Community benefits from renewables should be transformative for the Highlands

4 Jul 2023
Windfarms should bring benefits to the Highlands

Published across the press, late 2022

The Highlands is becoming the home to a significant percentage of Britain’s green energy needs. Even before wind, our post war hydro dams made the Highlands 100% self sufficient in electricity. Since then a plethora of wind farms have been erected, and exploratory work has started for a billion pound SSE investment in Coire Glas just south of Invergarry for a mega 1.3 Gigawatt pump storage power station, with another being proposed on Loch Laggan.

In 2021, Scottish Government Minister Angus Robertson described Scotland as the ‘Saudi Arabia of renewables’. Part of this is true, utility companies and infrastructure funds from around the world are rushing to spend billions in the Highlands, and when the wind blows Scotland is self sufficient in electricity and we export to England. Highland generated renewable electricity is a multi billion pound industry already.

Billion pound oil businesses in Saudi Arabia, Texas or Aberdeen generate massive boosts to the local economies. For a while, the Porsche dealership in Aberdeen was the most successful in Britain. The problem is that our electricity revenue doesn’t stay in the Highlands, indeed much, perhaps most ends up abroad. As well as Spanish owned Scottish Power, and Scottish and Southern Energy, developers include Fred Olsen, German owned RWE or JP Morgan. The turbines are made by Siemens of Germany, Vestas of Denmark or GE. Even the companies that service the turbines are often from out with Scotland.

In 2014, the Scottish Government issued ‘guidance’ that developers pay £5,000 per installed megawatt (with inflationary increases), with the money to be distributed within 30 miles of windfarms. So a windfarm of 10 medium sized 2.3MW turbines generates £115,000 per year for their local community should the developer chose to follow Scottish Government guidance. There are many problems here. First, the electricity price has soared since 2014 to no further community benefit; second, energy is not ‘devolved’ to the Scottish Government, so ‘guidance’ remains optional; third, hydro/pump storage is not included in guidance; and lastly, the 30 mile diameter distribution means that some communities do very well, while a neighbouring village loses out.

In December last year as a Highland Councillor I proposed a Motion at The Highland Council that 5% of the gross revenue from newly commissioned renewable projects in the Highlands should be paid as community benefit. This was passed, and the Leader of the Highland Council complimented me on an excellent Motion. Since then I have raised it with Scottish MSP’s, had it made policy by the Scottish Liberal Democrats, been to see Alastair Jack the Secretary of State for Scotland, all enthusiastic about the proposal. But the wheels of Government grind painfully slowly, and more and more windfarms are consented not subject to this 5% community benefit.

This last week, I proposed an amendment to a Highland Council Motion that community benefit money should remain in the Ward that was impacted, ie so that Skye could set up its own Renewables Fund. I am disappointed to write that my amendment was unsuccessful, This could have been completely transformational to Skye and Raasay, affordable homes, a fantastic care home, fuel rebate vouchers, sports facilities, etc. However Councillors overwhelmingly voted for a Highland wide Renewable Fund.

SSE are not currently intending to pay any community benefit from the 1.3 Gigawatt Coire Glas pump storage site when it starts to produce power... and we are still waiting to hear about their proposed sum to cover construction works. It is difficult to do the numbers without the data, but 5% of revenue could be more than £20m per year on the £1 billion pound development. Therefore £500m, plus inflationary increases, over a 25 year period would enter the local economy.

There was significant news last week: SSEN Transmission volunteered to contribute millions to communities effected by new transmission lines and substations between now and 2026, with a lot more to follow. And a proposed South Lanarkshire windfarm is proposing an estimated £53 million saving in energy bills to their effected community of 6,500 over a 40 year period AND a stake in the windfarm. Now that's more like it.

Those living in the Highlands suffer the downside of massive construction works, a landscape covered in turbines and dams, and a web of electricity transmission lines and substations. At the most we are getting 1/3rd of our fair share of the revenue. We suffer an exodus of our young, poor infrastructure, public services and fuel poverty. It is only fair that a reasonable share of renewable proceeds stays in the area. Legislation now will impact whether the rural Highlands will become prosperous or not.


Angus MacDonald
Highlands Liberal Democrat Councillor and Westminster Candidate

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