The news, when it came, was on Messenger. “See Heb News. LWP fail in subsidy bid…”
It was Friday and the list had been published of the renewables projects which had been successful in securing subsidies to develop under the CfD (Contracts for Difference) scheme. And the giant multinational-owned ‘Stornoway’ wind farm wasn’t on it.
To those who might not have followed the ins and outs of the project in close detail but who had swallowed the PR line that £2billion of investment would be coming to the Western Isles, the news was stunning. To borrow Naomi Klein’s phrase: This Changes Everything.
The wind farm had been sold to us as being essential to achieving the nearest thing to the Holy Grail – the giant, long-awaited new energy interconnector connecting Lewis to the mainland.
More than that, it had been the reason why the crofters of Sandwick North, Sandwick East, Aignish and Melbost Branahuie (representatives pictured above) had been told they couldn’t build even a single community-owned turbine on their own common grazings. Apparently EDF and Wood group, joint developers of the Stornoway wind farm, needed all that grazings land for their 36 turbines. Giving up even one of those turbines into community ownership would break the ‘critical mass’ that was needed to meet Ofgem’s requirements for the new interconnector.
Now, it looks like that argument about the interconnector is as dead in the water as the Stornoway Wind Farm’s subsidy bid.
There won’t be any giant new interconnector any time soon.
How could there be? The critical mass isn’t there. It’s a spectacular failure to meet the Ofgem threshold and it’s not a matter of whether we’ll get that official confirmation – but when.
Stornoway Wind Farm’s subsidy failure is a massive game changer.
By Friday afternoon, the public hand-wringing had begun.
The council leader, MSP, MP and Stornoway Trust chairman were all expressing disappointment that Stornoway Wind Farm had lost out and concern over the viability of the interconnector.
MP Angus Brendan MacNeil said: “Whilst it is good news that two Lewis wind farms have been successful in CfD Round 3 it is disappointing that Lewis Wind Power has not achieved a CfD. The strike price of between £39 -£41 is exceedingly low and this combined with the failure of Lewis Wind Power to make the list raises questions about the viability of a Hebridean Interconnector.”
MSP Alasdair Allan said: “I am disappointed at the outcome of this UK government CfD auction round. The race to the bottom caused by this convoluted process has meant that this outcome has potentially very serious implications for the Western Isles Interconnector and the renewable energy ambitions across the island communities.”
Stornoway Trust chairman Norman A Maciver said: “One of our concerns as landlord has always been the pivotal contribution that the Stornoway Wind Farm project makes to the case for the interconnector, upon which these and other anticipated community wind farm schemes depend. Aside from the economic benefits inherent in the development, it would open the door for community and other alternative energy projects to be established. As things stand, the future looks a lot less certain for remote island wind now, though, given today’s outcome.”
Council leader Roddie Mackay said: “It is hugely disappointing that Stornoway Wind Farm has not achieved a CfD. We will be speaking to developers to understand how they wish to proceed in light of this news…”
Well here’s a thing, Mr Mackay. Instead of speaking to developers to see what they want to do, how about looking at what might be the best way forward for the people of the islands?
That is who you serve – not Lewis Wind Power.
Into this handwringing vacuum of political paralysis, however, came one voice of reason with a constructive suggestion.
And it came – no surprise to me – from the community energy movers and shakers who have been ignored, rejected, denigrated and sneered at by the Comhairle, the Stornoway Trust, the MP and MSP who’ve been favouring multinational developers for far too long.
I put out a statement yesterday (Saturday) on behalf of these four townships trying to develop their own projects on their common grazings – areas signed away by Stornoway Trust without consultation when they gave the lease to Lewis Wind Power, by the way. Never forget that.
The statement was in Rhoda Mackenzie’s name, the representative for Sandwick North Community Energy and she said: “Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and the Stornoway Trust have always argued that the Lewis Wind Power wind farm was essential to get a new interconnector to the Western Isles.
“The logic of that argument is that the interconnector cannot now happen, given LWP’s failure in the subsidy auction.
“We believe it is time now for a new approach. There is still plenty of scope to develop renewables on the islands but we need to do so in a way that puts community-owned energy front and centre.
