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MP presses minister for clarity on Tories’ commitment to islands’ renewables industry

UK energy and industry minister Richard Harrington.

THE UK’S energy minister has reasserted his government’s commitment to supporting windfarms in Scotland’s islands where there is a benefit to local communities – but Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael says more clarity is needed on what that will mean in practice.

Carmichael held a debate on renewables generation in the islands at Westminster Hall on Tuesday afternoon.

The Conservatives had previously pledged to halt the spread of onshore windfarms across the UK – but now seem inclined to make a special case for Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles, allowing them to compete for state subsidies.

The party’s manifesto for June’s general election contained a pledge to support renewables in Scotland’s remote islands “where they will directly benefit local communities”.

Minister for energy and industry Richard Harrington cited the proposed 103-turbine Viking Energy project in Shetland as one which “could provide up to £1.85 million every year to the community, which could be used for all sorts of projects”.

The stumbling block for such projects – which collectively could spark investment worth £2.5 billion – is setting a viable strike price for energy transmission, which would in turn trigger subsea interconnector cables linking the islands to the UK National Grid.

Developers including Viking Energy are hoping to hear the outcome of a UK Government consultation, which concluded in January, shortly.

“Beyond direct income we have to acknowledge the other benefits that these projects could bring,” Harrington said. “Jobs, for example, not just through the construction, but through the lifetime of these projects.

“Not everyone in the islands will support the development of these farms, but I’m told the majority of residents will do so.”

An impression of how part of the Viking Energy windfarm could look.

He referred to an ICM poll commissioned by energy firm EDF in January, which found that seven in 10 Lewis residents supported windfarms.

Viking Energy opponents Sustainable Shetland hotly dispute the notion that the contentious project commands majority support in these islands – an independent poll of 1,000 people by The Shetland Times in 2010 found 36 per cent in support, 33 per cent against and the rest undecided.

Carmichael had introduced the debate by saying he was looking for “some outline of what [the manifesto commitment] is actually going to mean in practical terms”.

He pointed out that research has suggested Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles could supply up to five per cent of Britain’s total energy demand by 2030 – a “quite significant prize which is within our grasp” but only “if we can get everyone working together”.

Wind turbines located in the Northern Isles such as the Burradale windfarm have been found to be much more efficient than onshore installations elsewhere in the UK.

“I’ve been round this course for the last 15 years, and I’m immensely frustrated that it’s still necessary for debates of this sort,” Carmichael said.

“It’s not about individual projects which may be under consideration. I have a number in my own constituency, both in Orkney and of course Viking Energy in Shetland.

“To say that we need to have a strategy to unlock the potential of renewable generation is not to say that any individual project in itself is right and should go ahead.”

He said the key was finding a way to overhaul energy regulator Ofgem’s system of charging for grid connections, which “for renewable projects far from the centre of population and the ultimate point of consumption does not necessarily

Carmichael said that under the Labour government prior to 2010, a cap on transmission charges was introduced but that “did not provide the solution that we had hoped for”.

When state aid approval was being sought for the Contract for Difference (CfD) regime, a dedicated “islands strike price” was suggested – but the islands element was then removed from the process.

The 2015 Conservative government was committed to a moratorium on onshore windfarm developments – leaving projects such as Viking shrouded in uncertainty – before announcing in May that it did see a case for a subsidy scheme relating to Scotland’s islands.

Carmichael said time was “not in plentiful supply” and urged the government to provide a clear political commitment and look at including the islands in the next round of CfD agreements.

“Are we revisiting the idea of an islands strike price, or are we looking at something that might find a mechanism for including onshore island generation with offshore wind?” he asked.  “Or does the department have some new mechanism that’s going to be brought forward?”

Harrington responded that having only been in the job for three weeks he was “not yet an expert” in the subject, but he could see how new grid infrastructure could “act as a springboard to further development for the wave and tidal sector”.

He said the government aimed to take a “pragmatic approach” and develop an understanding of what impact the cost of new infrastructure and projects would have on consumers’ bills, ensuring support was only given to “the more cost-effective projects”.

Aaron Priest of Viking Energy said the company was “grateful” to the MP for securing the important debate, adding it welcomed the government’s “desire to act quickly on its manifesto commitment”.

“It’s vital for Shetland’s economic future that we’re allowed the chance to diversify and develop a renewable energy industry,” he said.

“We have an endless resource of wind, waves and tide and the Shetland community should get to use it to generate new jobs and income.

“The protracted debate on how to harness these world class resources and deliver them to market needs to be brought to a successful conclusion.

“We look forward to continued dialogue with both the UK and Scottish governments to deliver the long-lasting benefits of economic diversification to Shetland.”