I cycle out the Pentland Road early in the morning quite often. When the weather is kind, it’s lovely and peaceful, with an atmosphere of real tranquility. I always pass under the shadow of the three turbines at Beinn Ghrideag, the hill beside the Achmore junction.
Apart from the low thrumming of their blades, the faint birdsong and a very occasional car in the distance, it’s silent. You would never imagine that this was the eye of a storm.
Yet this renewables development is at the heart of an argument about who has rights over future developments here. Feelings are running high and it’s a battle that is heading for some of the highest courts in the land. However, it’s slipping very quietly under most people’s radar.
It is not hyperbole to say the economic future of the islands is at stake here, depending on how the legal actions go. Not to mention our confidence, self-esteem and hope for the future.
On one side is the Stornoway Trust and Lewis Wind Power (LWP), the private consortium owned by two multinationals: French-owned EDF and engineering firm Amec-Foster-Wheeler.
On the other side are the crofters who have similar ambitions for the ground and say they should have the right to develop on it. It is their common grazings, after all. There are tens of millions of pounds at stake. It might even be hundreds of millions.
I know quite a lot about this story as I work for Point and Sandwick Trust, the community wind farm charity who own Beinn Ghrideag and I am frequently involved in writing press releases about donations they have made to good causes out of the profits from Beinn Ghrideag. These are significant. Currently about £500,000 a year and likely to be £800,000 soon, rising to around a million a year when the bank loans are paid off.
Beinn Ghrideag is at the heart of the conflict because the four crofting townships who want to develop their own turbines on their grazings, rather than letting LWP develop them and make off with the vast majority of the money, have looked at the success that Point and Sandwick Trust made of their scheme and been inspired by it.
They are not the only ones who think Point and Sandwick’s success in community renewables is something to be replicated. Someone else who thinks so is Steve McDonald, the co-founder of Sgurr Energy which has since been sold to Wood Group.
Steve is important because he is one of Scotland’s most successful entrepreneurs in the field of green energy. His business was involved in giving technical advice to companies all over the world on how to develop and build wind farms.
His past projects include Whitelee, the UK’s largest onshore wind farm on Eaglesham Moor, and Salkhit, the first wind farm that was ever built in Mongolia. He was also involved as one of the advisers to Point and Sandwick Trust in the early days.
I put out a news story to the media yesterday, revealing Steve’s support for the community-owned wind schemes. welovestornoway carried the piece online and you can read it here (thanks, Fred).
The timing matters because we are in a public consultation phase over whether LWP should be allowed to go ahead with their 36-turbine plan.
They have put in a Section 19 application to the Scottish Land Court, asking for the final piece of permission needed for this scheme. This is a hostile application, where they are asking to develop on the common grazings around Stornoway with or without the consent of the crofters. It is a development that some people are dead against and they know it.
This Section 19 application was advertised, as it had to be by law, in the Stornoway Gazette and this advert was carried on July 27 on page 30. You possibly didn’t notice it, tucked away in the classified pages and at the height of holiday season — rather cynical timing, I thought — but it was a very important advert.
It detailed what the plans are — a 1700 hectare development affecting the following common grazings: Aignish, Garrabost and New Garrabost, Holm, Melbost and Branahuie, New Valley, Guershader and Laxdale Lane, Sandwick and Sandwick East Street, Sandwick North Street, Sheshader and Stornoway General.
It also advised people that they could object to this scheme in writing, giving an address for correspondence and a closing date.
Objections to ‘Stornoway Wind Farm’ — Application SLC 59/17 —should be submitted in writing to The Principal Clerk, Scottish Land Court, George House, 126 George Street, Edinburgh, EH2 4HH by Thursday, August 24.
For four of the townships in particular, the clock is ticking loudly. That’s because they — Melbost and Branahuie, Sandwick East Street, Sandwick North Street and Aginish — made applications to the Crofting Commission nearly a year ago for the rights to develop their own wind turbines on their common grazings.
The turbines they want would be located on virtually the same grid references as some of LWP’s proposed turbines and they have made their applications to the Crofting Commission under a piece of crofting law that had never been used before.
What the crofters asked the Commission, under these Section 50b applications, is that they be granted permission to go ahead with their developments even when the landowner was opposed. The landowner in this case being the Stornoway Trust, who had gone ahead and leased the ground to LWP. For 70 years.
