Back on familiar ground with today’s blog – wind farms. It’s a guest blog, though, and I am very pleased indeed to be able to share this piece with you, from none other than Alastair McIntosh, a man widely regarded as one of the most influential land campaigners ever.
I have family connections to Alastair, who comes from the Isle of Lewis, but more than that he has become a valued friend over the past couple of years through our dialogues on Twitter.
He has offered me support many times and given some great advice, which has always been compassionate and enlightening. He has also been a fantastic sounding board when it comes to the issue of renewables development in the islands, which is how this piece came about.
Alastair wrote a letter to this week’s Stornoway Gazette in response to my coverage of the recent meeting in Tolsta, where the community were discussing the controversial development being put forward by California-based company Forsa Energy.
Basically, for those who are totally in the dark about this scheme, I’d say it’s even worse than the highly-controversial one being proposed by EDF for Stornoway.
In Tolsta, there is a proposal for 14 turbines which were given planning permission even though they come within a 2km ‘buffer zone’ of houses and also encroach on a catchment area for drinking water – the general public is unlikely to be aware of this but there are a number of potential hazards to water supply from the installation of turbine schemes.
Forsa Energy have offered the community around £350,000 a year in ‘community benefit’ if their Druim Leathann wind farm goes ahead. That is exactly the same amount as the community gets at the moment from just one turbine (pictured) – the one which belongs to the community through Tolsta Community Development Ltd.
Unsurprisingly, tempers flared at the meeting as people questioned why they should have to tolerate such a massive imposition for what is, really, a very small compensation.
The main argument in response was the usual one – that Lewis has to put up with these big corporate-owned development so that we can get the interconnector, and get some spare capacity on the new cable to allow some community schemes to go ahead in the future.
The reason Alastair is on the blog today is that he read my article with interest and follows the whole debate about the interconnector and large-scale development with interest too.
I asked him if he would like to take the floor on the blog to discuss the issue in more detail and was delighted when he accepted. Over to Alastair…
In a lead article of 21st June about the proposed wind farm at North Tolsta, the Stornoway Gazette quoted Murdo Maciver as saying that wind turbines on a massive scale are “needed in order to secure the interconnector.”
In one way he’s right. The island’s capacity to absorb more renewable energy is currently full.
At first sight, the only way to increase financial benefit to the island’s communities is to yield control to multinational corporations.
I don’t doubt that many who pursue this line of logic, and especially the Stornoway Trust, have the greater good of the community at heart. However, the technology of renewable energy is fast changing. New options are opening for local initiative at local scales.
The interconnector, requiring turbines on a scale that would be ruinous to large areas of the island’s beauty, might have been yesterday’s solution. It might have been a 20th century solution. But consider what is offered by tomorrow’s world.
For example, in Norway, the proven success of the world’s first electric vehicle ferry has led to a further 53 orders for the shipbuilder, Fjellstrand.
Meanwhile, the Norwegian airport authority expects that all of their short haul flights will be electric by 2040. Indeed, their first commercial route, operated with a 19-seater electric plane, is scheduled to start in 2025. We’re not talking never never land. We’re talking only seven years’ time.
This is all made possible by fast-developing battery technology. What’s more, the noise nuisance from such planes and ships is cut by half. Their greenhouse gas emissions is cut by 95 per cent.
Imagine an island future built without the interconnector.
Where local power is generated for local use from the providence of wind, rain and sun. Where the power produced runs not just lights, the TV, an electric fire and kettle, but heat pumps, ferries, buses, cars and planes. Where pump storage using sea or mountain lochs – or large-scale battery storage that is already a reality in the UK – can even out the fluctuations in supply, and fossil fuels used only for the backup.
Where planning consent is granted only to community land trusts.
After all, there is a world of psychological difference between a vast wind farm built to export profits to a landlord or to venture capitalists, and a community scale of endeavour based around Iain Crichton Smith’s principle of “real people in a real place”.
These emergent 21st century alternatives to an interconnector are fast becoming reality.
They would allow the island’s renewable energy – indeed, not just Lewis, but all the other islands as well – to be kept at a scale proportional to the landscape’s wider value for the uplift of the soul of residents, and to sustain the tourist industry.
They would remove the pressure to do terrible damage to the wild lands around Eishken that borders on the South Lewis, Harris and North Uist National Scenic Area. They would maintain Stornoway as “lovely Stornoway” while still bringing wealth in to the island to maintain the indigenous population.
On Eigg, where I was closely involved with the 1990s land buyout, 90 per cent of the electricity comes from renewable sources. Their “national grid” is run entirely by their own crofters. What goes around comes around locally. Here is a Hebridean community that has enacted a 21st century future that has pulled the community together, not split it apart.
I understand why people might think that the interconnector is their only salvation. It was the same on Harris, in the 1990s, with the superquarry proposal. But look at Harris now. Thanks largely to the new-found confidence and opportunities of land reform, a matrix of employment opportunities have sprung up that do not depend on trickle down handouts from corporate and landed power.
Lastly, imagine jumping on a plane to Norway to bring the likes of the Fjellstrand electric shipbuilders over to Arnish. We don’t have to be some corporation’s latter day colony.
We can take back control, and do so to give life.
Alastair McIntosh has been described by BBC TV as “one of the world’s leading environmental campaigners.” A pioneer of modern land reform in Scotland, he helped bring the Isle of Eigg into community ownership.
On the Isle of Harris he negotiated withdrawal of the world’s biggest cement company (Lafarge) from a devastating “superquarry” plan, then agreed to serve (unpaid) on that company’s Sustainability Stakeholders Panel for 10 years. Alastair guest lectures at military staff colleges, most notably the UK Defence Academy, on nonviolence. His books include Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power (Aurum), Hell and High Water: Climate Change, Hope and the Human Condition (Birlinn), Rekindling Community (Green Books) and Spiritual Activism: Leadership as Service (Green Books). His most recent major work is Poacher’s Pilgrimage: an Island Journey (Birlinn 2016, Cascade (USA) 2018). He is a fellow of the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh and a visiting professor at the College of Social Sciences, University of Glasgow. His website is www.AlastairMcIntosh.com and Twitter @alastairmci.