Island at war over wind farm millions
How French energy giant’s 36-turbine plan has split Lewis – and triggered a legal battle with crofters
THE dark ribbon of the Pentland Road cuts sharply through the purple-tinged peat moors that make up the crofting lands of Northern Lewis. Part of a failed masterplan by Victorian tycoon Lord Leverhulme to industrialise the transportation of fish catches on his island estates, the road was originally a railway track bed intended to link the ports of Carloway and Stornoway.
The popularity of Leverhulme’s vision was never tested as the screeching and clanking of steam locomotives over the moors never came to pass. The only noise that now assaults the senses in this great expanse of nothing is the near-permanent howl of the Hebridean wind.
Leverhulme may be long gone, but the great natural resource that still blows across the island is at the centre of fresh efforts to drag the Western Isles economy to the forefront of the modern technological age. The focus is a 36-turbine megawind farm straddling the Pentland Road, which could generate enough electricity to power 135,000 homes and create dozens of construction jobs in an area starved of employment.
On paper, it sounds an appetising prospect, but the scheme has become mired in controversy after dozens of crofters – whose common grazings will be affected by the development – claimed their wishes have been ‘bulldozed’ in the name of corporate greed. Their anger is fuelled by a belief that they were kept in the dark about the scale of the proposals and the details of a 70-year lease deal struck by their landlord, the Stornoway Trust, with French-owned energy giant EDF.
Under the deal, they point out, EDF – a multi-billion-pound conglomerate – has proposed paying £900,000 a year into a community benefit fund, even though a three-turbine community wind farm the crofters run already churns out that same sum for good causes despite being a tenth of the size of the EDF project.
Part of the crofters’ annoyance stems from the fact that the trust was created to manage the land in the interests of locals and yet seems unwilling, in their eyes, to back their ambitions.
IN an increasingly acrimonious war of words, the trust has hotly contested accusations of incompetence in negotiating the lease, which, it claims, all but a vocal minority of crofters have accepted as ‘fair and reasonable’.
But four crofting townships remain far from convinced. In the latest twist to a saga that has rumbled on for almost 20 years, this small but determined band are locked in a legal battle with EDF and its partner Wood Group in an audacious bid to build their own smaller project.
They 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. If they succeed, it would be the second time they have disrupted the multinational’s plans for the area – something EDF seems keen to avoid. Its 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.
Whoever is victorious faces a further crucial hurdle. They must convince the UK Government in about a year from now that they can produce enough power to justify the construction of a £1billion subsea interconnector to link Lewis to the mainland. Without that, no new wind farms, big or small, are likely to be built.
Crofter Rhoda MacKenzie, who leads the campaign for the Gang of Four townships, said: ‘The odds are stacked against us but we have to keep fighting because it’s not just a piece of land we are talking about, it’s the future of our community and our children. Our economy needs this; we missed out on the oil industry and this will be one of the biggest missed opportunities in a generation if we don’t get it right.’
Their anxiety at another energy jackpot passing them by is entirely understandable in an economic climate where 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 per cent, according to official figures.
More than 40 per cent 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 crofters on Lewis have been throwing jealous glances towards their northern neighbours on Shetland, where a community-led 50/50 partnership with SSE named Viking Energy aims to build 103 turbines, producing enough power for 335,000 homes. When it goes live, it is expected to generate many tens of millions of pounds in community benefit over its lifetime.
Mrs MacKenzie, 56, said: ‘Viking Energy say that they stand to make more money out of wind than they did from the oil and gas industry.
‘The difference in Shetland is that the residents did all the groundwork first before partnering with SSE.’
Her words betray an implicit criticism of those who struck a deal that she and others regard as ‘rotten’. Mrs MacKenzie moved to her 64-year-old husband Ian’s family croft at Sandwick in 1980. Their son, Andrew, 30, took over the croft in 2011 and built another house on the land for his family.
SHE said: ‘Crofting is difficult to make a living from and has diversified hugely. Nowadays, people are looking for new ways to work the land.
‘We fought hard to get the crofting rights and we feel the land should be used for the good of the islands, not for the profit of EDF. We are shareholders in the trust and are angry there was no proper consultation prior to the lease being signed with EDF.
‘I think the trustees have left themselves open to accusations of incompetence.’
Mrs MacKenzie denied the
crofters – from the four communities of Melbost and Branahuie, Sandwick East Street, Sandwick North Street and Aignish – were acting out of personal gain.
She said: ‘We have always made it clear that we want everyone in the Western Isles to benefit, from Lewis to Barra.
‘We will receive around £900,000 a year for community schemes from EDF, which is not inconsiderable but hardly transformative. Our costings show a community-led project of 21 turbines would bring in around £5million a year, which could make all the difference.
