Residents of a north coast village could be living beside the biggest wind farm in the Highlands if plans by Scottish & Southern Energy are realised.
The firm last month tabled a £90 million scheme to develop a 35-turbine wind farm 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.
Should the venture go ahead, it would reap windfall rental income for the 12 absentee landowners. The individuals 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 this is intended to be cleared 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 Strath Halladale 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 on the plans.
Strathy resident Benny Manson was unequivocal in his condemnation of the proposal. Mr Manson claimed 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 goddamn wind farm,” he told the Perth-based SSE trio. “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 claimed. “You’ll make profits ““ you’ll be happy ““ but what’s in it for us? What is 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 are 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 it should site more wind firms 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.”
Simon Heyes, SSE’s project manager, said that his company, like other power distributors, has to meet demanding Government targets to increase its output from renewable energy. He said onshore wind is currently the most accessible and reliable source.
Mr Heyes said SSE is keen to take advantage of other technologies, including offshore wind farms, in the future.
“The challenging climate-change targets set by the Government won’t be achieved by offshore and onshore wind farms alone,” he told the meeting. “It will require a combination of a range of technologies.”
Denying SSE has targeted the Far North, he said the company currently has wind farms up and running near Campbeltown, near Girvan and near Stranraer.
Mr Heyes acknowledged that the North of Scotland is attractive for developers because of the large tracts of land available and the wind resource. But he said: “It is 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 involved in the plans to develop a 200-turbine venture on Shetland and a 57-turbine scheme on Lewis. He said that the development of the Strathy venture 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 pointed out that the industry’s going rate is £2000 per turbine per year. That would be a matter for negotiation between the community council and the firm.
Apart from cash payments, he said SSE is also keen to offer other benefits such as free household insulation surveys. The firm would also be receptive to channelling funds to help with the running costs of a particular community project.
Asked why it could not offer discounted electricity to local people, he said companies are debarred from doing this as the industry regulator Ofgem deems it anti-competitive.
The forum 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 started on the ground. He believed that, if all the necessary consents were obtained, work on Strathy North would start in about two years’ time.
Meanwhile, he said SSE aimed to formally lodge its plans for Strathy South in the summer.
SSE ecologist Tim Goucher sparked controversy when he confirmed that the company does not intend clearing all the forest. He explained that some trees are being kept for screening purposes.
“There are 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. He retorted: “I reckon you plan leaving the trees there as it’s cheaper to do so.”
Norrie Russell, who manages the RSPB reserve at Forsinard, believed it would be preferable to take all the existing trees out.
Stuart Young, of Caithness Windfarm Information Forum, claimed the Strathy development conflicts with guidelines for large-scale wind farms in the 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 intend 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 firm’s desire to give as much information as possible to residents about the development. Asked what he made of the views aired by residents, 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.
By Iain Grant
16 February 2007