It is an island divided. The increasingly bitter debate over the giant Lewis wind farm will be rekindled this week as islanders wrestle again with the issue of whether an environmental price is worth paying for much needed jobs and local investment.
Much of the 1990s was taken up agonising over a superquarry on Harris, and now residents on neighbouring Lewis have until next Monday to submit their views on a revised wind farm proposal.
Western Isles Council will then recommend it to ministers. A clear majority of councillors are desperate that their community does not miss an opportunity which could see around £6m a year in benefits, not to mention the estimated 300-plus jobs.
Some are already looking to Shetland, where the council is progressing its own £1bn wind farm which could provide power for a quarter of Scotland’s homes and which, as one of the largest community power projects in the world, could generate £20m a year.
The Lewis and Shetland projects depend on getting an interconnector to the mainland, and there are doubts that ministers would support both. It would be a bitter blow to Western Isles councillors if they were to lose out to Shetland.
There are three major wind farm developments proposed for Lewis, but the one by Amec and British Energy, in the name of Lewis Windpower (LWP), for the north and west, is generating most heat. Calum Macdonald, the former Labour MP, has even identified his support for it as one of the main reasons for him losing the Westminster seat, and the issue will doubtless feature in the forthcoming Holyrood election.
Labour’s Alasdair Morrison, who is defending a majority of just 720, is a passionate supporter, although he does not want it imposed on a community against local will. He said: “It is a great opportunity, not just for the revenues, but also to make a significant contribution to the fight against global warming. So it shouldn’t be Shetland or Lewis, it has to be Shetland and Lewis and many other locations as well.”
The European designation of much of the island moorland as a Special Protection Area (SPA) has meant the turbines would be sited on crofters’ common grazings at the edge, but close to many townships. The fact that the developers are big business seems to add to the sense of grievance.
This week, LWP will be visiting the communities most affected and just before Christmas it announced it was significantly reducing the scale from 234 turbines to 181. But this cuts little ice with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The charity claims it will still mean 88 miles of road, eight electrical substations, 19 miles of overhead cables, 18.3 miles of underground cables, 137 pylons and five rock quarries. Not the best environment for internationally important bird habitats, the RSPB argues.
Its evangelism has offended some, but it has considerable support. The local Moorland Without Turbines group, chaired by Catriona Campbell, says the scaled down version is still unacceptable. “The inevitable destruction of peatlands runs contrary to the Kyoto Protocol which indicates that natural carbon stores should be conserved. Peatlands store three times as much carbon by area as tropical rainforests.
“Since 2004, 17 measures of island opinion have recorded consistent opposition. The most recent poll found 91% opposed. In addition, more than 4500 objections from residents to the original proposal had been logged by December 2005.”
Dr Finlay Macleod, the celebrated Gaelic writer and broadcaster, has for the first time in decades found himself at odds with the likes of former energy minister Brian Wilson, now a non-executive director of Amec Nuclear Holdings, and Highland historian Jim Hunter.
Dr Macleod is convinced that those who believe the wind farm will herald a new era of prosperity are being naive and are encouraging an assault on something important. As he looked out from his house in Siabost, to where the turbines would stand higher than the Forth Bridge, he told The Herald he remembered the days when people would take their cattle out to the moor in the summer and stay with them in shielings.
“When a people have lived close to something like the moor for thousands of years it becomes more than just an expanse of peat. It becomes a place of human culture. It has a special place deep within the islander’s psyche.
“What is being proposed is a violation of that whole idea of home. The moorland would be transformed into a surreal nowhere.
“It is like the World Bank putting money into a third-world country. If the windfarm goes ahead, I think I will have to leave, although it would tear me apart and I don’t know where I would go.”
Along at Shader, crofter Iain Macleod, his wife and young family, are also opposed. He said the original idea had been to have the development far into the moor, but because of the SPA the development was now earmarked to follow the road, with turbines little more than a mile from the houses in townships right up the west coast, such as Ness, Borve, Arnol, Bragar and Siabost.
“Some of the houses here are going to be overpowered by these turbines. It might have been OK if you were in an area already industrialised. But not here.”
He said everybody was in favour of renewable energy generation, particularly if the goal was to make the island self-sufficient in electricity. “We could achieve that with just 10 of the proposed turbines and we wouldn’t even need an interconnector to the mainland.
“If we could achieve self-sufficiency, we could attract unprecedented investment, without destroying the island.”
Mr Macleod is involved in a small wave project at the local pier which alone could power the whole west side of Lewis. “Schemes like that one are suitable for the island. But what’s four years of construction on a giant wind farm going to do for anyone? Are they going to give up their lives for four years on a building site?”
Islanders are equally passionate on the other side of the debate. Kevin Murray, 33, is Lewis Windpower’s local representative. A mechanical engineer, he came home from New Zealand to be a crofter in Back on the east of the island. He has a boy and girl and another child on the way, and wants them to enjoy their island life.
Mr Murray said: “In addition to the 70 full-time equivalent jobs created by the wind farm after construction, the £6m a year or so going into the local economy over 20 to 25 years should create a further 250 jobs.
“But if, for example, the money is invested in the likes of sports centres, you are not only creating jobs, you are also radically improving the quality of life on the island, particularly for young people.”
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