Commercial wind farm developers Forsa Energy pitched their controversial plans for the 14-turbine Druim Leathann Windfarm to villagers at a packed North Tolsta Community Hall on Tuesday night.
Alasdair Macleod, Forsa’s Director of Renewables Generation, was the main speaker at the event, which had been organised by the local community council to discuss the plans for the wind farm that will come within a 2km buffer zone of houses – some as close as 1km.
Many of the arguments during the meeting, attended by around 150 people, were about the proximity of turbines to houses and Mr Macleod tried to allay concerns, saying the company were there to listen, to answer questions and information.
The meeting began with a presentation by Mr Macleod, who was joined by Stuart Cameron, Forsa’s Implementation Director, and Julie Coyle, their legal consultant. He gave the history of the project, which originally secured planning consent in 2014.
He also gave a timeline for the development, in the event of the interconnector going ahead and Forsa being successful in the Contracts for Difference auction.
Forsa have planning permission for 14 turbines but are in the process of submitting an entirely new planning application to Comhairle nan Eilean Siar in order to increase the turbine size from 126.5 metres to 140 metres, although the turbines will remain in the same locations.
Their new planning application is for a 48.3MW scheme. The maximum that can be dealt with at a local planning level is 50MW and questions were asked about “planning creep” and whether Forsa intended to make the wind farm even bigger later on, should their application be approved.
Legal consultant Julie Coyle said they would not extend it later as the rules of the Contracts for Difference auction – in which Forsa will be bidding for a subsidy for development next year – means they are constrained to the size of wind farm they give during the CfD process.
A number of questions were about the size of the new turbines and their impact.
Alasdair MacLeod said the reason for submitting the planing application to increase the height was “to optimise the existing consent so that we have options” in terms of output.
Questions were asked about the amount of money Forsa will give to the community from its wind farm – and whether they would consider going into a shared ownership arrangement with the community – and in both cases the response was that they were already giving the maximum.
Responding to the question about ‘community benefit’ – the amount of money a wind farm owner gives to locals as compensation for the presence of that wind farm, Mr Macleod said: “We have committed to £7,000 per megawatt.”
That, he said, was an increase on the recommended £5,000, adding: “The expectation on the island was that community benefit on the island should be higher than normal and we have stuck to that. It’s a very generous package of community benefit.”
Answering the question about potential shared ownership, he said: “Our experience is that most communities are risk averse in committing to shared ownership because that means putting their own money into it.”
Other concerns raised related to communication, with criticism of Forsa for not sending letters to all Tolsta households about their plans; about who would pay the costs of decommissioning after 25 years; and about traffic disruption during the construction phase.
The extent of public opposition to the plans became clear early in the meeting, when Alasdair Macleod was asked: “Are you interested in the support of the community?”
His response of “I think we have the support of the community” was met with loud jeers of “no”.
However, it was also clear that there is significant support for Forsa’s plans, with one man appealing to his neighbours that Forsa were “not evil” and urging people to work with them, to maximise community benefits.
Towards the end of the meeting, one man reminded Forsa they had “a moral responsibility to make sure you’re building a development that’s in sympathy with the community”, claiming they were “obviously not doing that” due to the development coming so close to houses.
Alasdair Macleod said: “We’ve spent as much time as we can giving as much information as we can and trying to allay those fears.”
Bringing the meeting to a close, the community council chair said: “I think we’ve had a fair hearing. I think it’s very, very important that we have these meetings and bring everything to the fore.”