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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 July 2006, 10:44 GMT 11:44 UK
Wind power dilemma for Lewis
By Paul Rincon
Science reporter, BBC News, Stornoway

Lewis peatlands   Image: Paul Rincon/BBC
Opponents say the wind farm could destroy huge areas of peatland
Lewis, the most northerly island in the Hebrides, is home to one of the largest peatland habitats left in Europe.

The blanket bog occupies thousands of hectares, forming an environment of waterlogged splendour that supports dozens of rare bird and insect species.

For the inhabitants of Lewis, particularly the crofters whose system for working this land dates to Medieval times, the peatlands are the living heart of this island.

But its traditional economies are in terminal decline and council leaders warn that the numbers of young people leaving in search of better prospects on the mainland are fuelling a demographic crisis.

Some believe the way forward for Lewis lies in making use of one of its untapped natural resources: the wind. Three wind farms have been proposed for Lewis, with the collective potential to generate more than 1,000 megawatts of electricity.

Visual impact

The council believes the wind farms could turn around the island's fortunes, transforming Lewis into the renewable energy capital of Europe.

But the plans will also transform the landscape, lining it with hundreds of huge turbines. The largest of the schemes, to be situated on the north Lewis moor, comprises 190 turbines, each 140m tall. The rotor blades on the turbines will sweep a circle with a diameter that is wider than a jumbo jet.

The north Lewis wind farm alone is reckoned to be the largest onshore wind farm development in Europe.

Predicted view of the wind farm from the A857 Barvas moor
Council leaders say the island needs the wind farm to sustain its economy (Image: Lewis Wind Power)

Fears about the visual and noise impact of the enormous turbines and their effects on the island's natural ecology have fomented a broad base of opposition to the plans. Traditionally, islanders have lived in close-knit, devoutly Presbyterian communities, with a deep-rooted pride in their agricultural self-sufficiency and sense of Gaelic nationhood.

Last year, some islanders burned an effigy of a wind turbine and there is talk of direct action if the plans go ahead.

I look at the long term aspects - we need an economy here, beautiful place as it is
Kevin Murray, Lewis Wind Power
Opponents say the 702-megawatt scheme would destroy vast areas of peatland, which are protected under UK and European law. Four million cubic metres of rock would need to be excavated from five new quarries on Lewis to build 167km of new roads and foundations dug deep into the peat.

Finlay MacLeod, a writer and former lecturer from Lewis says: "Because they couldn't put the wind farm through the central area of the peatland, which is a Special Area of Conservation, they put them on the periphery, which is very close to the townships.

"The visual impact of the turbines will be very overwhelming. They're going to be loud. There are various videos which show the sound in some places is a nightmare - and none of those turbines are as big as these will be.

"You can imagine the noise with 200 of them strung along here, and they are so high and so large."

Decision time

The north Lewis proposals are due to be submitted to the Scottish Executive in mid-August. Two further wind farms are planned for the south-east of the island.

Kevin Murray, island representative for Lewis Wind Power, which is developing the largest scheme in North Lewis, told BBC News: "I'm a local person who works for Amec and I take stick for that. But I look at the long-term aspects - we need an economy here, beautiful place as it is. I believe you can build something like this without destroying the landscape.

Cutting peat on the moor   Image: Paul Rincon/BBC
Peat cut from the moor was traditionally used in open fires
"There are people who tell me: 'My three children have good jobs on the mainland'. And I think, hold on a minute. So you're prepared for your children to be with you for 18 years, then to go away and that's it - to become a picture on the mantelpiece and a card at Christmas?"

The Scottish Executive has received 6,131 objections to the scheme, with 4,573 of these from Lewis postcodes. The scheme has received only 22 pledges of support.

Last year, a Mori poll commissioned by BBC Scotland showed that 55% of 802 people questioned in Lewis and neighbouring North Harris objected to the plans, with 42% expressing strong opposition. But 29% said they backed the proposals with 18% strongly backing the schemes.

And when the island's Labour MP of nearly 20 years, Calum MacDonald, was unseated in the 2005 general election, outrage at the wind farm proposals was seen by many as a factor in his defeat.

The council and developers dispute the high level of opposition claimed by others. Council leaders say not all objections to the Scottish Executive were based on opposition to the principle of a wind farm. Instead, some relate to positions of individual turbines and to details of financial packages, they argue.

Council backing

Leaders of the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council) have backed the wind farms on the grounds that "hard decisions" must be made to secure a future for the island and its people.

They could offer me 100,000 and it wouldn't make any difference
Catriona Campbell, Moorland Without Turbines
"Sitting and doing nothing and leaving everything the way it is doesn't seem to be a realistic and viable way forward," says Calum Ian McIver, head of economic development for the council.

"We have a fragile economy dependent on very few economic sectors: fishing, fish farming, crofting. But these traditional industries are slowly contracting around us," he adds. "The latest Common Agricultural Policy reform will contract us even further, moving us away from production into other areas."

Lewis Wind Power, which is made up of the companies Amec and British Energy, says around 333 jobs would be created during the wind farm's four-year construction and a further 346 jobs over its 25-year lifetime.

In addition, it is offering between 2m and 3.5m in annual rental income to the crofters grazing their animals on land hosting the turbines. Islanders will also receive community benefits totalling an estimated 560,000 per year with an option to exchange these payments for a stake in the wind farm.

Stornoway harbour   Image: Paul Rincon/BBC
Traditional industries such as fishing are contracting
Catriona Campbell, chair of Moorland Without Turbines (MWT), a campaign group opposed to the schemes, says that individual crofters would receive between 1,000 and 4,000 a year, depending on the number of turbines and crofters in each village.

But she affirms: "They could offer me 100,000 and it wouldn't make any difference."

Ms Campbell, who is a crofter and Gaelic teacher, says the project would devastate the moor. She told me there was a lack of consultation with islanders on the proposals: "They just thought they could go ahead and do this," she said. "It's an attitude of 'We know best' and 'You're just children who can't make up your minds'."

Bird collisions

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has serious concerns for the rare bird populations living on the moor. It estimates that 50 golden eagles and between 100 and 250 red-throated divers could be killed by collisions with turbine rotor blades during the development's 25-year lifetime.

These and other important species will be affected by habitat loss and displacement, it says.

"Because of the size and scale of the schemes, the overall impact is going to be massive," says Martin Scott, Western Isles conservation officer for the RSPB. "It's going to be very hard to mitigate against that. Wildlife on the island is very rich and unique."

Golden eagle   Image: PA
The RSPB says golden eagles could be killed in collisions with turbines
Anne McCall, the RSPB's head of planning and development for Scotland, says the Lewis Wind Power scheme is "a project of superlatives, the largest wind farm on the most heavily designated site".

She explained that the RSPB was not opposed to wind farms in principle and has objected to only a handful in Scotland, but added: "It matters where they are located."

But one islander told me: "We outstrip all local authorities for land mass against area designated. And if that's stifling economic development, are we getting a raw deal?"

The Scottish Executive is also scrutinising a 159-megawatt scheme of 53 turbines on the Eisgein estate, in south-west Lewis. A 250-megawatt wind farm of 125 turbines at nearby Pairc is also planned.

It is up to the Executive to grant permission for each of the schemes, and some observers suspect the Lewis Wind Power application could yet go to a public inquiry.

Paul.Rincon-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk


SEE ALSO
Lewis wind farm plans scaled back
27 Apr 06 |  Highlands and Islands
Eagle worry over new wind farms
28 Jan 06 |  Scotland
Wind farm 'catastrophic' for isle
18 May 05 |  Scotland
Council backs huge wind farm plan
30 Jun 05 |  Scotland

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