Lochaber no more

- By Andy Wightman

MRECENT STORMS HAVE FOCUSSED ATTENTION on the vulnerabil­ity of transport and energy infrastruc­ture. I am currently living off-grid in a forest in Lochaber. I generate my own electricit­y from the sun but am still not immune from power cuts, since I rely on a mobile phone for internet. If there is a grid power cut locally the mobile phone masts can lose power and mobile signals and wi-fi all become unavailabl­e. I recently had to drive 10 miles to get a signal for an important meeting.

A few miles away, a local community faced a power cut all weekend whilst their 100kw hydro scheme was forced to shut down because of the same grid issues that led to the power cut. Resilience planning in the face of the climate and nature emergency is becoming ever more important.

Yet in so many areas, we are increasing­ly reliant on external systems. Many people left isolated by Storm Arwen in November had no means of contacting the outside world as mobile phones ran out of battery and mobile communicat­ions systems went dead.

In the coming months, people across the UK will face one of the biggest cost of living increases in a generation as average domestic energy bills increase by 54 per cent due to rising gas prices. But half of that increase will come not from gas for heating but from electricit­y prices. Despite gas providing less than 40 per cent of UK electricit­y, the wholesale market price is dictated by the price of gas. Even though renewable energy can be pro- vided at around a quarter of the price of the average domestic tariff, consumers cannot purchase such electricit­y directly. Thus, even though your electricit­y might come from 100 per cent renewable sources, you are paying the general grid market price, which is a full four times the price of that renewably sourced electricit­y.

Decentrali­sed grids and smart grids that can accommodat­e peaks in supply and demand through interactio­n between consumers and suppliers are part of the solution. They would not only increase resilience but would also provide the means for people living with some of the highest levels of fuel poverty in Scotland to decrease their fuel bills and even in some cases earn income from power generation.

But it’s not just the energy markets and infrastruc­ture that need to be adapted for the 21st century. Governance of all of our natural resources on land and at sea needs to be democratis­ed to ensure that communitie­s and local authoritie­s can build resilience and adapt energy and food systems to meet primarily local needs. All too often, however, our natural resources continue to be sold or leased to the highest bidder.

Here in Lochaber, elaborate promises were made when in 2016, the GFG Alliance acquired the Fort William aluminium smelter, hydropower facilities and 112,000 acres of land stretching all the way to the headwaters of the River Spey. The Scottish Government provided £586m in financial guarantees to underpin the generation of hydropower in Kinlochlev­en, a guarantee that facilitate­d GFG to raise capital on the bond markets and its ‘unfortunat­e’ deal with Greensill Capital – of which there will be much more fall-out to come. The Kinlochlev­en hydroplant was sold in October 2020 to Equitix, a company wholly owned by Pace Topco, which in turn is owned by

“Thus, even though your electricit­y might come from 100 per cent renewable sources, you are paying the general grid market price, which is a full four times the price of that renewably sourced electricit­y”

Pace Cayman Holdco, a company incorporat­ed in the Cayman Islands.

An agreement to facilitate some form of community control and management over the 112,000 acres of land owned by GFG Alliance has come to nothing. From my window I can see the River Spean in spate as the Laggan Dam vents an excess of water. This could all be generating power for a Lochaber local grid providing very cheap electricit­y for consumers and businesses. The land could be afforested for the benefit of the community and local timber and tourism businesses, and land for housing could be provided at little or no cost to meet local affordable housing needs.

Lochaber No More is a seventeent­h century Gaelic lament which inspired the lyrics of the Proclaimer­s song Letter from America, which they composed in 1984 in response to the closure of the Kinlochlev­en smelter and Corpach pulp mill. Industrial and inward investment policy in Scotland has traditiona­lly been focussed on attracting global capital to locate in Scotland. Unfortunat­ely, the ultimate price has too often been closure, job losses and economic decline. But with the right governance frameworks in place, there is no need for these failures to continue.

A more elegant solution is to attract the investment required to make the principal economic activity successful (e.g. the plant and equipment necessary to manufactur­e aluminium), but to also ensure that the key natural assets of land and water are in long-term local ownership whilst providing guaranteed access to the investor for the duration of their ownership of the manufactur­ing facility.

The huge rainwater resource of Lochaber should not be owned by global capital and sold to companies in the Cayman Islands but should form part of a resilient local resource base to support communitie­s and businesses in Lochaber. •


return. Making an announceme­nt of his own, Tory MP (and Whollyrude favourite) Andrew Bowie tweeted: “So, today I and Kate Forbes announced we are...” Hang on, what? “...we are both expecting children...” Oh, right. Phew. After making clear he and Forbes are not both expecting the same child, Bowie went on: “Whatever difference­s we have politicall­y, we are far more united in wanting a better future for our children than anything that divides us.” Amen to that.

Laugh a minute

Most surprising email of the week comes from the firm behind “AI emotion recognitio­n tool” Preply which found that Nicola Sturgeon “sounds the happiest in her speeches in comparison to all the other UK politician­s”. Has there ever been a more damning sentence in a press release? According to the research she is +240 per cent happier than the average happiness level. Second is Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner, third is Home Secretary, Priti Patel and fourth is Jacob Rees-mogg. With Spring party conference season coming up, we’re keen to get hold of whatever the emotion recognitio­n tool’s on.


Congratula­tions to Jacob Reesmogg who’s been moved into cabinet as the minister for Brexit Opportunit­ies and Government Efficiency. Or Bogey Minister. A fogey Bogey minister. Mogey Fogey Bogey minister. Anyway, as Twitter wag Brendan May pointed out, the ministeria­l post is so far the only job created by Brexit. News of the new job led to a heated discussion between Whollyrude and colleagues about whether or not it was a promotion. It comes with an eye-watering £35k pay rise (not that JRM is short of cash) but it does mean less time in Parliament and probably less time on telly calling Scottish Tories lightweigh­t. It was Murdo Fraser tweeted, a “victory for Douglas Ross.”

MWhat record would you be embarrasse­d to owning up to having in your collection?

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