The company behind controversial plans to site the world’s largest onshore wind farm in the Western Isles last night strongly denied that pressing ahead with the project would breach European rules on protecting wildlife.
Lewis Wind Power (LWP), which is jointly owned by Amec and British Energy, was reacting to claims that the European Commission could rule that the proposal broke its conservation laws as other sites across Scotland had not been considered for the massive project.
Wildlife campaigners yesterday argued that European directives, which are binding on member states, require developers of wind farms to look at options across the country, not just in the Western Isles.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in Scotland said that the plan to build 181 turbines in Lewis was covered by these rules and, therefore, that the Scottish Executive, which will have the final say, should not give it the go-ahead.
Lloyd Austin, head of conservation at the RSPB in Scotland, said the EC had laid out a clear process, including looking at alternative sites, which had to be followed before protected areas could be used for wind farms. He said: “If a member state does not follow that process, the commission is entitled to intervene and the European Court has already established case law on that.
“Our concern with this project is that the Executive is obliged to follow that process and if it does not, it risks an intervention by the commission to ensure that it has followed the rules.”
The RSPB is one of many organisations opposed to the plans on the grounds that it is sited in what is classified as a special protection area (SPA), by Europe. More than 4,000 residents have lodged objections with the Western Isles council, arguing that it will not only endanger wildlife but also damage the tourism trade on the island.
Last week, LWP, which has been battling to win local support, lodged plans with the local authority for a scaled-down version of the £500 million project, cutting the number of 460ft turbines from 234 to 181.
The council has yet to formally ratify these plans but, having backed the earlier proposal, it is expected to do so. However, because of the number of objections the matter will ultimately be decided by Executive ministers.
Last night, the Executive said it could not comment on the issue as it could not be seen to be taking sides in advance of making the decision.
There was no-one available from the office of the European Commission in Scotland to confirm reports that it was concerned that its rules might have been broken.
However, LWP launched a staunch defence of the project, which it claims will bring huge economic benefits to the Western Isles and play a large part in helping the Executive to meet its target of producing 40 per cent of Scotland’s energy from renewable sources by 2020.
The company said it had looked at 11 sites across the Western Isles – assessing the environmental impact as well as the wind speed, which affects generation capacity – before deciding on North Lewis.
LWP maintained that the consideration of alternatives had “been developed through a number of steps following European Union and Scottish guidance”.
A report submitted by the company to the council added: “The steps demonstrate that onshore wind is the only suitable viable and available technology able to deliver the LWP project objectives.”
The report concluded: “The LWP proposal is identified as the only single scheme able to deliver all of its stated objectives.
“The logical conclusion is that unless the LWP project goes ahead, the Western Isles is unlikely to realise its potential as a major renewable energy source.
David Hodkinson, a director of LWP, said: “Any alternative solution must satisfy the project objectives of delivering socio-economic benefits to the Outer Hebrides and provide justification for a large, efficient grid connection to the Outer Hebrides.
“It is our belief that this can only be achieved through a major onshore wind farm located in the Outer Hebrides.”
He said that Europe’s interest was “in making sure the European habitats directive is applied properly”. Mr Hodkinson added: “We have included a comprehensive report on all matters relevant to the habitats directive, including more details of the assessment of alternative solutions included in our original submission in 2004.”
By Peter MacMahon
Scottish Government Editor
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