“The right way forward is to increase the capacity of the existing grid via new demand through electrification and hydrogen, install new storage via battery, and start working on an upgrade of the existing Skye connector.
“It is essential that the new Plan B is built around, by and for community-owned energy as that is the only way to keep the income and profits in the islands.
“The Comhairle must not see the CfD outcome as a defeat but as an opportunity for them to take the lead in developing a new partnership with the community energy companies in the islands to work together and to unite around a new Plan B.”
It isn’t all about the interconnector and it never was. Maybe now we can start having a reasonable discussion about all the options before us, which ones are the most realistic, and which ones will actually deliver real long-term money into the local economy and not magic billions of investment – an infinitesimal fraction of which was ever going to remain in the Western Isles.
The thing is this: starting now, and reaching far into the next decade, there is going to be a massive shift in the energy profile of the Western Isles. It will move away from carbon fuels (petrol, oil, gas) to green fuels (electricity and hydrogen gas are the front runners in this transition).
This is not hypothetical. It is the inevitable consequence of the climate change policies already endorsed by every political party in Scotland and the UK.
The only question is, who is going to benefit from this energy transition? Is it going to be another gang of multinationals promising – for decades now – big numbers and delivering nothing, like EDF and Wood? Or is it going to be community led with ownership and profits remaining in the islands and producing an economic revolution as well as an energy one?
Rhoda has already set out the foundations of this Plan B.
Local wind farms producing the electricity needed for the cars; community wind farms producing the hydrogen needed to replace the existing town gas and currently the lead contender to replace the marine oil used in our ferries (see the SWIFTH2 international project being led by Point and Sandwick Trust for more on that); and backing all that a long-overdue upgrade to the existing Skye cable, along with the installation of new forms of storage to make the local grid work more efficiently and allow more community generation.
Provided the communities are kept, in Rhoda’s words, “front and centre”, the profit from this new approach would far exceed the £900,000 a year in community benefit promised by EDF and Wood from their failed LWP wind farm.
Calum Iain Maciver, the Comhairle’s ‘Director of Communities’, emailed all councillors on Friday to say that a briefing meeting would held on Tuesday to discuss the implications of LWP’s failure.
I sincerely hope that all parties will drop their fixation with Lewis Wind Power and genuinely look at what all the options are. They have to because this is a reality check for everyone.
Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (and the Stornoway Trust) had, not for the first time, put all their eggs in the wrong basket.
One final point. It was a bit of a shocker that LWP lost out in the subsidy auction but it probably shouldn’t have been.
The writing was on the wall when they pulled out of Uisenis. Why, we all asked, did they just hand back the project to Oppenheim? They wouldn’t have walked away from a money maker…
The answer is that LWP and Wood are large multinationals. It is not good enough for them to just make a profit – they need to make a profit of a certain size, their ‘hurdle rate’ of return. For the Hinkley Point nuclear power station, the EDF target rate of return is said to be nine per cent. But for more normal projects it is more likely in double figures.
That is what dictated EDF and Wood’s bid into the subsidy auction. They couldn’t put forward a wining price because it would have lowered their profit below their target rate of return.
That is why our island decision makers should seize the opportunity right now to make a new policy around Plan B and why it should be a plan with community energy at its heart from the very outset.
We’ve had the reality check. We’re free of the interconnector cure-all fantasy. We need to free ourselves too from that craven dependency on a multinational sugar daddy who’ll promise us the earth to get what he wants. There is no magic bullet.
Let’s look at how we can develop a Plan B that delivers the maximum benefits for the local economy and empowers us in a way that taking the crumbs from Lewis Wind Power’s table never would.
It would also be better for the spirit. As activist and Soil and Soul writer Alastair McIntosh has said, there is a world of a difference in the way people react to wind farms depending on when they have been developed by a community itself or have been imposed on them from outside.
And no matter how many times trustees from Stornoway Trust will try to tell you otherwise, the Lewis Wind Power project had no mandate.
• Picture of Four Townships representatives Angus Campbell (Melbost Branahuie), Donnie MacDonald (Aignish), Rhoda Mackenzie (Sandwick North) and Calum Buchanan (Sandwick East) by Sandie Maciver of SandiePhotos.