‘We could help alleviate the high travel costs incurred by businesses, we could help start up schemes and courses and businesses in IT and micro-electronics or other renewables. We could help care groups for the elderly and vulnerable. Social care has a huge funding gap this could help plug. But we cannot do all this on £900,000 a year.’
Part of the crofters’ annoyance stems from the fact the trust was created to manage their interests and yet seems unwilling, in their eyes, to back their ambitions.
One of the oldest in Scotland, the trust was formed in 1923, when Leverhulme, industrialist, politician and one half of the Lever Brothers soap empire, gifted his 70,000-acre Lewis estate to its 10,000 residents.
Overseen by a board of ten trustees and managed by an estate factor, the trust employs 32 staff and turns over £1million a year. It serves the interests of around half the adult population of the Outer Hebrides, including 1,300 crofters, all of whom are eligible to vote in its elections.
Traditionally, men have dominated the trust’s board, but polling last month to fill five vacant posts saw a woman top the list of successful candidates.
CATRIONA Murray, a college lecturer and Free Church blogger, was one of four new trustees who stood on a clear pledge of maintaining the island’s cultural orthodoxy – in particular, Sabbath observance.
The fifth successful candidate was Norman Maciver, a strong advocate of the trust’s wind farm partnership with EDF. He has already served 12 years as a trustee and happens to be a cousin of its long-serving factor, Iain Maciver.
It has left disaffected crofters bemoaning their lack of influence over the land they croft.
‘The trust have behaved more like a feudal landlord rather than a community landlord over this,’ said Donnie MacDonald, who helped establish the three-turbine farm at Point and Sandwick, the UK’s largest community wind farm, after a ten-year struggle.
‘When we made it known that we wanted to build three turbines on our land, EDF wouldn’t give us permission. We had to fight and fight to get a little piece of our own land for three turbines. How outrageous is that? The trust sided with EDF. It was very much, “Who do you think you are, you silly people, to think that you can build turbines on your own land? Leave it to the big boys”.’
Mr MacDonald said the Point and Sandwick wind farm’s support for local charities – Bethesda Hospice, the island’s only one, was first to benefit and will receive £55,000 a year for 25 years – was proof they did the right thing. He is ready for another long fight.
But even if the Gang of Four win the legal battle, nothing will happen unless UK ministers are persuaded of the need for an undersea connector to be laid beneath the Minch as the current one is running at capacity.
The cost is astronomical and can only be achieved with the help of a Government subsidy known as a ‘contract for difference’ – and Lewis will have to have its bid ready for a subsidy ‘auction’ to be held in spring next year.
EDF says it has the financial muscle to guarantee winning at the auction. Its community liaison officer Kerry MacPhee said: ‘Without the interconnector, there won’t be any more community wind farms or any project on the island.
‘We need this interconnector. It is £600million, with as much as £400million for infrastructure costs – and the community just doesn’t have that.’
The crofters argue they could be part of a successful combined bid if EDF agreed to modify its plans.
PIE in the sky stuff, according to trust factor Mr Maciver, who claimed that if the crofters’ actions prevented EDF from winning a subsidy it ‘would kill renewables on the Western Isles potentially full stop’. He said those who criticise the lease forget it was signed in 2001, when renewables were in their infancy and the financial sector was far more nervous about investing in the industry.
He added: ‘It meant the developer had to invest a lot of time and expense into establishing where a wind farm could go. To give all parties security, the trust said it would grant a lease to set the ball rolling. A community benefit element was introduced, which was unheard of then – this project was the first to have that – and an option to buy 20 per cent of the project was secured, worth tens of millions potentially.
‘We always strived to secure a fair and reasonable deal. Almost 10,000 people live on trust land, including 1,300 crofters, just under half of whom live on land affected by the wind farm. You have 16 townships; 12 of them appear very content with what’s on the table.’
Financial experts have questioned the trust’s ability to afford a fifth share in the scheme, conservatively estimated at £40-50million.
Mark Stewart, head of infrastructure and renewable energy at chartered accountant Johnston Carmichael, dismissed it as a ‘hollow offer’. He said: ‘On the face of it, this looks appealing; but in reality, it is probably an offer that can never be taken up as the Stornoway Trust does not have that sort of cash and no one will lend them money without having any security over the income stream of the project. EDF has all the control.’
Mr Maciver said the trust was exploring financial ‘vehicles’ to purchase the stake, but insisted securing the interconnector was still the main prize. He added: ‘There’s a danger that we don’t have anything and end up with nothing. And 100 per cent of nothing is still nothing. And your community benefit stake in that will also be nothing.’
As the two sides continue their uneasy face off, the wind whips up over the Pentland Road and is lost over the horizon for another day.
Taking on the big boys: Crofter Rhoda MacKenzie, below, and Donnie MacDonald, left, are standing up to EDF