It could take until 2014 before the Western Isles have a sufficiently strong connection to the national grid to export up to 1,000 megawatts of green electricity expected to be generated in the Hebrides.
The stark warning follows Highland Council’s complaint that the duration of the public inquiry into an upgraded Beauly to Denny transmission line was being extended “unnecessarily” by the sheer volume of information about matters already agreed.
Planning director John Rennilson said the inquiry timetable would mean serious delays before power from the Western Isles could come on stream.
He said: “The inquiry is expected to last 10 months from the start date of February 6. It will take until early summer 2008 before a report is finished and sent to ministers. It is expected that it will take them several months before reaching a decision – making it autumn 2008, at the earliest.”
“The line will take at least 30 months to build, so that takes it to 2011. And the line from the Western Isles can’t take any power out before the Beauly-Denny line is completed.”
Scottish Hydro-Electric Transmission Ltd (Shetl) has indicated it would like to place underground a substantial section of the link between Little Loch Broom south of Ullapool, where the connector linking the Western Isles would come ashore, to Beauly.
Mr Rennilson continued: “Undergrounding the grid line will not need planning permission, but the sub-stations along the route do. There are already objections to some of these.
“The Scottish Executive also has to perform a delicate balancing act because if there is no grid link from the Highlands, and I would guess from the Western Isles, they might be in danger of missing their renewable energy targets.
“There are already a lot of firms planning projects who can’t get their power out of the area.”
He said that any delays in reaching decisions on the development would push the Western Isles’ hopes of generating up to 1,000MW of electricity into the middle of the next decade.
It is unlikely that the Western Isles would get a link before 2011 because a Western Isles input would overpower the existing transmission line.
One alternative for the Western Isles would be for a direct undersea cable link to Hunterston in Ayrshire or to Cumbria in north-west England, which is what many campaigners in north-west Scotland have pressed for.
However, Shetl appears to have ruled it out on cost grounds, and it is understood that a report commissioned by Highlands and Islands Enterprise will echo that.
There is also continuing uncertainty about the potential effects of a coastal and marine national park on the proposal.
Depending on where the executive decides to draw the boundaries for such a park, there could be tight restrictions on what can be placed on the seabed and for two kilometres inland from the coast, which could affect the cable, substation and pylons.
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