On the 16th of October this year, the lights literally went out on community energy in our isles. The subsea cable that links Skye to Harris, supplying our power from the National Grid but also enabling the export of power from island wind farms, had suffered a catastrophic failure.
Currently, our island is being powered by the old diesel generators at Battery Point and who knows when the cable can be replaced, with the BBC claiming recently it might not be before 2027! In the meantime, our island community wind farms have to stay off, as the local grid cannot cope with the power fluctuations they would generate.
There is a lot at stake and calls are growing for the new cable, whenever it comes, to be expanded and ringfenced for the output from local community-owned wind farms. Today, I have a guest blog from Calum MacDonald, former Labour MP and Scottish Office Minister (MP for the Western Isles between 1987 and 2005) where he makes the case for such a cable.
Over to Calum…
The catastrophic breakdown of the power cable from Skye to Harris on October 16th has had a huge financial, social and environmental impact on the islands. But it has also created an opportunity for a major reset of our energy strategy for the islands which could leave us substantially better off than we were before the crisis, provided that local and national government work together to deliver on that opportunity.
With the cable broken and all the island wind farms forbidden from generating and selling energy, the financial hit it is enormous. In a typical year, community wind farms on Lewis and Harris earn around £5 million from selling their energy and the privately owned wind farms earn a similar amount, resulting in a total of £10 million lost income over the anticipated 12 months of outage.
SSE are hit hard too. They have fired up the old diesel generators at the Stornoway power station to supply the island’s power needs and hired in a number of mobile diesel gensets as emergency back-up. We don’t know the exact consumption of these generators nor the price that SSE pay for their diesel but it is likely to cost around £50,000 a day, or up to £20 million over £12 months. In total, therefore, you can say that the financial cost of the cable crisis will be at least £30 million.
The enormous social impact of the loss of income to the local charities supported by the community wind farms is now well known, while the environmental cost is seen from the black smoke emerging from the station chimneys and which requires a special SEPA dispensation to be permitted.
So what can be done about it and where, in the midst of this gloom, is the opportunity?
In the first instance, we need to fix the local grid so that being cut off from the mainland (which normally happens about 20 days a year) no longer means that the wind farms have to be shut down as well. The solution to this is to install a battery to support the local grid and protect it from the volatile surges and dips in output that wind farms are prone to, especially in an environment as windy and gusty as the Hebrides.
SSE are to be commended for being open to new ways that this might be done. One option would be to link each wind turbine to its own small battery to provide ‘peak-shaving’ and make it easier for the Stornoway power station to manage them. Another, and a better one in my view, is to install one big battery to support and manage the whole grid.
The latter solution would allow all the local turbines to restart operations again, not back to normal but substantially better than the lock down we have now. It will require local and national government working with SSE and the electricity regulators, such as Ofgem, to deliver this in a reasonable time frame. If done, but the long-term stability and functioning of the local grid can end up better than before this crisis happened.
The second and even more important opportunity is to use this crisis to demand not simply a replacement cable to Harris but a bigger cable that can boost the community sector by easing the grid bottleneck that has been stifling development for the past five years. The need for a bigger cable to Skye has been raised before but the official response has been to urge patience and to wait for the big super-connector from Lewis to Ullapool. Indeed, there was even a concern that pressing the case for an upgraded cable to Skye might undermine the case for the long-awaited super-connector.
These arguments need to be binned now. After the Skye cable has been replaced, there will be no chance to upgrade it again for another 30 years. We have to take the opportunity in front of us now or lose it for good.
In 2017, Point and Sandwick Trust commissioned a study into the Skye cable which showed it could be expanded to provide an extra 100 MW of capacity (the old cable was 22 MW) at a cost of £70 million. Given the £30 million cost of the this year’s cable disaster, that would seem to be very good value!
Provided that the access to this extra capacity is reserved for smaller, ‘distribution-scale’ wind farms (in the island context, this should be 40 MW or below), then there is no reason why the case for the big super-connector should be undermined, and the large corporate developers such as EDF can continue to press their case.
The small wind farm projects currently in development are predominantly community-owned, such as the 30 MW Arnish community consortium project which is in the pre-planning stage and the 6MW Knock and Swordale turbine which has got planning consent earlier this year. We have a golden opportunity now to deliver these projects plus other community ones which would quickly come forward if new space was created.
As everyone now appreciates, the community energy sector is irreplaceable in the support it provides to our local ‘ecosystem’ of community charities and projects providing important and worthwhile jobs as well as vital local services.
To build on that success, we need to make the new Skye cable a ‘community cable’ that is bigger and better for our islands. There is no practical or financial reason why that cannot happen but it will require all of us in the community sector, local and national government, SSE and Ofgem, to work together.
It is an opportunity too important for the islands to miss.
• Calum MacDonald is pictured above, with Point and Sandwick’s Beinn Ghrideag windfarm in the background.