But if the Scottish Land Court upholds LWP’s application, the crofters’ application to the Commission will be moot because LWP will automatically get the development rights.
These different applications are, so far anyway, legally separate — but morally they are completely tangled up.
Unfortunately, the Commission has entirely failed to deal with the question about whether the crofters should have these rights — legally and morally — to develop on their grazings and I’ll say more about that another time.
I blogged about the Section 50b applications at the time, last September, and if you had told me then that it would still not be resolved, I wouldn’t have believed you. Read it here.
This is a complicated issue but it’s a hard fight for the people involved at community level as they feel unsupported by their landlord, the Stornoway Trust; unsupported by most of the councillors at Comhairle nan Eilean Siar; unsupported by their elected parliamentarians who won’t get off the fence; and unsupported by the Crofting Commission whose purpose is surely to protect the interests of crofters.
Talk about being up against it.
When I spoke to Steve, he was clearly bamboozled by this lack of support, at a high level, and apparent bias towards big business at the expense of local interest.
“You wouldn’t get away with this anywhere else in the world,” he said.
Can you imagine the French letting this happen? Not in a million years. Which is kind of ironic when the main party in what amounts to an attempted land grab is French-owned.
Steve said: “I’m a big supporter of community schemes because it keeps the money in the Highlands. We’ve always been big pushers of community owned schemes.”
He challenged anyone to “tell me why” LWP’s scheme would represent “a good return on investment to the UK taxpayer” if these were the developments that were going to go ahead on the back of the government financing the building of the interconnector — the subsea cable needed to export power to the mainland from any further renewable developments in the Western Isles, at a cost of around £800million.
At the moment, the grid is at capacity and no developments can happen until this problem is solved.
Steve said: “The Western Isles is a fantastic place to generate electricity — it’s a great location — but most of the revenue will go abroad (if LWP are successful) and I don’t think that’s a good return on investment to the UK taxpayer.
“As a taxpayer I would prefer that my money was recirculated instead of going abroad and you wouldn’t get away with this anywhere else (in the world).”
He said the Beinn Ghrideag scheme, developed by former Western Isles MP Calum Macdonald, was perfect because it was “community owned — 100 per cent”.
The townships that want to develop their own schemes are being advised by Calum, who played a key role in turning Point and Sandwick Trust’s wind farm dream into a reality. Beinn Ghrideag is the biggest community-owned wind farm in the UK in terms of output and puts its entire profits back into the community.
These profits, already at £500,000 from the first year, are from three turbines. The community benefit ‘profit’ pot from LWP’s planned 36 turbines is £900,000.
Steve acknowledged the LWP scheme had powerful support, saying: “I’m well aware of what’s been going on.”
He suggested the problem was one of “perception”, where those involved at community level were seen as a bunch of amateurs.
However he pointed out that, regardless of whether it’s a community or corporate project, they all ultimately have to bring in the same people with the relevant expertise.
“A lot of the work has to be done by third parties so all you’re doing is engaging in managing third parties to pull together all the technical specifications, manage the construction. They subcontract out to competent personnel and they help them get across the line.
“There’s no difference between what LWP are doing and what Calum’s scheme did because at the end of the day they (both) have to sub-contract out to competent third parties.
“It’s just always perceived that communities are only amateurs and they don’t know what they’re doing but Calum’s scheme proved that’s not the case.
“Some people just don’t want to see that. I really don’t know why. It’s not rocket science. It can be done. You’ve just got to keep the faith.”
He said the successful realisation of Point and Sandwick’s community wind farm meant it had “a mandate”.
He said: “Here is an example of a wind farm that’s been built by a community and it’s been very successful. It’s a template. I think it’s a great wind farm. I think it’s fantastic.”
He acknowledged there had been tough times in the early days, particularly when they were trying to put the funding package together, but said: “We kept the faith. We just knew it was the right thing to do. When I see the revenue going back into the community and not being shipped over to an overseas bank account, I realise that’s something that should be replicated around the islands in Scotland. It’s great that the money is being recycled.
“I’ve been keen for Calum’s scheme to be replicated across the islands. I think that would be a massive boost to communities. It would be far better to have that asset owned.”
Keep the faith, folks. Keep the faith.
• Main image courtesy of Murdo Maclean.