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October 27, 2010

Community ownership should be total

The levels of benefit that communities currently receive from the development of on-shore renewable energy projects are derisory compared to the huge profits generated by the private developers.  A few hundred thousand pounds may sound like a lot of money but it will never transform the fortunes of a community. Former MP, Callum MacDonald argues that for this to happen, all on-shore wind farms need be 100% community owned

All wind farms in the Western Isles should in future be community owned, according to former isles MP Calum MacDonald.

This view was expressed by Dr MacDonald in Stornoway last Thursday evening when delivered the inaugural Angus Graham Lecture in memory of the former island councillor.

Dr MacDonald is the secretary of Eco-Heb, an umbrella organisation which represents six different community wind farm projects in the Western Isles at various stages of development.

He said: “We often hear that the Western Isles have the best renewable energy resource in the whole of Europe.  But the question that we have yet to get to grips with is this: how do we develop that resource to gain the maximum benefit for the community?

“My argument is that, in the case of onshore wind farms, community ownership is by far the best way forward.  Indeed, my personal conviction is that from now on we should strive that all the wind farms built in these islands are community owned.”

Dr MacDonald said the current Stornoway wind farm proposal, for a development on land owned by the Stornoway Trust and run as a partnership between Amec and EDF Energy, should now be handed over to community ownership.

He said the current offer on the table for community benefit from the 90-megawatt development was £360,000 a year, but if the entire project was under the auspices of the community it would generate £9 million per annum.

Dr MacDonald warned that if the simply relied on companies like Amec and EDF to develop renewable energy on the islands, the long-term economic impact was going to be “marginal’.  He added that £360,000 a year was not going to make a fundamental or long-term difference to the islands economy. 

“Once the wind farm is built and the construction workers have gone home,” he said, “the jobs and income left behind by conventional development is too small to make a substantial impact.

“But if we develop the same land and the same wind resource through community ownership – and after all it is the community’s land in the first place – we transform the economy of our islands.”

He added: “To put these figures in perspective, £9 million a year is comparable to the annual income into the Shetland Fund and we all know what an impact the oil income has had upon the Shetland economy.  Community-owned wind can have the same impact here and, unlike oil, the wind will never run out.”

Dr MacDonald was speaking in the run-up to a conference on co-operative groups in the Western Isles and said that in relation to the wind farm he was directly involved in, Point and Sandwick Power, the Co-operative Bank had agreed to debt-finance the £12 million capital costs.

“Legislation is now going through parliament which opens a new door of opportunity for the council by becoming a developer in its own right, representing the whole of the Western Isles as only the council can,” he said. “I am hopeful that the council can and will rise to this new challenge.”