Katie Laing explores the fight for the right to community renewables on the island of Lewis. On one hand is a system that brings direct community control and builds a local economy, on the other one that extracts profit. control and resource from the islands.

I live on the Isle of Lewis and have been blogging on my site, hebrideswriter.com, for about 18 months about a ‘David and Goliath’ style fight for the right to develop renewables on the island.

That fight involves EDF Energy, the hugely powerful French multinational, pushing ahead with what amounts to a modern-day land grab. EDF is the main partner in Lewis Wind Power, and is currently involved in a case in the Scottish Land Court where they are trying to gain their last vital piece of permission to develop the 36-turbine Stornoway Wind Farm.

They are also behind the plans for Uisenis, bringing their total ambition for Lewis to 81 turbines. Another corporate, Forsa Energy, want to develop 14 turbines in Tolsta in the north of the island.

The problem — and it is a big problem indeed — for EDF in particular is that there is a group of crofters who want to do it themselves and they have a successful model to follow: that of Point and Sandwick Trust, who developed the award-winning Beinn Ghrideag wind farm just outside Stornoway and which makes about £900,000 profit a year, all of which goes to the community.

The difference between these schemes, depending on whether they are community-owned or corporate, is absolutely massive. Before we even get into the issues of self-determination, confidence and autonomy, the figures speak for themselves.

Point and Sandwick Trust’s scheme is only three turbines — 9MW — but it makes the same profit a year as the amount that EDF have proposed to give back to the community in their ‘community benefit’ pot if they are successful in developing their scheme. Difference is, EDF’s wind farm would have more than 10 times the number of turbines.

It is now the stuff of legend that the Stornoway Trust gave away a lease to the ground to EDF without consulting the crofters.

Crofting law is complicated and I won’t go into it but the crofters — those who have shares in the common grazings within the Stornoway Trust estate — should have been consulted because the ground in question is common grazings land.

That has caused no end of problems because some of these crofters have their own plans for renewables and submitted an application to the Crofting Commission around 18 months ago, under a piece of the Crofting Act known as Section 50B. They want to develop 21 turbines, all of them on the same spots as some of EDF’s 36 for Stornoway.

That submission has still not been dealt with but was overtaken by another piece of legal action under the Crofting Act — this time a Section 19A application from Lewis Wind Power, which went to the Scottish Land Court in the summer.

What is notable about the Section 19A application is that it asks for a development to be approved even when the crofters oppose it — so it is hostile. It harks back to the Clearances, for some, with this element of disinheritance.

The big difficulty in Lewis is that the Lewis Wind Power plans are being backed by the local authority, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, as being ‘the only game in town’, in terms of securing the interconnector cable which is needed for any future developments to go ahead. The current cable is at capacity.

This issue is making the national news now and the council is really not liking the scrutiny. In fact, they put out a letter this morning about it.

The letter began: “Over the past period there has been some media comment and speculation about the future direction of renewables in the Outer Hebrides. Much of this comment has had little regard to the factual position in which the Outer Hebrides finds itself.”

That letter then claimed that “the only way” a renewables industry could emerge in the Outer Hebrides would be if Lewis Wind Power and Forsa Energy were successful at the Contracts for Difference auction in 2019. Many folk dispute that as community groups now have a track record of delivering these kinds of projects.

The council’s letter also claimed that LWP and Forsa were the only parties with all the consents needed to participate in the CfD auction — but that is disputed too, as they do not yet have their Section 19A approvals yet and it’s by no means guaranteed that they will get them.

Even if LWP and Forsa were successful in the Contract for Difference auction — the complicated subsidy system which supports renewable energy developments by guaranteeing the price they will get for their electricity from government (it’s called an auction because companies put in what price per MW they say they can develop for) — they still could not build without the Section19A permission from the Scottish Land Court.

The statement from the council does show you, though, just how much they are backing this multinational horse. It follows another council statement a few weeks ago that they were looking to set up a ‘joint vehicle’ with Stornoway Trust so that, together, they could buy minority shares in the LWP schemes. The Trust are pursuing 20 per cent in the Stornoway Wind Farm and the council 30 per cent in Uisenis – but there are so many questions around this.

These shares would cost in the region of £100million and who are they going to find to lend them that kind of money for a minority share in a project which they cannot control?

It’s all to do with this big push for the interconnector cable, which will cost hundreds of millions and will only be built if there are enough Megawatts guaranteed to use it (so that the cost of investment can be recovered). However, there is no reason why community groups can’t be part of this.

National Grid are not allowed to show a preference between community or corporate schemes and it is silly to suggest that EDF will pull out of Lewis entirely if the fight over the 21 turbines does not go their way. That could still leave them with 60 approved turbines, which would be incredibly valuable. Even if they chose not to develop themselves, someone would. They are not going to pull out in a huff and threaten the interconnector because crofters thumbed their nose at them.

Even if they didn’t want to develop, they would sell the rights — and that’s quite possible, actually, as they have a history of selling wind farms, selling five in England late last year and several a number of years ago to the Chinese — their partners in Hinkley Point C, of course.

So if it’s the interconnector people want, EDF do not have to get every single one of their 81 turbines for it to happen.

And if we must have this large-scale development, then surely it has to be worth our while? It has to be worth more than crumbs from the table, bowing and scraping all the way.

Admittedly, there is some suspicion about what community groups would do with all this money if they were successful. In fact, the crofters have already signed up to the same policy as Point and Sandwick Trust, which would be to use the net profit from the wind farm to benefit the whole of Outer Hebrides, not just their own immediate area.

It is a policy that is already making a big difference in the islands, with many organisations receiving cash including the local care home and hospice, which receives £55,000 every year, and the arts centre, which gets £20,000.

If ‘interconnector-scale’ development is to go ahead, but the community groups don’t have a place at the table (with the proper recompense), then I think the interconnector ceases to be a great idea.

That’s because of the amount of land that would be covered by these turbines — industrialisation, arguably — and because there would be precious little land left available for communities to develop for themselves, as so much is protected by wildlife designations.

One friend told me recently that Lewis needed “vision and patience” where renewables was concerned. Vision in terns of recognising what the community was capable of. And patience because renewables technologies were still unfolding.

Soon, we may not even need an interconnector to be able to find an outlet for our power. I don’t mean an alternative mains network — it’s too big an island for that — but in terms of transportation possibilities.

Across the world, there is cutting-edge research into electric vehicles, batteries, grids and even planes. And there is hydrogen too — with Point and Sandwick Trust at the centre of an announcement just last week, that the Scottish government had funded them for a feasibility study with partners including Ferguson Marine, CMAL and Siemens into developing a hydrogen-powered ferry service for the Hebrides.

None of that would need an interconnector because none of that has a ‘route to market’ problem. Before long, we will be amazed at what is possible. Let’s not give away all that potential too hastily. And let’s remember that we are custodians.

“We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”