Community council in plea to minister

Stornoway Community Council have called on Paul Wheelhouse, government Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy, to get to grips with the current problem surrounding a faulty subsea cable.
Battery Point is currently generating island power.Battery Point is currently generating island power.
Battery Point is currently generating island power.

In their open letter to the minister, they wrote:

We write to you to express our deep concern at the sorry situation Stornoway and the wider island of Lewis and Harris now finds itself in.

Despite being one of the windiest places on the planet, we are currently dependent on ancient diesel generators for our local power, since the cable between the mainland on Skye and our island failed on October 16.

We have grave concerns over the local power station’s capability to maintain a steady and sustainable supply to the islands over the winter period and to that end would appreciate assurances from SSE and all other concerned parties that this is actually achievable given prevailing weather conditions during an island winter, which sees many Atlantic storms.

The island systems will be at the mercy of the weather, especially between November to April, and we will have no back-up plan available should any of the diesel engines fail, or if there if we happen to have breaks in local power lines, transformers etc.

Apart from all the risks of us now being dependent on our ‘back up’ energy supply, it is deeply ironic and somewhat disturbing that the Isle of Lewis, despite its incredibly rich wind resource, is pouring streams of filthy fuel into the atmosphere.

Our carbon footprint right now does not bear thinking about – and it certainly won’t be helping the Scottish Government get any closer to its emissions targets.

Then there is also the matter of the community wind farms that have been set up on the island.

They face the sudden loss of all their income for many months, potentially up to a year, due to the nature of insurance and liability on matters such as this. That will have a catastrophic impact locally on money donated to good causes.

As just one example, the local Bethesda Care Home and Hospice receives a grant of £55,000 each year from one of the community wind farms. This is designed to help support its running costs. Fundraising is always a struggle for Bethesda and we are very concerned that they would be unable to close a funding gap of this magnitude, should grant making abilities of local wind farms disappear.

We urge you to press the case for an urgent upgrade to the broken cable.

We know there is an ongoing discussion about the case for a bigger interconnector across the North Minch, which would satisfy the ambitions of the bigger corporate concerns such as Lewis Wind Power.

However, we feel strongly that the current (broken) cable needs to be restored as a matter of urgency, both for the security of the islands’ power supply and for the sake of the environment.

We also feel strongly that this cable should be a community cable, upgraded to the largest power capacity that its current route and infrastructure can support.

Our information is that this could allow an increase of 100MW and it would be a prudent and sensible act of future-proofing to put in a bigger cable now instead of a similar-sized cable since the work has to be done anyway.

Unfortunately, due to the urgency of the current situation, we will not know what the final decision is going to be on the North Minch interconnector before decisions need to be made on how large a cable goes in on the Skye route.

For that reason, we would urge you to do everything in your power to push for the maximum upgrade to Skye now, in case this turns out to be the only chance we are going to get in Lewis and Harris to increase our community-owned capacity for generation and enable the development of new renewables projects on the island.

The cable that failed was 30-years-old. If we don’t get this right now, then it could be another 30 years before we get another chance to revisit this.

Not only would that be a missed opportunity; in terms of the climate crisis, it would be too late. In terms of the total power that an increased cable can carry, it is arguably small fry for the ambitions of the big players.

However, for community organisations it is not, and we would also urge you to support the ringfencing of all the power on an upgraded Skye cable as ‘capacity for community generated power’. We ask this because we are aware of how much greater the financial returns to the community are, when the community owns its own wind farm, as opposed to receiving ‘community benefit’.

For those who are concerned about continuing to make a case for the big interconnector across the North Minch, earmarking Skye for community generation means that the big interconnector ‘needs case’ would remain unaffected.

Also, if the Skye cable was not reserved for community use, even if it was sized up when replaced, all that capacity would be swallowed up by the big corporate projects – although it would still not be satisfactory for them as it would not give them all the capacity they need – and the community’s ambitions would be left unrealised.

If Skye was to be upgraded to a larger community cable, then developments such as the Arnish project – which has received Scottish Government support in the form of CARES funding – could come onstream as a result.

One final consideration is that we believe that upgrading Skye now – and ring fencing it as a community cable – could be a solution to the difficulties and tensions that have existed locally between those campaigning for community-owned renewables versus those in favour of corporate developments.

Upgrading Skye for 100 per cent community power would arguably be a good outcome from a bad situation and also leaves the arguments for the bigger interconnector intact.

Even when a replacement Skye to Lewis cable is installed, there is still a slim possibility that this cable may also be subsequently damaged. That would see us defaulting to the same scenario as currently, where we have to rely on our current outdated diesel power generation system.

To plan for such an event, we would suggest that SSE/OFGEM and the Scottish government look into a ‘power management system’ for the Island, whereby our existing installed wind turbines, in combination with battery storage solutions, can provide the requisite power requirements, so that the need for the existing outdated diesel power generation system will be limited.

We are aware that SSE and OFGEM are also consulting on a new back-up power generating station for the Shetland Islands, in the event that their 600MW interconnector cable suffers the same fate as ours just has.

We hope you will appreciate the urgency of the situation and do all you can to bring about a solution that will ensure there is a restored supply on the broken Skye cable.

That it is increased to the maximum capacity the route will allow, and that it is earmarked for community generated power, to ensure that we do not miss this once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Local MSP Alasdair Allan commented: “The loss of the electricity cable between Skye and Harris is a major concern, and one which I raised this week in Parliament.

“I also spoke to SSE about this and pointed out that not only does this incident leave Lewis and Harris unconnected to the National Grid, but it leaves them largely reliant on a very old diesel powered back-up station in Stornoway.

“Most concerning of all, it leaves us with no way to export our renewable energy over the coming months.

“We need to ensure that the new cable is future-proofed and able to deal with the islands’ growing renewables activity in future. And it needs to be installed as soon as humanly possible.”

The letter was signed with thanks and every good wish.

Katie Laing, Eric Anderson and John Morrison - on behalf of Stornoway Community Council.