Readers, an update today on the community wind farm campaign.
Firstly, the interconnector is dead. End of.
Ofgem’s statement that the case for an interconnector cable (be that 450MW or 600MW) to the Western Isles “had not been met” tells you everything you need to know.
Ofgem have invited the Western Isles to let them know of any developments which might yet be taken into account in their final decision making, but that’s really just a courtesy.
The proposed interconnector – that big power cable which would have been built across the north Minch from the Little Loch Broom area to Lochs in Lewis – is dead.
And the reluctance to accept that, from people like Comhairle leader Roddie Mackay who said merely that “developments have not taken place as we would have wished”, is an attempt to save a bit of face and put off the inevitable. Facts have to be faced sooner or later.
When that time comes, the narrative will shift and before that happens I want to remind you of the key feature of the whole debate that has existed around the interconnector and renewables.
We were told that, if we wanted there to be any future development of renewables on Lewis and Harris, we had to support the interconnector. We were told that if we were in favour of development then we had to support the multinationals – Lewis Wind Power and Forsa – because they were the only projects that were big enough to make the case for the interconnector.
No big projects? No interconnector.
But then Lewis Wind Power failed to get a subsidy in the CfD auction and the case for the interconnector fell apart.
If we’re not getting an interconnector, you wouldn’t expect anyone to argue that we had to carry on supporting the big projects, would you? It’s just a question – but keep that question in mind as this issue moves forward.
Second part of the update is that one of the community wind farms being developed by the crofting townships who are opposing Lewis Wind Power in the courts came in front of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s Planning Application Board this week – and it won approval!
This, the approval for a 145m high, 5MW turbine being developed by Sandwick North, is a hugely significant development.
The turbine, to be sited around 1km south of Point and Sandwick Trust’s Beinn Ghrideag wind farm, had been recommended for approval by planning officials and was presented to the Board for a decision, rather than just being signed off within the department, because of its “sensitive” nature.
That means controversial – because it is being developed by the crofters who are fighting Lewis Wind Power.
I have to say, I was very relieved and a bit surprised that it was approved, given that Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has up till now not been the slightest bit supportive of the crofters’ cause but has instead thrown its considerable weight behind Lewis Wind Power’s project.
And please also, never forget, that that project is the one for which Stornoway Trust signed away our land without prior consultation with the crofting shareholders. It’s a point that bears repeating time and time again, although Stornoway Trust still deny it, which is not very honest of them.
Like Lewis Wind Power’s failure in the CfD auction, Sandwick North getting planning approval is a game changer. Instantly, it has become harder for critics of the crofters’ campaign to dismiss their ideas as pie in the sky and themselves as fantasists or saboteurs.
With the interconnector dead in the water, the case is now growing for Plan B, which has always been there in the background as a potential alternative way to free up more capacity for exporting power. That Plan B is an upgrade to the existing cable – the one across the south Minch, through Skye and Harris – to increase the load it can carry by more than 100MW.
It’s not interconnector scale – less than a quarter of it, really – but if that upgrade is done AND there is a corresponding commitment to dedicate all of its newly-available capacity to community-owned projects, then it should be enough for now for us in Lewis and Harris. It wouldn’t stop an interconnector in the future but it would allow us to move forward in the short to medium term.
Remember, community-owned projects return more than 10 times as much financial benefit to the local economy as corporate ones. So, if we upgrade the Skye cable and have only a quarter of the turbines you’d have under an interconnector but they are 10 times more profitable for the community… I’d call that a win-win.
For some time now, community groups have been working on alternative renewables projects that could make use of our wind resource in the event that we didn’t get an interconnector and didn’t have a way to export the generated power off the island.
The most obvious of these is Point and Sandwick Trust’s work on the hydrogen ferry.
By the way, I have noticed that Lewis Wind Power has not yet declared itself out of the race, in Lewis and Harris. They have no subsidy but have not yet folded. In fact, they plan to hold consultations on Monday and might be about to indicated the route forward they plan to take.
It will be interesting to see if they attempt to capitalise on any of the development work done so far by community groups. In other words, to steal their ideas.
