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The Highland Line: how South Uist's wind farm is now making real money for its community

While The Highland Line was taking an ill-deserved holiday break there have been several announcements important to the blog's bailiwick

Not least amongst them comes from South Uist, to the effect that the three-turbine Loch Carnan Community Wind farm, which began generating in March 2013, has earned over £2m gross income to the end of April 2014.

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So very belated congratulations to StÚras Uibhist, the community-led body which since the buyout in 2007 owns and manages 93,000 acres of land covering almost the whole of the islands of Benbecula, Eriskay and South Uist, as well as a number of other small islands.

Community buyouts all look to establish a reliable income stream to finance their stewardship of local land. Gigha, for example, has had three turbines which have done that for years...the Three Dancing Ladies, Faith, Hope and Charity which were joined in December by a fourth christened Harmony. StÚras Uibhist now has its reliable wage earner in Loch Carnan. During the last 12 months Loch Carnan generated slightly more than expected from the financial projections. This was despite initial teething problems with the turbines and the delay in installation of SSE equipment that resulted in a reduction in the allowable generation by the turbines until July last year.

But as a result of the earnings, the first two loan and interest payments were made to the troubled Co-op Bank on time in October 2013 and April 2014 (if all its investments were as sound the bank might be in better shape today), and a loan repayment has also been made to Social Investment Scotland, paving the way for the release of £712,000 of funds to the community in the middle of May.

The initial funds released from the wind farm will be partly allocated to reducing overdraft and loans. Funds will also be allocated to maintenance and repair of the drainage system and floodgates, and land and estate infrastructure repairs. So the StÚras Uibhist development team is now actively working towards carrying out vital work at the Loch Bee floodgate, Smerclate outlet, and the Ardmore outlet this summer.

Revenue from the three turbines over the next 20 years is projected to see in excess of £20m being pumped into the local economy to regenerate one of the most economically fragile areas of the UK.

It is difficult not to see this as another justification of the community landownership model as an important tool in ensuring social and economic progress in these parts which can still struggle to keep their people after nearly half a century of work by the Highlands and Island Development Board and then Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

But the model even yet has its critics, who still wrongly talk of subsidy dependence, never empowerment and enterprise.

Meanwhile, it is interesting to recall the announcement that the funding for Loch Carnan was secured in 2012: a grant of £1m and loan funding from Social Investment Scotland, £2.4m from the European Regional Development Fund and £8m of finance from the Co-op Bank.

At that time it was being hailed as the largest wholly community owned wind farm in the UK. But at exactly the same time another development was claiming the very same title.

This was the plan for a 450-acre wind farm not on community-owned land but on a site owned by Derbyshire's Chatsworth Estate, which has been home to the Dukes of Devonshire for centuries, with Chatsworth House the last word in opulence.

Roseland Community Energy Trust submitted proposals to construct six wind turbines on grain fields near the village of Scarcliffe. But last year Bolsover District Council rejected the plans because "it would have a significant detrimental impact on the local heritage". There was particular concern particular about the impact on the landscape of the limestone region of the Peak District.

The trust had hoped the wind farm would make £750,000 profit per year, which would be put back into the community to support new businesses, fund university places for local children and retrain unemployed people in the area. But the councillors believed the impact on natural heritage assets outweighed the financial benefits that were offered.

Others have erected or planned what they claim as the largest wholly community owned wind farm in the land, such Westmill Wind Farm Cooperative, which opened in May 2008 in the Oxfordshire village of Watchfield with five 1.3 megawatt turbines.

But it is never clear whether 'largest' refers to number or size of the turbines, their combined generating capacity, the area they cover, the number of people in the community which owns them, etc.

It matters little. What's important is that Loch Carnan's turbines are now working well for near 3000 Hebrideans.

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