After blogging about the crofters taking on the multinationals over the development rights to wind turbines on Lewis last week, I was invited to a meeting by Lewis Wind Power (EDF and AMEC) in the Stornoway Trust offices to hear their side of the story.
It didn’t get off to a particularly auspicious start, with Stornaway Trust chairman Calum Maclean telling me that he hadn’t read my blog about it — or, for that matter, the news article in the Stornoway Gazette — but the dust quickly settled and I listened to Calum, Darren Cumming from LWP/EDF and David Morrison, the community liaison, make their case for the LWP project.
I explored the big issue around the crofters’ Section 50b application to the Crofting Commission in last week’s blog and here is where we’re at now…
The Stornoway Trust and Lewis Wind Power representatives insist their project is “the only way” the vital interconnector between the Western Isles and the mainland grid will go ahead.
There is no current spare capacity “for even one more turbine”, so the future of renewables in the Western Isles hangs on big projects like theirs – specifically, the guaranteed output from the proposed wind farms at Stornoway, Uisenis and Tolsta.
That was the message from the private meeting on Tuesday (October 4). I had been invited along “for coffee and a chat” by David Morrison following my blog and article in the Gazette about the crofters, from Melbost & Branahuie and Sandwick North Street, who have applied to the Crofting Commission for approval to develop their own wind turbines on their common grazings.
The applications have been made under the little-known Section 50b, which makes provision for crofters to use their common grazings for sustainable development (outwith the traditional uses of grazing cattle, cutting peat and planting trees) even if the landowner opposes it, which is expected to happen in this case.
The landlord is the Stornoway Trust, who signed the development lease with EDF and AMEC for the Stornoway Wind Farm, that takes in a large swathe of the ‘Stornoway General’ common grazings out the Pentland Road.
Stornoway General includes the grazings belonging to Melbost & Branahuie and Sandwick North Street. If Melbost & Branahuie were to get the go-ahead for their scheme, their turbines would be here, not in the area of the Braighe.
Melbost & Branahuie want eight turbines and Sandwick North Street want one, to join the three community turbines already successfully developed on their common grazings by Point and Sandwick Power at Beinn Ghrideag. It puts about £500,000 a year back into the local economy through its charitable arm.
The Stornoway Trust and LWP, who are planning 36 turbines of up to 180MW, said small crofter groups would not be able to bring the interconnector.
This high-voltage cable would enable the transfer of hundreds more megawatts of power off the islands and into the National Grid — but, because of the exorbitant costs of building it, would need to be partly underwritten by development companies.
Darren Cumming from LWP/EDF said: “The main thing that’s needed for the islands is that interconnector. Without the committed capacity of around 380MW, which is the words from SSE and National Grid, there will be no interconnector.
“SSE need a committed amount of firm capacity on the islands from the projects such as LWP in order to justify a needs case. They need to know that they can get their money back from the renewable energy generating into that.”
This required capacity could be reached, he said, by combining LWP’s Stornoway scheme of up to 180MW with the 160MW from Uisenis, 40MW from Tolsta and the existing generation of around 40 or 50MW.
Five years ago the guaranteed capacity that was said to be needed for the interconnector was around 150MW. It has gone up, said Darren, because the cost of the interconnector has gone up — now quoted at “anywhere between £600million and £900million”.
Its importance to the future of renewables in the Outer Hebrides cannot be overstated. As Trust chairman Calum Maclean said: “There’s no capacity there for one more turbine. Without the interconnector, we’ve got nothing.”
There are a number of other technical matters also needing negotiated in the meantime, including the complex area of ‘strike prices’, which gives a certain level of insurance to renewables companies over their profit margins in times of market volatility.
Also looming is the application from LWP to the Scottish Land Court for permission to ‘resume’ the land of the common grazings — using it without fencing it off — for their turbines.
Darren Cumming confirmed they will be making this Section 19a ‘scheme for development’ application “by the end of the year”.
Regarded as a final piece in the jigsaw, the Land Court will consider whether this application is a reasonable use for the land, whether it fairly recompenses the crofting shareholders of the common grazings, and is fair to them in terms of how much they will benefit financially.
LWP believe the community are being offered a good deal, financially — a key feature being the offer for the Stornoway Trust to purchase, at cost, 20 per cent of the finished wind farm.
Separately, there would be up to £900,000 a year into a Community Benefit Fund, while payments to crofters could be up to £1.4million a year and similar to the Trust. A range of other economic benefits would include nearly 200 jobs in construction, lucrative local contracts and business rates of nearly £2.9million.
Two evenings of meetings are being held next week to discuss this proposal. They are in Ionad Stoodie, Point, on Monday (October 10) and Stornoway Town Hall on Tuesday.
Both events begin with an informal drop-in from 4pm till 6.30pm, followed by a formal meeting from 7 to 8pm.
Rhoda Mackenzie, a representative of the North Street Grazings Committee, said LWP seemed to be “accelerating” the attempted completion of their planning process since the submission of the crofters’ Section 50b applications for their own turbines.
She said the Trust were “absolutely right” to say no more projects could go ahead without the interconnector — but disputed the argument that only Lewis Wind Power could make it a reality.
“No more projects will go ahead without the interconnector but it’s not fair to say that we are dependent on LWP for the interconnector because we aren’t.
“If there are as many community projects giving the same output as the LWP project, then this (argument) falls down.”
Pointing out that community wind farms in the isles made about £1.8million in the past year, with an output a fraction of the Stornoway Wind Farm, Rhoda said: “When you look at the figures, why would the community not do it themselves?”
Declaration of Interest: I work as a PR consultant for community wind farm charity Point and Sandwick Trust. All views and opinions are entirely my own.