PLATFORM PROFILE: Renewable energy has power to transform Western Isles’ economy

Western Isles councilAngus Campbell, Council leader of the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, talks to SCOTTISH ENERGY NEWS about the opportunities and challenges of developing the renewable energy industry in the Outer Hebrides and how they are addressing these.

 

 

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Q: Do islands like the Hebrides have distinct energy opportunities?

With their direct exposure to the aggressive North Atlantic climate regime, it is widely accepted that the Outer Hebrides have the richest wind and wave resources in Europe.  Onshore wind projects are presently being progressed by a range of commercial and community developers. 

The Comhairle’s planning department has identified scope for up to a 1GW of on-shore wind in the Outer Hebrides.  A study undertaken by the Halcrow Group on behalf of the Scottish Government has identified significant scope for on-shore wind development, with their report going so far as to suggest that renewable energy offers the Outer Hebrides its best opportunity for sustained economic development. 

Locational guidance from Marine Scotland identifies west of Lewis as one of the leading wave resource areas in Scotland – this is borne out by the high numbers of developers discussing project potential with the Comhairle and other agencies.  The Comhairle is heavily engaged with The Crown Estate, the Scottish Government and other stakeholders to capture this resource.  Attention is also turning to offshore wind with the Scottish Government’s Draft Plan for Offshore Wind Energy in Scottish Territorial Waters identifying a large area north of Lewis as constraint free for this type of deployment.

Q: What are the main challenges you face in realising these?

Environmental designations (or perhaps the inappropriate application of environmental designation regulation) have undoubtedly hampered and constrained the development of onshore wind in the Outer Hebrides.  31% of the island land-mass is under Special Protection Area designation, a far higher proportion than anywhere else in Scotland.  It is, however, testament to the richness of the resource in the Outer Hebrides that despite this, significant developer interest remains in regard to onshore wind generation. 

In the marine environment, which is relatively designation free, the key constraint is the progression of the technology from the trialling and testing phase to the commercial implementation phase.  There is a related constraint in regard to The Crown Estate and the “leasing round” approach.  A range of developers would be keen to explore testing opportunities, but are unable to proceed at the speed they would wish due to being out-with a leasing round.  

The key constraint to the emergence of a renewable industry, however, relates to grid connectivity.  The area is inadequately served with grid infrastructure and the process for allowing investment is flawed – it is slow and does not allow a strategic approach to be taken.  Although SSE’s proposed interconnector is the most advanced of the radial interconnection solutions in the north of Scotland, progress to this point has been frustratingly slow.  The proposed interconnector will facilitate transmission of 450MW, which will not have the long-term strategic capacity to serve the Outer Hebrides. 

Q: How do such areas have to adapt to make progress?

The Outer Hebrides already have a competitive advantage in terms of the raw resource and the fabrication facilities available at Arnish Yard.  Arnish has been ranked as among the top four distributed construction sites for marine energy in Scotland and, from its days as an oil fabrication yard, it has an established energy supply chain.  Continued investment in Arnish will enable it to grow into a world class facility, capable of servicing the energy industry across Europe. 

Another area of significant competitive advantage is the Greenspace Energy Research facility at Lews Castle College (University of the Highlands & Islands).  This facility can service the needs of developers who require to download and analyse operational data from pre-commercial deployments.  The Greenspace team is currently developing research expertise through collaborative links with University of Edinburgh, University of Strathclyde, University of Aberdeen and the SINTEF academic project in Norway.  Going forward, the Comhairle, the Greenspace project and key elements of the supply chain will form a consortium which will offer an integrated service to developers wishing to deploy in and around the Hebrides.

The dominance of the public sector in the islands means that the private sector, particularly in relation to the energy supply chain, requires to be supported to develop.  Important work in this area is already going on through the Comhairle’s relationship with the North Scotland Industries Group.

Q: What key lessons have you learned in energy development?

Renewable energy has the potential to transform rural economies and the deployment of devices locally will automatically ‘pull through’ developments in other key areas such as demographics, employment, skills, housing, education, culture and so on.  As traditional industries slow down, these islands have discovered a new, totally sustainable natural resource which will drive a new multi-billion pound industry well into the future.

However, the prize is so great that competition to attract deployments from other areas is accelerating hard.  In order to keep pace in the battle to attract developers, the Comhairle must continually refresh its offer and lobby the Scottish Government, The Crown Estate, OFGEM, National Grid and Transmission Operators.

Q: What key energy projects are in prospect in the Outer Hebrides?