It will be of the utmost importance, as the case for the Skye upgrade grows stronger and stronger, to ensure that any capacity it frees up is protected for community-owned projects.
The multinationals, with their massive-scale projects, were all about the interconnector. The community projects are all about Plan B, upgrading Skye. If we are to move forward with relatively small capacity, it must not be gobbled up by the multinationals. They had their chance. They failed. They must not be allowed to hijack the route that’s now being mapped out by the communities.
In having backed Lewis Wind Power to the hilt up till now, the Comhairle has come in for much criticism, but it has an opportunity now to reposition itself, create a strategy, push for the Skye link and put community-owned development at the heart of all that.
To date, the Comhairle has not had a strategy for developing renewables and when you consider how rich we are in terms of our wind resource – and that there have been attempts at development for decades now – that’s quite staggering.
But the calls are growing for the Comhairle to get its act together.
I fear it will be a struggle for some to get on board with the community movement, largely due to personalities and historic animosities, but we have to hope that sense will prevail – as it did on Tuesday at the Planning Board.
It was very nice indeed to be able to put out a statement on behalf of the four townships, welcoming that decision, with some great quotes from Rhoda Mackenzie, who is spokeswoman for Sandwick North and the four townships in general (Melbost Branahuie, Sandwick East and Aignish are the other townships).
Rhoda said she was “delighted” with the decision, urged Lewis Wind Power and Stornoway Trust to get out of the way and stressed once again: “Nobody asked us if they could use our grazings for multinational turbines. We were kept in the dark by the Stornoway Trust and then, when we did find out, we were told it was too late – it was a done deal and we couldn’t do anything about it.
“Even the worst private landlord would not dare to behave like that to their crofting tenants and it is simply shocking that the Stornoway Trustees not only signed that lease behind our backs but that they should continue to defend it to this day, an incredible 15 years later and with absolutely nothing to show for it.
“But we have stuck to our guns and are very pleased that our application for a community owned turbine on our grazings has at long last been approved by the Planning Board.
“Our application has involved two years of bird studies and a full and comprehensive environmental impact and we were very grateful to our technical advisers who have helped us reach this stage.
“As we have said all along, our aim is not a selfish one to benefit our own crofting shareholders or even our own village. On the contrary, our aim is to use our grazings for the benefit of the whole of the community – that means the wider community too, throughout the Western Isles – along the same lines as the Point and Sandwick Trust.
“What we are fighting for is the principle of community ownership and be in no doubt – we will defend this principle to the very end and what is more we shall win.”
Angus McCormack, a councillor for Steornabhagh A Deas, resident of Sandwick North Street and advocate of community-owned renewables through his role as honorary president of Point and Sandwick Trust, was “delighted” the report had gone through planning.
He called it “a significant step forward for community renewables” and said: “The future is up in the air for everybody but part of what we have to do is engage with government to ensure that they recognise the value of community renewables. For the government, it’s a win-win situation because it allows communities to stabilise.”
Angus said: “This issue is just as significant as Land Reform in Scotland. Land Reform has meant that communities have regenerated and this is just as important.”
In terms of a Comhairle strategy on renewables, Angus said a report was being prepared by officers and was expected to come before the December series of meetings.
However, he expressed concern that “almost all of the briefing” around that, which he had seen so far, related to “bodies external to the Comhairle”.
He said: “There is no reference to the Comhairle anywhere in the document. That, for me, summarises our strategy. We just rely on other people to determine what we do. I have never seen a strategy paper on renewables.
“I have over the years asked questions on the subject of renewables and what would we do if the interconnector project failed or was reduced. It is my view that community renewables is the best way forward and pursuing that course would give us control of the way forward.”
Angus called on the Comhairle to “pursue its own plan for a Skye route for a much lesser load” than an interconnector’s capacity and said he thought that was “entirely feasible”.
He believes it would allow “all community renewables to be connected to the grid” and called for the Comhairle “to actively support all community projects to achieve planning permission and a grid connection”. He also called on the Comhairle to support the hydrogen ferry project and research into battery storage, saying the time had come for the Comhairle to “take the initiative in renewables” and create “a clear strategy based on supporting our island communities.”
The game IS changing.
Still time for the Comhairle to get on the winning side.