VES is 90 per cent owned by Shetland Charitable Trust, the charity set up to manage funds on behalf of the community. The remaining 10 per cent is held by four individuals who have experience of local wind farm development.
I spoke to Roddie Mackay about the Viking scheme just before Christmas and asked him if the Comhairle would be pressing EDF to make a similar deal here.
His first response was to question my knowledge of the Viking scheme.
“It’s portrayed as 50/50. Are you certain about that? What stage is that at?”
Roddie, I am certain. See above. And as the front page of Viking’s website states: “It won approval from the Scottish Government in 2012.”
I then asked him if he would be coming out publicly to support the crofters.
“The aim has been from day one to get the interconnector over the line, you know that,” he said. When I asked if this was about ‘development at all costs’, he replied: “If people don’t want the interconnector…?” and left it hanging.
That is the problem right there. If you question the legitimacy of EDF’s claim, then you are seen as some kind of reckless interconnector saboteur.
“I have to work with all parties involved,” he said, adding that he was “trying to find a way through something that’s in place” and “working quite hard in the background to find a way in which the optimum benefit of that 20 per cent is spread around the community.”
Ah yes, that intangible, mysterious 20 per cent which I have questioned before — swallowed by the Council without even looking at the small print.
What does that small print say? It’s a secret, which the Stornoway Trust won’t disclose. They have a report from KPMG on whether the 20 per cent offer is realistic or not but they refuse to make it public or even share it with the Council, far less the crofting representatives for the townships about to lose their rights over their grazings.
Rhoda Mackenzie, who represents the grazings committee for Sandwick North Street, one of the townships hoping to develop their own turbines, asked Stornoway Trust: “Will you make the report available?” She told them: “You had better.”
Rhoda said: “It’s critical that we see the report. If we lose our case in the Land Court, it’s critical that we see that Stornoway Trust are in a position to buy the 20 per cent — but there’s no surety in that at all.
“If EDF are successful in their application to the Land Court, then it’s game over for the communities in these areas because they’ve got the rights for the next 70 years. We won’t have anywhere we can build turbines.
“Shetland stand to make more money from renewables than they ever did from oil — and that’s the kind of thing this council are throwing away. It’s just morally wrong on every level.
“Shetland are a forward-thinking council and, you know, if you were sitting in Westminster and thinking about where you were going to invest government money, would you put it to Shetland that was going to benefit the community or would you put it to the Western Isles which is going to be turned into a generating station for a foreign multinational?”
She called on Comhairle nan Eilean Siar to “get behind this” and use their influence “to get the best deal for the community”.
Councillor Angus McCormack, who is also chairman of community wind farm charity Point and Sandwick Trust, also called on Stornoway Trust to publish the report.
“I urge the Trust to make this report publicly available,” he said. “Their whole argument hinges on it.”
He added: “I have been told that two trust members at two separate meetings were saying that they would be very lucky if they got eight per cent out of it because they have no collateral — they don’t own the wind farm.
“They will have to go to venture capitalists to get the money and that would be very, very expensive. They take a huge whack out of it and we’ll just get what’s left.”
Gordon Murray is one of the other few councillors who support the crofters. He said: “If EDF are going to come to the top table, they should be getting the crumbs. Not the other way round. The Stornoway Trust have been socialised into believing that nothing can happen until the big multinational comes in — and that’s wrong. It’s not the case.
“I’m not buying into this ‘it can only happen if a multinational comes in’. We’re not stupid. The Comhairle needs to push. I’m not a councillor to make rich people richer. No way.”
Another part of the narrative around this is that EDF are as good as it gets, in terms of corporate developers. But that doesn’t stand up, on closer inspection.
Guidance from Highland Council sets a minimum rate for what they see as acceptable rates of ‘community benefit’ from wind farm developers.
That recommended minimum was set at £5,000 per megawatt, indexed to inflation from 2011 — putting it at around £5,750 in today’s money.
EDF have offered £5,000 for Stornoway, so they are lagging behind.
There is also a register of community benefits, maintained by Local Energy Scotland, which showed the average from recent projects across Scotland was £5,956 per MW — so EDF are not meeting this benchmark either.
And there is even a question over the ultimate ownership of the Lewis wind farms.
In November, the trade press reported that EDF had sold off majority stakes in five of its onshore wind farms in the UK — three in Lincolnshire, two in Cambridgeshire.
Who’s to say they won’t sell the Stornoway Wind Farm? Maybe even to the Chinese.
This kind of trading is all part of the business and, back in 2014, EDF sold three of their UK wind farms to Chinese utility CGN (China General Nuclear Power corporation), with whom they are in business over the controversial nuclear power development at Hinkley Point C.
That’s if the wind farm even gets built in the first place. A renewables development that has all its planning consents in place, even if it hasn’t physically been built yet, is already a hefty asset on a balance sheet — so it’s desirable, even if it goes no further.
Hypothetically, if EDF do get the green light from the Scottish Land Court and end up selling the eventual development to the Chinese, I suppose there will be a certain irony in the Stornoway Trust having facilitated it.
After all, the Lews Castle, which overlooks the town, was built for Sir James Matheson with the money he made from the opium trade with China.
But Rhoda asked: “How would the council leader feel tomorrow if he found the project had been sold to a Chinese company or a foreign hedge fund? Would he feel the same way? How would he sell that to the public who are facing multimillion pound cuts?
“It seems like a lost opportunity.”