Caithness councillor Matthew Reiss is worried about a “profoundly undemocratic” aspect of the planning system that apparently allows energy firms to plan a new wind farm but call it an extension of an existing one.
He fears it could lead to wind farm planning decisions being taken out of the hands of Highland Council and other local authorities, as developments above 50 megawatts are determined by Scottish Government ministers under Section 36 of the Electricity Act.
Councillor Reiss, who represents Thurso and Northwest Caithness, was speaking after Infinergy submitted plans for an extension to its consented 21-turbine wind farm at Limekiln, south of Reay.
The proposal consists of five turbines to the east of Limekiln Estate which Infinergy says could add an additional 21MW of installed capacity, with the potential to supply the average annual domestic electricity needs of over 18,494 homes.
The number of turbines in the extension has been reduced by two from the seven that were put forward at community consultation events in Reay last November.
“As councillors we can’t comment on the merits or lack of merits of any application until we’ve seen all the papers,” Councillor Reiss said.
But he added that, in some cases, defining a new wind farm as an extension of a nearby one could be seen as “a play on words”.
I hope that the Scottish Government, which says it is absolutely committed to localism, would see the logic of this.
He went on: “A key point is that I understand that the new wind farm has a different landowner. If you look at the example of the Causewaymire, each of the new wind farms there was treated as a separate wind farm.
“For anything under 50 megawatts, the ultimate decision is made by the council. But if the Limekiln extension, despite having different ownership, is regarded merely as an extension to the existing wind farm then the final decision, after a public localinquiry, lies with the Scottish Government.
“If that is the case then personally I feel it’s profoundly undemocratic and I hope that the Scottish Government, which says it is absolutely committed to localism, would see the logic of this.
“Otherwise any developer could simply apply for another wind farm and just say it’s ‘an extension’, in which case they would all end up being ultimately decided by the Scottish Government rather than Highland Council.
“I’m not commenting on any merits or lack of merits of this particular application – it’s the process that I’m commenting on.”
The Limekiln extension site is adjacent to the consented scheme on the Achaveilan North and Broubster estates, both of which are managed primarily as commercial forestry plantations.
Infinergy managing director Esbjorn Wilmar said: “The capacity of the grid connection available for Limekiln Wind Farm has allowed us to look at the opportunity to increase the renewable power generated at a site which, like Limekiln, has a long history of commercial land use.”
It is expected that construction, commissioning and site restoration will take around 18 months, “with potential opportunities for local companies and local workforce to be involved”, according to Infinergy.
The five-turbine scheme, which also incorporates a battery storage array, includes plans for a connecting path to link the Limekiln Forest and Broubster Forest core paths.
Documents relating to the development are available as downloads from www.limekilnwindfarm.co.uk and Infinergy says it will send a CD or USB copy to anyone who requests one by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Limekiln Wind Farm was granted consent by Scottish ministers in June 2019. The wind farm comes with a community benefit fund of £5000 per MW of installed capacity, and the extension would be expected to add around £100,000 a year to that fund.
Infinergy is progressing the Limekiln extension with Boralex as part of a joint venture agreement announced in October 2017. It is aimed at developing a pipeline of onshore wind projects for a total estimated capacity of 325 MW.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “An application to extend the consented Limekiln Wind Farm by adding five wind turbines was submitted to ministers on May 14, and statutory consultation on it is under way. All consultation responses will be considered prior to making a determination, including the response from Highland Council which, as the relevant planning authority, is a statutory consultee in the process.”
At last year’s consultation sessions almost 30 people took part in a protest against the developments planned for Limekiln and Drum Hollistan. Some of the campaigners were accused by Infinergy’s project manager of having vandalised information boards after leaflets were stuck over the presentation that had been prepared for the two open days.