For a short spell in the mid-19th century, the rolling hills and gushing burns that cut through Strath Brora in Sutherland were tinged with golden promise.

Having struck gold, the rush began: prospectors arrived from Australia and California, and the hills were alive with hope.

Just beyond the entrance of Christina Perera’s Strath Brora home are the narrow single-track roads those eager gold prospectors would have almost certainly taken; twisting and turning, with blind corners, hidden summits and just a handful of passing places crossing open moorland.

Yet she fears the narrow road will soon become a busy route for a different kind of prospectors, on their way to growing a new hydrogen fuel industry.

The quiet corner of east Sutherland is at the forefront of a new ‘gold rush’ by renewable energy firms to harness excess power from wind farms and turn water into the fuel that could transform the nation’s energy landscape.

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At Strath Brora, energy giant SSE Renewables wants to use its 46 turbine Gordonbush wind farm, 2km northwest of the town of Brora, to produce around 2,000 tonnes of hydrogen a year, creating an ‘all green’ alternative to traditional fuels.

Unlike petrol, diesel or natural gas which produce harmful carbon dioxide emissions, hydrogen emits only water vapour into the atmosphere. Such is its potential, the Scottish Government has a £100m five-year plan to build the nation’s hydrogen economy, hopeful that by 2030 it will provide nearly a sixth of Scotland’s energy needs.

The Gordonbush Hydrogen Production Facility – described as a “demonstrator project” - has been given £304,000 of Scottish Government support and is one of 17 UK hydrogen projects to progress to the latter stages for funding from the UK Government’s Net Zero Hydrogen Fund.

Such a plant would solve another issue: SSE Renewables has received more than £20 million in constraint payments for Gordonbush wind farm for times when the turbines have to be switched off. Instead, energy produced by the turbines could be used in hydrogen production.

But for some who already feel under siege from wind turbines looming over their doorsteps, the arrival of hydrogen tankers and new power plants is less than welcome.

At her home in Ascoile, the nearest residence to Gordonbush Wind Farm, Christina fears the green ‘gold rush’ in Strath Brora is a sign of what lies ahead for other rural communities living in the shadow of scores of wind turbines.

Her home is only around 1km from the proposed hydrogen production plant: tankers travelling to and from will pass around 20 metres from her door.

“I first heard about it on April 1 last year and I genuinely thought it was an April Fool,” she says. “I thought ‘this can’t possibly be real’.

“We already have 73 wind turbines in the area.

“The project will be hugely damaging to the local economy, crofters’ livestock and disastrous for the environment and wildlife of the strath.

“It will involve 44-tonne tankers hurtling down a single-track, unfenced road with 24 blind bends, six days a week.

“SSER wish to take billions of litres of water from our local burn or, when water levels are low, abstract from a borehole which could destroy our private water supplies.

“The consequences for the sensitive ecology of the burn, with such massive abstractions, are very worrying.”

Highland Council has indicated potential impacts from the amount of water required to be taken from the local watercourse, a tributary of the River Brora.

It says there are potentially “significant adverse effects” on the water quality of the burn and downstream watercourses and knock on impacts for otters and fish.

In one response to SSER, it said it is too tricky to predict whether mitigating measures such as a Species Protection Plan and Pollution Management Plan would be effective. It adds those are “yet to be proven particularly for hydrogen production of the scale envisaged, with the risk remaining that any design or technological fault could result in a fire, leak and explosion.

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“At this early stage the Planning Authority are unable to discount the likelihood that surface or groundwater could be significantly adversely affected, which could also have impacts upon habitats, ecology, including any groundwater dependent terrestrial ecosystems, as well as nearby private water supplies.”

That worries some in the area, who say they have already suffered loss of water supplies during the nearby wind farm construction.

“SSE calls their invasion of our strath a ‘demonstrator’ project,” adds Christine, who says locals are dreading the day the project’s planning application is lodged.

“We feel we’re being used as guinea pigs.

“This experiment is being done to our community, our environment and our livelihoods against our wishes.

“The feeling of being bullied and under siege has terrible consequences for our mental health and we can see no local benefit whatsoever.”

