Community engagement and making the most of local opportunities are at the core of preparations for MachairWind, a 2GW wind farm being built by ScottishPower Renewables off the coast of Islay

As Scotland continues at pace to a net zero future, there’s a recognition in the renewables industry of the importance of bringing local communities on this important journey. It’s one of the reasons ScottishPower Renewables (SPR) is focused on achieving a high level of community engagement at the earliest stage of its projects.

This is evident in the approach to its MachairWind offshore development. The fixed turbine wind farm will be located north-west of Islay and west of Colonsay. The company already has a long-established presence across Argyll and Bute, thanks to its onshore sites. MachairWind has a proposed generating capacity of 2GW. That’s enough green electricity to power up to two million homes. 

“Our engagement with residents on the islands of Islay, Jura and Colonsay, community councils and development trusts has been met with a positive and welcoming attitude,” says Deborah Bryce, MachairWind’s Community Engagement Manager. As SPR’s ‘on the ground’ point of contact, working closely with local host communities, she herself has lived on Jura since 2005.
“We’re finding lots of people are showing huge interest – asking about the technical side of the project, as well as focusing on community benefits.”

This ‘human element’ of community engagement is hugely important to the team.
“It’s something I’m an advocate for and so is SPR,” says Bryce. “It’s one of the reasons I applied for this position. I really like the ethos behind it; working with local communities is really important. 
“We strive for early and continued engagement because this gives everyone an opportunity to feed local insight and knowledge into the project. This can help enormously now and further down the line. 

“For MachairWind there’s already been a lot of participation and feedback. The engagement has been informal and relaxed, allowing people to be candid and enabling them to talk frankly about the project: to ask direct questions rather than just seeing us as a large corporation.”
Bryce believes this is important in helping all stakeholders move forward positively, adding: “It allows us to hear the real voice of the community because we’re getting a true vision from them rather than just assuming things. It’s vital to interact at that human level.

“Attending our drop-in sessions, for example, provides residents with an insight into how a project such as MachairWind actually works. There are so many components to it and offshore wind is fairly new in Scotland. We want to be entirely transparent about the processes, the infrastructure and the timelines. Then when it comes to statutory consultation, people are able to provide an informed response rather than feeling this has popped out of nowhere and they’ve not really been involved. We’re striving to be transparent from the get-go. We want communities to feed into the process and their feedback will directly impact the decision making, based on what we get from statutory consultation down the line.”

With consultation on the horizon, SPR has already started to collect geophysical environmental data from the site. “We completed our first survey last year with follow-ups this coming summer,” says Kiera Wilson, Development Lead for MachairWind, whose role is to lead the project through the development stage and up to construction. “These surveys allow us to gather important data about conditions on the seabed and ultimately will shape the final design, informing aspects such as what kind of foundations we’ll use and the most suitable area to locate them.”

Another important element is gathering metocean and wind resource data from the site. 
“We’ve completed almost one year’s worth of data gathering now: acquiring information about the wind speeds, the air temperatures, the current speed and wave heights across the site,” says Wilson. “We’ve just completed a two and a half year bird and marine mammal campaign.  This helps inform our environmental impact assessment and planning application, which we’re aiming to submit in the mid 2020s to potentially start construction before the end of the decade. 

“We’ve also commissioned a series of studies that will help ensure we deliver the best possible project in the most positive and impactful way. These include an exploration of the regulatory, technical and environmental feasibility of supplying green electricity from MachairWind directly to local communities.”

SPR has also been conducting a port feasibility study. “This is giving us a view of what suitable facilities there are across the west coast, both from a construction and marshalling perspective, but separately looking at locations that would be suitable for operation and maintenance activities further down the line. Finally, we’ve also been doing a socioeconomic impact study that has assessed the potential impacts on employment and businesses of delivering MachairWind.

“From a development process perspective, we’re looking to submit our scoping report for the offshore wind farm in the summer. That will mark the beginning of the formal planning journey, with a view to following up with our Section 36 application the following year. That will be a key milestone for the project.” While milestones are being reached in the operational timeline, the focus on community engagement remains as strong.

“This focus helps facilitate conversations with statutory consultees and technical stakeholders as well, including bodies such as the RSPB and transport and infrastructure organisations,” notes Ellen Kane, who is the Stakeholder Manager for MachairWind. “We are approaching MachairWind just as we would an onshore project – taking the lessons learned from onshore in terms of best practice, including the relationships we’ve already established over 20 years, and implementing these in this project.

“We’re hosting public drop-in events on May 7-9 and we’ll be attending the Islay, Jura and Colonsay agricultural show in August, which are opportunities for us to have further conversations with local residents.”

With rural populations and youth employment both key factors in Scotland’s economic health, MachairWind also brings opportunities for young people. SPR is currently working on a strategy for how best to upskill the existing workforce while working on plugging gaps in STEM learning needs. “This incorporates the likes of apprenticeships,” says Kane, “and, in this instance, how we can retain young people within Argyll and Bute. We’ve been working off the back of our successful supply chain event last year, talking with businesses to learn more about their particular challenges. 

“A lot of the feedback suggests young people are attracted to the Central Belt. 
“There are actually opportunities in Argyll but young people may not know about them, even on their own doorstep. What we can do is work on developing these opportunities, but also showcase what’s already here. So not only are we liaising with local businesses, but we’re talking to the local council about how we can best support them in maximising education, skills, and training opportunities.”

From the outset of the project, SPR has been keen to make it clear to Argyll and Bute Council and other stakeholders that it wants to make sure communities and local organisations very much feed into the way MachairWind evolves. Kiera Wilson notes: “That’s very much built into how we’ve engaged. We have been developing projects across Argyll and Bute for more than 20 years and we want to build on that legacy. “Because MachairWind is the first project of this kind on the west coast, it’s important to explain to people the processes that are involved. “As we progress, it’s about always being transparent, being trusted and helping communities understand and recognise what the potential benefits are and working with them to bring these to life.”

This article is brought to you by Machair Wind