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August 8, 2018

David and Goliath – round two?

Thirteen years ago, an epic David and Goliath struggle took place on the Western Isles between the community and a multi-national over plans to create a super-quarry on Harris.  Remarkably, and after a long campaign, the company agreed with very good grace to withdraw its plans. Another such struggle – this time over the rights to generate renewable electricity – is brewing. The projected community controlled income -  £100 million – would transform life on the islands. Will EDF take a leaf out of the history books and make a dignified exit? Will Western Isles Council back its own community?


Alan Simpson, The Herald

They are four remote streets with a handful of houses among them standing amid the harsh windswept environment of the islands.

But the crofting communities on Lewis are poised for a share of a multi million pound windfall as they bid for Government contracts to supply the National Grid from their own wind turbines.

The communities in Sandwick with Aignish and Melbost plan to take control of 21 turbines from EDF and provide annual income 100 times more than what the energy giant proposes.

It comes as Scotland is set for a lucrative renewable energy boom which experts say will transform local communities.

UK ministers have announced that wind power projects on islands will now be able to apply for subsidies which would remove the element of financial risk that comes with building away from the mainland.

Island schemes will become eligible for a “Contract for Difference” (CfD) with the UK Government, which covers the shortfall between the cost of investing in infrastructure in remote locations and the average market price for electricity in the UK market.

This ensures electricity generators have stable revenues while customers are insulated against rising bills.

This has opened the door for communities across the islands to plan their own wind farms to raise much-needed funds for local infrastructure.

Wind is increasingly seen as a key natural resource in the Western Isles, with the potential to boost the economic future of the islands.

Now the four crofting townships on Lewis have become the first to bid in the Contract for Differences auction in May.

The four townships which will be bidding are Sandwick North Street, Sandwick East Street, Melbost & Branahuie and Aignish.

Altogether, they hope to develop 21 turbines, with a total output of 105MW. Although that comprises four different schemes, they all meet or exceed the 5MW threshold for eligibility into the scheme.

North Street is planning one turbine of 5MW, while Aignish is planning two (10MW total), Melbost eight (40MW) and East Street 10 (50MW).

It is also the latest twist to a saga that has seen the townships locked in a legal battle with EDF and its partner Wood Group in an audacious bid to build their own smaller project.

The townships have applied to the Crofting Commission for an area big enough for 21 turbines to be effectively removed from EDF’s control and given to them.

But the multinational’s operating arm, Lewis Wind Power, has filed a petition at the Scottish Land Court, asking it to throw out the crofters’ objections and approve its lease.

Both sides in this David and Goliath struggle are refusing to back down and the only thing they agree on is that the outcome will have far-reaching consequences for the future of the entire Western Isles. Sandwick North Street representative Rhoda Mackenzie said: “It’s a very minimum of 10 times more if we own these 21 turbines, compared to if EDF own them.

“So if the townships get control of these turbines, we will be able to put more than £5million a year into the Western Isles economy, compared to about £525,000 from EDF.

“We could do a lot with that money. We’ve got massive cutbacks from government.

“We’ve got a black hole to fill. We’ve got social problems to address. There’s gaps in social care.

“We need to address the problems of the ageing population, social isolation and young people leaving. We need to be more innovative.

“We need to invest in different technologies to reverse the trend of depopulation.

“It’s vitally important that the Western Isles develop these renewables projects for themselves.”

If successful at the auction, Ms Mackenzie stressed that all the profits would go into a community benefit fund for distribution throughout the whole of the Western Isles.

She said: “We want to spread this, to invest in the economy of the entire Western Isles, from the Butt to Barra. The profit won’t be kept by the four townships.

“With us, all the profits would be put into a charitable trust and distributed via a scoring matrix.”

The bid comes as one in ten children in the Western Isles lives in poverty and the number of households suffering from fuel poverty is running at more than 50%, according to official figures.

More than 40% of the working population are in public sector employment, either with the local authority or the health service. Tourism is the main growth industry.

The townships are encouraged that rivals EDF already has full planning consent for its original scheme as it wants to put its turbines in the same places.

Agents for the townships have been working on the necessary bird studies for nearly two years now and expect the study for the latest breeding season will be completed this month. As soon as this is completed, the final preparations will be made ahead of submitting applications for planning consent to Western Isles Council.

Will Collins, LWP Project Manager, said: “Lewis Wind Power’s proposals would benefit the local economy through the opportunity for up to 20% community ownership across both of our developments, rental payments to community landlord The Stornoway Trust, and compensation payments to local crofters, as well as the £900,000 community benefit fund.

“In addition, it should not be overlooked that LWP’s projects currently make up almost 90% of the consented wind projects in development on the island, meaning they are critical to the business case for the new interconnector with the mainland, which would unlock further investment in the future.”