She has a warning for other communities living in the shadow of wind farms, particularly those close to a water source and which tend to produce excess energy: “We predict that if SSER succeeds in building its industrial hydrogen plant at Gordonbush wind farm, other power companies will follow suit.

“Hydrogen plants will crop up wherever “excess” electricity is being produced at a wind farm – which is pretty much anywhere in the Highlands.

“There is no local market for the hydrogen, apart from a small amount that may be used at a nearby distillery,” she adds. “They may be “decarbonising” elsewhere whilst adding tonnes of carbon to our otherwise pristine environment.

“How ‘green’ is that?”

Strath Brora is far from the only location set to be touched by the dash for hydrogen.

At the All-Energy exhibition and conference in Glasgow in May, First Minister Humza Yousaf confirmed £7m of funding from the Hydrogen Innovation Scheme supporting a range of projects that will put test and assess hydrogen production, including a scheme to use energy from wind turbines on the Isle of Lewis and another that aims to treat water from the River Clyde to produce hydrogen.

While a number of renewable energy businesses are already exploring how to use energy from wind farms to join the hydrogen revolution.

Such as at Kintore in Aberdeenshire where, around 1km from the nearest households, Statera Energy has plans for a three gigawatts (GW) capacity hydrogen production plant – among the largest of its kind in Europe and potentially meeting nearly one-third of the UK’s 10GW hydrogen target.

It plans to use offshore wind energy and water from the River Don – one of Scotland’s premier salmon and sea trout rivers – for the process of electrolysis.

An Environmental Impact Assessment to Aberdeenshire Council confirms constructions likely to impact a range of protected and notable species such as bats, otter, badger, red squirrel, pine marten, brown hare, hedgehog, amphibians, reptiles and birds.

While the Cromarty Hydrogen Project being developed by Storegga with ScottishPower aims to produce green hydrogen for whisky distilleries and transport operators.

It plans to connect to the existing grid connection at Beinn Tharsuinn Wind Farm substation, located on the hills above the Dornoch Firth. Ironically, it attracted huge debate before it was approved in 2004 with warnings that if it went ahead, it would pave the way for wind farms in scenic spots around the country.

While at Whiteless Wind Farm, ScottishPower's plans to create a 20MW hydrogen production and storage facility are with East Ayrshire Council; objections from locals raise concerns over the risk of explosion and public safety, along with the impact on water supply from extracting 480,000 litres every day.

At Strath Brora, meanwhile, there is mounting disquiet over the march towards hydrogen production.

“It’s going to change our lives,” says Marion Mowat, who uses her Strath Brora property as a rural escape.

“We bought the house before the first wind farm was built. It affected our private water supply for 18 months.

“We are now worried about the amount of water that a hydrogen plant will take and how it could affect us.

“And then there’s the traffic on a single track road with lots of blind bends - this is an area that people come to for leisure, to ride horses, cycle and walk.

“There’s real concern about what will happen.”

A spokesperson for SSE Renewables said: “The Gordonbush Hydrogen project is still in the development phase, the feedback we have received from stakeholders and the local community has been vital to help shape our proposals to date.

“As such we are focused on working collaboratively to mitigate any concerns raised and are actively exploring alternative water sources and solutions, which would not require transportation via the Strath Brora Road.

“Projects like Gordonbush Hydrogen, produced from renewable sources such as wind energy have the potential to play a key role in the decarbonisation of heavy industry and transport, as part of our journey towards net zero emissions.

“As a responsible developer, we work in partnership with stakeholders and the local community to develop our proposals.”

What is green hydrogen?

Hydrogen is regarded as a crucial component in the transition to sustainable energy and reaching net zero targets.

It can come from a variety of sources: blue hydrogen is mainly produced from natural gas, while pink hydrogen is generated through electrolysis powered by nuclear energy.

Green hydrogen is created using zero-carbon electricity from renewable sources such as wind power – making hydrogen plants a natural neighbour for wind farms, particularly those that produce excess energy.

The electricity is used to separate water into oxygen and hydrogen through a process called electrolysis.

The fuel can then be stored and distributed and is being seen as a potential solution to decarbonising heavy industry, freight, shipping and aviation.

While hydrogen emits only water when burned, creating it can be carbon intensive.