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Doubt over isles green power cable must end

Wind, waves, tides - and even the odd spot of sun - mean the Western Isles should be the perfect place to develop sources of alternative energy, and for many years that has been the ambition.

As early as 2001, Western Isles Council talked of plans for the islands to become the renewables capital of Europe - the hope being that alternative energy could transform the economy of the islands in the way that oil and gas transformed the economy of Aberdeen.

It was an ambitious plan, but its progress has been uneven to say the least, with the very quality that works in the Western Isles' favour as a source of alternative energy - its remoteness - also working against it. Major projects will only go ahead if a new transmission interconnector cable is built between Lewis and Wester Ross to carry all the extra power.

Despite the importance of this new cable, plans to build it have been caught in what Niall Stuart, the chief executive of the industry body Scottish Renewables, calls a never-ending circle, and he is pessimistic about the chances of breaking it.

The central problem is that SSE and its subsidiary Scottish Hydro Electric Transmission, which is responsible for maintaining and investing in the transmission network in the north of Scotland, must get permission from Ofgem to spend the £750 million the cable will cost. Ofgem will only give the permission if there is a business case for building it but according to Mr Stuart, SSE cannot submit a business case because the potential developers do not know what the transmission charges or their potential income will be. And so the plans for the cable keep going round the never-ending circle.

This uncertainty continues to delay the plans, although it would be wrong to suggest everyone would like to see the cable built. As in many other parts of the UK, there is concern on the Western Isles about the effect of turbines and other projects on the landscape and these concerns have to be balanced against environmental and economic benefits.

The potential cost of the cable will also have to be closely scrutinised as similar projects in other parts of the world have been completed for much less. And naturally there are worries that all that money will be spent only for none of the promised major projects to materialise.

All these factors must be taken into account as negotiations proceed but there is a powerful double incentive for the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) to break the deadlock. Green businesses and renewable energy projects have been one of the genuinely bright spots in the economy in recent years and the Western Isles can enjoy a share of that. Projections in a joint UK/Scottish Government report showed up to 3500 new jobs could be created in the area by 2030.

However, it is not only the Western Isles that will benefit - the UK as a whole also needs the electricity generated in the coastal areas that hold the greatest resources of clean energy.

Taken together, the benefits for the islands and the UK provide a powerful case for the DECC to bring the uncertainty to an end.

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