History of the Beinn Ghrideag Community Wind Farm
Point and Sandwick Trust emerged from a series of public meetings in 2005 to discuss the idea of using the Point and Sandwick common grazings located west of Stornoway to develop a large community-owned wind farm. The idea was strongly supported and it was agreed at the outset that all the villages represented in Point and Sandwick would join together to build the wind farm and share the benefits, regardless of where the turbines would be finally located.
It was decided to begin with a three-turbine, 9 MW scheme to test the concept of a commercial-scale community scheme with the aim of future expansion across the Point and Sandwick common grazings once the first scheme was successfully completed. The initial size of 9MW was chosen as it was the largest that could be built while still remaining connected to the local distribution grid rather than to the national transmission grid.
This is by far the largest community energy project in the UK and it was regarded by many as too ambitious for a start-up community body. Who would provide the technical and legal expertise? Where would the funding come from for the development process? Who would manage such a large and complex project? Who would actually build and operate the wind farm? How would a committee of crofters and ‘’amateurs” persuade commercial banks to lend them the millions of capital funding that would be required?
Undaunted, the Trust set to work, establishing itself as community owned charity with a trading company to develop and operate the wind farm.
The initial feasibility study, produced by SgurrEnergy, indicated that Beinn Ghrideag in the Sandwick North St common grazings was the best location for the first turbines. With the help of a CARES loan from Community Energy Scotland, provisional planning consent was obtained in 2009. It took another two years to overcome technical objections from the Civil Aviation Authority but this was done and full planning consent was finally granted in 2012.
We also faced a major problem getting a connection to the grid. The first offer of grid connection we got in 2009 was conditional on the construction of a major undersea cable between Lewis and the mainland. At that time, this cable was pencilled in for construction in 2013. We were sceptical about the delivery of this timeline – rightly so, as it turned out: it is currently scheduled for completion in 2021 at the earliest.
We took our case for an earlier, non-cable dependent connection to Ofgem, the ultimate regulator of the grid. It took a year of discussion but, in July 2010, Ofgem approved our case and issued a derogation to SSE to allow our connection to go ahead separately from the proposed inter-connector cable. We are very grateful to both Ofgem and SSE for this major breakthrough.
The final and biggest obstacle we had to overcome, however, was getting a Lease from our landowner, the Stornoway Trust. Unfortunately, the Stornoway Trust had previously leased the whole of the Point and Sandwick common grazings to Lewis Windpower (LWP), a private consortium jointly owned by Amec and EDF. The lease included the location of Beinn Ghrideag.
At the beginning, we did not think that this would present a major problem as LWP had no plans at that stage for any development in the Point and Sandwick grazings. LWP were focused instead on a large scheme they were trying to develop in the north of Lewis. However, things changed in 2009 when LWP’s planning application for this scheme was rejected and they turned their attention from north Lewis to the Point and Sandwick grazings. It was then that LWP decided to locate a new project, which they called ‘The Stornoway Wind Farm’, in the very same area of Point and Sandwick grazings which we had identified as ideal for community development.
To try and protect their interest in their proposed new wind farm, LWP demanded that Point and Sandwick Trust agree not to support any further community schemes in this area which were detrimental to their proposed new ‘Stornoway Wind Farm’.
This was obviously contrary to the purpose for which PST had been set up in 2005 and we therefore objected vigorously to the new condition, as it would disqualify us from helping any more community turbines on the Point and Sandwick common grazings.
Unfortunately, the landlord, the Stornoway Trust supported LWP and insisted on making it a condition of our Lease. We therefore had no choice but to accept this new condition, very reluctantly, to allow the 9MW Beinn Ghrideag community scheme to proceed. The revised Lease, amended to accommodate these LWP requirements, was finally signed in September 2012.
The Beinn Ghrideag saga was still not over, however. Because of the delay caused by these protracted Lease arguments, the Cooperative Bank was not able to start their ‘Due Diligence’ on our loan till the very end of 2012. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that the Coop’s emerging financial difficulties during the course of 2013 meant that they could not easily provide the funding we needed. We had to find another lender and so we opened talks with Santander Bank towards the end of 2013.
Fortunately, the talks with Santander and with our other funders went well and, in September 2014, we finally reached financial close on the record-breaking Beinn Ghrideag wind farm.
We are immensely grateful for the grant funding we received from the Big Lottery (£900,000), the grant and loan from Social Investment Scotland (£1.1 million), the loan from the Scottish Investment Bank (£2.2 million) and, of course, the loan from Santander Bank (£10.4 million).
We are also hugely indebted to our technical, legal and financial advisors, SgurrEnergy, HBJ Gateley and Mann Judd, for their tremendous support and commitment to our cause from the very outset.
The main construction contractors, Enercon, RJ Macleod and SHEPD, have done great work on the site since the commencement of the civil works on August 2014. Three Enercon turbines arrived by ship at Arnish harbour in mid-February 2015 and the installation of the turbines commenced on the 17th. Despite an extremely wet and windy Spring, installation was completed and the turbines energised at the end of May 2015.