Looking closely at the different aspects of renewable energy production throws up a number of topics which impact the Outer Hebrides.
Questions about industry, tourism, jobs, environment, wildlife, health and wellbeing, sustainability, community benefit and wealth have fuelled the debate of developing wind turbines in the Islands for many years now.
Finding a way to strike a balance between all these aspects would challenge the most skilled of tightrope walkers and with projects getting into position in anticipation of securing space on the vital interconnector, needed to transfer energy to the mainland, finding a comfortable equilibrium on these matters is more important than ever.
Opinions about large scale wind turbine projects have ranged from “a blight on the landscape” and “a sell-out to the corporate world” to “the catalyst for a brighter and more successful future” for all in the region.
Coming firmly down on the side of the latter is the keynote speaker at this year’s Lews Castle College UHI Prizegiving, Donald Mackay, who is Director of UK Operations for EDF and has been involved in leading the Lewis Wind Power (LWP) turbine projects at the Eishken estate and on the outskirts of Stornoway.
Talking to the Gazette ahead of his speech to students at the college graduation event on Friday, he gave his views about finding the right balance for renewable energy creation in the Islands and its ability to transform the region into a place where people choose to live and work due to the depth of opportunities here.
“There will be huge industrial investment if these wind farms go ahead and it will bring tremendous opportunities,” he explained: “But before that happens we need to be thinking in a visionary way about ‘what else can we do’, this is going to be a key to unlock the future here - it will be a catalyst to a number of different things,” he enthused.
Don, who hails from the West Side, is clearly passionate about what such projects can do for the area and believes that there is also significant support from Island residents in regards to the benefits that the renewables sector can bring.
He added: “Yes there are successful industries on this island, such as tourism and Harris Tweed, but there are other things that can be brought in and having that initial industrial investment will lead to a significant amount of other inward investment.
“When you have significant generating capacity here, what about ancillary industries such as storage, what about data centres? People need to think wider than just the industrial installation of wind farms.”
Touching on community renewable energy projects which are also being driven forward, he explained that projects such as the LWP development is likely to help these enterprises progress.
“Collaborative working between groups is absolutely key. We have to have the industrial projects, the community projects, the authorities and we have to have education working together to ensure that we use this opportunity to create a sustainable island, where the population drift is stemmed and to enhance the opportunities to be successful in the long term.”
Don is keen to paint the picture that although there will be significant benefit in the initial delivery of projects in terms of jobs, it is more the longer term view and spin offs which should excite and interest people.
He added: “It is trying to get people to understand that there is a great opportunity ahead for everyone, not just for engineering, which is always the way it is presented, but it can have a huge amount of spin-offs and not just for the big players, but also the industries which already thrive here, but which could be significantly more successful.
“People sometimes concentrate on what is, rather than what can be, and I am trying to get people to think about what can be.
“Can we turn these islands into the ‘Digital Islands’? Can we have that platform here?
“People want flexibility in their work - you could have people living and working here but being employed from somewhere else.”
When answering the criticism that all this could perhaps be achieved by community schemes rather than large scale projects, he declared he was ‘a great believer in community schemes’.
“I do believe community schemes represent value and are feasible,” he revealed, but added: “In terms of what we have here there is a bottleneck and until we get that interconnecter, how do you unlock that? You need the industrial scale to make it happen.
SPARE CAPACITY - 70 TURBINES
“And we (LWP) are not capitalising on this, there will be significant spare capacity on the interconnector - the equivalent of 70 turbines like those on Beinn Ghrideag - a huge amount of spare capacity for other projects.”
In regards to fears over turbine development damaging the Islands’ wildlife, habitats and tourism industry, he admitted this had been a concern in the past, but said that developers now have a much better understanding of what and what does not work.
He added: “Schemes which are being developed now are much more conscious of that and significantly more effort is going into understanding how that balance can be addressed.
“Tourism is an established industry in Scotland - it hasn’t fallen off - it is on the increase and when you look at some of the habitats that have been created, not necessarily consciously, but as an aside, people can get greater access to the countryside because of the infrastructure that is in place.
“So it is about having the balance and we are a very conscientious developer and we want to make sure that anything which is done here takes that into account.
“That is why a significant amount of money is being spent on surveys and to understand the ecology and addressing that balance in mitigation measures - the trend isn’t for tourism to drop off.”
As for the future and the prospect of cheaper electricity bills, Don explained that the first step to that aim is the guaranteed supply of power.
“Having a sustainable form of energy and being able to generate that is first and foremost - how you do that efficiently comes after that - but it is also about how we use the energy created and have energy efficiency in whatever we do.
“I’m not an economist - we would all love for power prices to go down - but the more that is generated the more likely that is to happen.”
With technology moving forward at a pace and ever more ingenious ways in which to create energy onshore wind turbines may soon be surpassed by other means of energy production.
WHAT THINGS COULD BE LIKE
Commenting on the future of energy production Don said: “Technology is moving forward at a phenomenal pace, with changes to onshore wind and developments in offshore wind and other forms of renewable energy that we are still grappling with, such as wave and tidal, but there is the question of how do we harness it and store it and how do we capitalise on the use of emerging technologies such as more efficient batteries.”
He added a vision of how the Islands’ transportation demands could be met.
“People on the Islands don’t do as great a mileage, as perhaps elsewhere, could we have a greater density of electric vehicles here?
“Could we have energy storage at home, or at businesses? This is the sort of thinking out of the box that we need to have to conserve electricity and to ensure that we are as green as we can be.
“The drive is not just coming from the seller, the consumer is more aware of their social responsibility, so it’s about how do you manage the generation, the storage and being smart about energy use as well - it’s exciting and what we need to try to help people see is that vision - what things could be like.”