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December 16, 2009

Wind turbines divide opinion

Wind turbines tend to evoke reactions akin to Marmite. But for some communities, the question of loving or hating the aesthetics of these structures doesn’t come into it. It’s all about the bottom line – the cash that they earn. The community on Westray is about to take formal ownership of a single 900kw turbine which, at 220ft high,  has become the dominant feature on the island’s landscape. The community anticipates a similar impact on its economy

Population saviour as ‘people’s turbine’ set to make £200k a year

While other communities unite to fight the march of wind turbines across the countryside, the Orkney island sees its single turbine as a way of regenerating the island.

Views on the aesthetics of the 900kW turbine, which will be formally handed over to the community by German manufacturers Enercon on Wednesday, may vary but it has won the Scottish Green Energy Award for best community initiative.

Along with other single- turbine projects in Dounby in Orkney and Tiree, and other small-scale versions in places such as North Harris and Gigha, community-owned assets are seen as a way for local people to cash in on the renewables revolution.

Westray’s turbine cost £1.6 million, with £761,000 coming from the Big Lottery Fund and the rest from community funds and a loan from the sustainable bank, Triodos.

The power is sold to SmartestEnergy, a leading buyer and supplier of independently generated electricity which recently signed a deal with Marks & Spencer to buy renewable energy from small Scottish generators including Westray.

Will Ferguson, communications officer with Triodos Bank, which has also helped renewables projects on Eigg, Gigha, and Cumbrae and in Knoydart, said the attractions of such schemes are financial, environmental and social.

“The beauty of it is that it’s sustainable financially as well as environmentally, while helping to keep the lifeblood of the community, its people, there,” he said.

“It’s better in the long run for the island to generate and develop its own income stream than to be reliant on government and charitable grants.”

The turbine will produce 3,500MWh a year, but it is its long-term income generation potential that most interests residents.

It is projected to provide more than £100,000 profit a year while it pays off the bank loan. After that the annual net profit will be more than £200,000, which will be ploughed back into community projects to help stem and even reverse population decline.

Between 1991 and 2001 Westray’s population fell by 20 per cent to fewer than 600. The decline prompted a conference in 1998 and the formation of the Westray Development Trust to address the issue. The island and its neighbour, Papa Westray, were included in the government programme Initiative at the Edge, to help remote, fragile areas.

Since then new businesses have started, including a care home, new families have arrived and the population has stabilised. But the turbine is seen as having the biggest potential in helping revitalise the island.

The islanders secured the turbine with help from Community Energy Scotland, and the income is intended to fund projects such as housing, help for non-profit-making organisations and assistance to set up and sustain local businesses.

David Stephenson, a member of the trust, said: “We are 100 per cent certain that the income should not be used to fund services that government agencies or the council should deliver.”

Stephen Hagan, convener of Orkney Islands Council and the local councillor, believes Westray could now be a model for other islands.

“It’s an incredible achievement and the income will be pretty substantial. People are really proud of the turbine. They feel a real sense of ownership.”