The 118MW Beinn Mhor Power scheme, the 15MW Pentland Road scheme, the 4MW Siadar Wave Energy scheme and 40MW of community energy schemes have recently been consented and are moving forward to procurement. 

In terms of onshore wind, the next major development will be the implementation of the Scottish Government’s Social and Economic Benefit Study which will see up to 50 turbines constructed on Stornoway Trust land.

In the marine environment, the Comhairle is currently campaigning for West of Hebrides to become a Saltire Prize Leasing Round area.  This will drive wave deployment off the west of Lewis where the resource has been identified at 500MW by 2020.

Q: What is the Energy Innovation Zone and what might it achieve?

The Energy Innovation Zone (EIZ) was developed in 2001 and was well ahead of its time.  For several years, the Comhairle was ‘out in front’ in the promotion of renewable energy.  The EIZ proposed the islands as the area where ‘nature and technology offer a renewable future’ and the concept sought to outline the available resource, create the conditions for investment and develop the supply chain.  The level of interest which the Outer Hebrides renewable energy sector received over the first years of the 21st Century was testimony to the success of the EIZ concept in promoting the islands as a home for the renewable energy industry.

Given the high levels of competition now emerging in the renewable energy sector, the EIZ concept requires to be refreshed to reflect the improved resource data now to hand and significant developments in the supply chain.  The ultimate objective of the EIZ is to see a thriving renewable energy industry on and offshore in the Outer Hebrides, driving economic regeneration in the islands and contributing disproportionately to Scottish, UK and European carbon reduction targets.

Q: Do you have local ‘supply chain’ assets, in manufacturing, R&D etc?

Arnish fabrication facility has been ranked among the top four distributed construction sites for marine energy in Scotland and, from its days as an oil fabrication yard, it has an established energy supply chain.  Continued investment in Arnish will enable it to grow into a world class facility, capable of servicing the energy industry across Europe.  At present, Arnish operates as a partner plant to Bi-Fab’s Methil plant and is already penetrating the global market through the economies of scale produced by association with Bi-Fab.

Another area of significant competitive advantage is the Greenspace Energy Research facility at Lews Castle College (University of the Highlands & Islands).  This facility can service the needs of developers who require to download and analyse operational data from pre-commercial deployments.  The Greenspace team is currently developing research expertise through collaborative links with University of Edinburgh, University of Strathclyde, University of Aberdeen and the SINTEF academic project in Norway.  Going forward, the Comhairle, the Greenspace project and key elements of the supply chain will form a consortium which will offer an integrated service to developers wishing to deploy in and around the Hebrides.

Q: Where do you see your islands’ energy industry in 10 years’ time?

By 2020, the Outer Hebrides are generating 1GW of onshore wind and at least 1GW of marine energy (500MW wave and 500MW offshore wind).  All this energy is being transmitted through a subsea grid connecting these islands to projects down the west coast of Scotland and the Irish Sea and terminating at Heysham in England.

A Community Benefit Fund, incorporating onshore and marine projects, is being administered by Western Isles Development Trust and is routing significant sums of benefit per annum into key areas of the local economy such as supply chain business support, cultural tourism, transport and so on.  As part of this process, the Comhairle has an agreement with The Crown Estate for a proportion of sea bed lease income to be recycled into this Community Benefit Fund and this is in addition to significant ongoing benefit payments being lodged by the main developers.

Arnish Yard, with its deep water facilities and well developed supply chain, is a world leader in renewables fabrication, employing 500 people and supplying a global market.  Along with the Comhairle, HIE and the Greenspace Project, the Yard is a member of the Outer Hebrides Energy Alliance – a multi-faceted consortium which attracts developers and investment into the Outer Hebrides through an integrated ‘one stop shop’ including deployment data management, research, product testing, fabrication, supply chain development and financial incentives.

The Greenspace Research facility at Lews Castle College employs 100 high level academic staff and is attracting large numbers of local graduates back ‘home’ to develop postgraduate projects linked to cutting edge renewable energy research.  Greenspace Research has an international reputation as a Centre of Excellence for renewable research and the entire research capability of the University of the Highlands and Islands is now located in an expanded campus at Lews Castle College.

A thriving supply chain services the entire renewable industry in and around the Outer Hebrides.  Rapid growth of the renewables supply chain has restored the public/private sector balance in the islands and major companies are moving into the islands to establish local bases for the renewables industry.  These major companies are employing 2,000 people in various aspects of supply chain work from craneage and shipping services to electronics and data management.

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