Residents of a north Sutherland village could be living beside the biggest wind farm in the Highlands if plans by Scottish and Southern Energy come to pass.
The firm last month tabled a £90 million scheme to develop a 35-turbine scheme on the north side of Strathy Forest.
This week it revealed it is close to submitting a follow-up planning application to cover the south side with a further 77 turbines.
If the venture goes ahead it would produce rental income for 12 absentee landowners. They have already profited from tax breaks secured when the ground was planted in the 1980s with dense rows of lodgepole pine and Sitka spruce. Much of it would be be felled to make way for the turbines, which would stand 110 metres from base to blade-tip.
It is proposed to link up with the national grid by running an underground cable under blanket bog to the transmission line alongside the single-track Strathhalladale road.
The first phase of the development, on the north part of the forest, is designed to produce 82 megawatts of electricity, which SSE says could service the needs of 39,500 households.
Three representatives of the power company won few, if any, converts when they addressed a public meeting in the village on Tuesday evening.
About 50 attended the forum organised by Strathy and Armadale Community Council in a bid to establish local opinion about the plans.
Strathy resident Benny Manson was unequivocal in his condemnation of the proposal. He declared turbines should be sited offshore to prevent the blight he said they cause to communities throughout the country.
“We live here and we don’t want your goddam wind farm,” he told the Perth-based trio from Scottish and Southern Energy. “All you’re doing is causing problems for everyone ““ you’re going to screw up this area.”
Kevin Lee, from Armadale, was also firmly in the anti camp. “You’re planning coming up here to put up these turbines which are going to desecrate our landscape,” he said. “You’ll make profits – you’ll be happy – but what’s in it for us? What’s in it for the people of Sutherland?”
On a similar theme, a woman interjected: “We’re going to be living with these things on our doorstep. We’re going to have to live with them every day ““ what sort of advantages are we going to get from them?”
Several others accused SSE of targeting the far north of Scotland and suggested they should site more of their turbines in urban, built-up areas.
Strathy resident Georgine Paterson said: “It seems the larger developments tend to be in far-flung locations and the smaller ones are nearer the urban areas.”
SSE’s project manager Simon Heyes said that his company, like other power distributors, have to meet demanding Government targets to increase their output from renewable energy. Onshore wind farms were currently the most accessible and reliable source.
Mr Heyes said they were keen to take advantage of other technologies, including offshore wind farms, in the future. But he added: “The challenging climate-change targets set by the Government won’t be achieved by offshore and onshore wind farms alone. It will require a combination of a range of technologies.”
Denying SSE has targeted the far north, he said they currently had wind farms up and running near Campbeltown in Argyll, near Girvan in Ayrshire, and near Stranraer in south-west Scotland.
Mr Heyes acknowledged that the north of Scotland is attractive for developers because of the large tracts of land available here and the wind resource. But he added: “It’s wrong to suggest that it’s an easy ride when you choose a rural area to develop a wind farm site. We’ve had three planning applications rejected for rural sites. It’s a very, very difficult system and it takes a very, very long time to get through.”
SSE is also involved in the plans to develop a 200-turbine venture on Shetland and a 57-turbine scheme on Lewis.
He said development of the Strathy project would give local people the benefit of knowing they were doing their bit to help combat climate change. In addition, he said SSE would offer a community benefit package. He said the current going rate in the industry is £2000 per turbine per year.
That would be a matter for negotiation between the community council and the developers. Apart from cash payments, he said, SSE is also keen to offer other benefits, such as free household insulation surveys. They would also be receptive to channelling funds to help with the running costs of a particular community project.
Asked why they could not offer discounted electricity to local people, he said companies are debarred from doing so as the industry regulator Ofgem deems it anti-competitive.
The meeting heard that separate consent is required for the 12 kilometre underground link to the national grid. Though SSE still owns the grid network, it is operated by another company.
Mr Heyes said consents for both the wind farm and the grid link would have to be in place before any work could start. He believed that if all the necessary consents are obtained, work on Strathy North would start in about two years’ time.
He said SSE aimed formally to lodge its plans for Strathy South in the summer.
SSE’s ecologist Tim Goucher sparked controversy when he confirmed they do not intend clearing all the forest and some trees would be kept for screening purposes. “There’s good ecological reasons for not felling all the trees,” he said. “There are some birds such as red and black-throated divers that like trees.”
Chester Kelly, from Strathy, claimed it would make sense to clear the site and replant a belt of hardwood trees. “I reckon you plan leaving the trees there, as it’s cheaper to do so,” he said.
Norrie Russell, who manages the RSPB reserve at Forsinard, believed it would be preferable to remove all the existing trees.
Stuart Young, of Caithness Windfarm Information Forum, claimed the Strathy development conflicted with guidelines for large-scale wind farms in Highland Council’s recently produced renewable energy strategy.
Mr Heyes responded: “That is not entirely true.”
Mr Young insisted: “That is absolutely true.”
Mr Young claimed electricity consumers are paying dearly for the current major investment in onshore wind farms. He cited a new Ofgem report which revealed that the current Renewables Obligation regime will cost them £30 billion ““ equivalent to £600 per man, woman and child.
After the meeting, community council chairwoman Janette Mackay said they intended circulating a mailshot to residents shortly to get feedback on local people’s views on the wind farm proposal. Only then would the community council firm up its stance.
Mr Heyes said the forum was part of the company’s desire to give as much information as possible to residents about the development.
Asked what he made of the views aired by residents at the meeting, he replied: “It’s difficult to gauge. We were not looking at this as some form of straw poll of local opinion. We came to give a presentation and give another opportunity for people to ask questions and get more information.”
Also present was SSE’s environmental specialist Stuart McAleese.
15 February 2007