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Island hopes for a windy bounty

23 March 10 13:40 GMT

By Jeremy Cooke
Rural affairs correspondent, BBC News

It is among one of the most remote corners of Britain. It is also one of the most unspoilt landscapes this country has to offer.

But right in the centre of Westray Island, in the Orkney Islands, stands a 67m wind turbine that dominates the surrounding countryside.

It is exactly the kind of alternative energy project which would seem certain to attract bitter opposition in many of our rural communities.

But here there has been not a single planning objection to the turbine.

David Stephenson is a retired Englishman who has chosen a new life on this Scottish Island. He is a prime mover in the community trust which built the turbine.

"There were no objections," he says. "That's not because everybody on Westray likes wind turbines. We know that some don't but they think that if there is an opportunity for a turbine on Westray, then let it be owned by the community with all the benefits from it being invested back into the community."

And that's exactly what is happening. It was the community itself which raised the £1.5m to pay for the turbine, through a combination of bank loans and grants.

That means that, perhaps uniquely, the project is wholly owned by the community and will eventually raise a projected £200,000 a year in annual income.

For the ladies of Westray's knitting circle it is this common-ownership-for-the-common-good approach which helps make the turbine acceptable. As they chat over tea in the Half Yok café they seem well acquainted with the business plan.

Kathy Maben sums it up: "We all had a chance to say what we thought and we all had a chance to put forward our views. It really is a good thing. The money that will come from it in the long run… will do so much to help Westray."

Not everyone here loves the look of the turbine. In the sunlight it stands even more prominent as the light reflects off the rotating blades. But Dorris, a long time Westray resident with a beautiful Orcadian accent, laughs as she describes how she uses it as an instant update on the weather.

"It's quite fine. I look out the door every day and see it barrelling away. If it goes round fast you know it's a bad day and if goes round slowly you know it is a better day."

Theological gains

So could the Westray model be used to help make alternative energy schemes more accepted in rural communities across the country?

The instinct to protect the landscape is often the driving factor for the more than a hundred campaign groups in Britain which are dedicated to stopping the renewables scheme in their areas.

In Westray that opposition seems to have been removed. That's largely because of the cash benefit to the community but also because of the scale of the development; one wind turbine rather than a big wind farm.

At the Island Church, or Kirk, Reverend Iain MacDonald believes Westray's example could be a way forward for other communities: indeed other islands have are already investigating their own "community energy projects."

As he stands in the Kirk, which has its own small wind turbine and ground source heat pump, it is clear that he believes alternative energy is the right thing to do: an act of faith.

"It's an environmental thing, clearly. It has an ethical angle. From a Christian point of view it's got the angle of theological stewardship. But it's also a very cost effective thing. Stewardship is not just about the theological side, it's also about the very practical side… And we gain on both," he says.

The Westray project is in its first year on line and as the blades go around, the control room at the base of the turbine keeps track of the amount of energy which is being fed from here into the national grid.

It will take some time to calculate just how much cash will be raised. But the community here takes satisfaction in the fact that whatever money there is, will come back to them, rather than profit a big energy company.

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