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February 27, 2008

Communities leading the quiet revolution

While debate and controversy continues to rage over large-scale windfarm developments in the Western Isles, a smaller and much less vocal section of islanders have been working together quietly and diligently to develop their own community-owned wind projects


While debate and controversy continues over large-scale windfarm developments in the Western Isles, a smaller and much less vocal section of islanders have begun quietly and diligently working together to develop their own community-owned wind projects. These community projects share a common goal – to bring direct financial and economic benefit to their local communities through full ownership of a community turbine. The power produced by the turbines can then be sold to the grid so that the income ‘generated’ can bring real and lasting benefits to the communities involved. The communities themselves will ultimately determine how best to invest these funds. These Western Isles groups are encouraged by the success of the islanders of Gigha who installed their own 3 wind turbines back in 2004, the first community-owned windfarm in the UK, and which now brings in an annual net income of over £100,000 to the Gigha community.

Seven Western Isles community groups came together for the first time recently at a conference organised by the Highlands and Islands Community Energy Company and held at Grogarry Lodge, Uist. Three Lewis groups (Galson Power, Tolsta Community Development and Horshader Community Development), the North Harris Trust and three Uist groups (North Uist Partnership, Storas Uibhist and Comhearsnachd Bharraidh agus Bhatarsaidh) had the chance to share and learn from one another’s experiences. Each of the groups are at varying stages in the development process and so are able to benefit from the lessons learned by those at a more advanced stage, such as North Harris who have already secured planning consent for their turbines. As well as sharing direct experiences, the groups are also able to share equipment, such as with Horshader who have now acquired the anemometer mast which North Harris had used for measuring wind data at their proposed site.

Community delegates were also able to gain useful tips on site suitability, turbine types and procurement, warranty and maintenance issues. David MacLennan of SNH outlined his organisation’s role as an advisory body, while his colleague Ross Allan clarified landscape and visual impact assessments. Representatives from Comhairle nan Eilean Siar outlined the Comhairle’s planning strategy, planning process and its present activity and future plans in relation to renewable energy projects. Wind energy consultants explained how the groups themselves can contribute to their environmental statements. David Cameron of the North Harris Trust provided an update of the present challenges their project faces but the considerable benefits which will accrue to their community once these difficulties have been overcome. Gerard MacDonald and Euan Scott of the Comhearsnachd Bharraidh agus Bhatarsaidh shared their experiences on planning and commissioning studies. Studies into the local flora, fauna, bird life and archaeology of their proposed turbine site are now well underway. Carola Bell of Galson Estate Trust gave an update of their wind project and later commented “This conference was invaluable for our group. All the Western Isles groups are dealing with the same grid infrastructure and planning issues and hearing from the various local agencies provided a much better understanding of these matters. We have met with the other Lewis and Harris groups before but getting all the Western Isles groups together is a first and we are have gained strength in working together and sharing experiences. By learning how other groups have overcome difficulties, this will also save our group unnecessary work in the future. There’s some innovative stuff going on out there in communities in the Western Isles!”
HICEC provides funding, advice and support for communities who are considering developing their own renewable energy schemes to bring community income and HICEC’s local development officers are Rona Womersley (based in Benbecula) and Kathleen MacLennan (based in Stornoway).

Rona Womersley said “We are very pleased with how the conference went and feel the community groups who attended now have a much clearer idea, not only of what other Western Isles community groups are involved in but also the value of keeping in regular contact with each other, with funding bodies, their local community and also consultants at the very earliest stages. The conference also highlighted the amount of hard work and enthusiasm which the different community groups are putting into their own projects in order to make these developments happen for the local people. Communities can benefit directly from producing renewable energy from the vast natural resources available throughout the Western Isles.
HICEC is working closely with many other groups throughout the Highlands and Islands who are developing their own renewable energy projects to generate community income for their community and seek to use these local resources to improve the sustainability of their communities.