SSE fury at expected ruling on Western Isles energy link

CHALLENGE: The NKT Victoria vessel laid a cable from Caithness to Moray, a considerable investment
SSEN - NKT Victoria - Cable Laying Vessel - Aberdeen. The newly launched NKT purpose-built vessel has docked in Aberdeen Harbour in preparation for its maiden project to install two subsea power cables connecting Caithness to Moray. Picture Shows; The Cable Carousel on NKT Victoria, Aberdeen, Friday 19, May 2017.©Stuart Nicol Photography, 2017

Power regulator Ofgem was last night branded “short-sighted” after signalling it would approve a lucrative 600MW National Grid link – while denying the Western Isles the same connection.

Many on Shetland were celebrating yesterday after Ofgem said it was “minded” to give the go-ahead to the Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks (SSEN) project.

The economy boosting project will link the islands to the mainland, letting them benefit by billions of pounds from wind farm revenue.

In contrast, an almost-identical bid from the Outer Hebrides seems likely to be rejected, with the islands offered a 450MW deal instead.

A final decision on both will come later this year – but the news provoked strong responses last night.

SSEN managing director Colin Nicol, said Ofgem should reconsider its “short-sighted” provisional decision for the Western Isles, which would limit the potential for community schemes to benefit from renewables expansion.

“Moving to a 450MW at this late stage also introduces risks and uncertainty which, in turn, could impact on the delivery of a transmission link to the Western Isles,” he said.

The Shetland project will see a subsea circuit from Kergord on Shetland to Noss Head in Caithness on the Scottish mainland, connecting to SSEN’s recently completed Caithness-Moray transmission link, which will be completed in 2024 at a cost of around £709 million.

It was proposed that the Western Isles project would consist of  a 600MW subsea cable from Arnish, Lewis to Dundonnell, Ross and Cromarty, then connecting to the Beauly substation, at a cost £663m with completion in 2023.

An alternative plan, brought forward by Ofgem, would be for a £617m 450MW link.

Both projects will be funded by consumers who pay for the investment through their bills.

Hannah Smith, senior policy manager at Scottish Renewables, said: “We welcome Ofgem’s minded-to position on the Shetland interconnector – the lack of which has left promising projects effectively locked out of the energy market for want of a network connection.

“The decision to approve a smaller connection to the Western Isles – which is in an almost-identical situation – does, however, raise questions about whether consumers now and in the future will be denied access to the islands’ potential for low-cost renewable generation.

“The cost differential between a 450MW and 600MW link is less than 5% of the total cost of the project; but would provide a third more capacity for new renewable electricity generation and deliver an additional 30% of socio-economic benefit to the Western Isles.”

Proposals for wind farms in the Western Isles all depend on the subsea cable being able to carry the energy on to the UK National Grid.

In recent months, two bodies have been at loggerheads over rights to develop the land for a 36-turbine development.

Lewis Wind Power, a subsidiary of EDF Energy and Wood Group, has consent for up to 36 turbines west of Stornoway in an area owned by the Stornoway Trust near three existing wind farm sites. But, on the same land, members of four crofting townships want to site community-owned wind farms, on common grazings – as has happened elsewhere in Scotland.

A battle over who has the right to develop the land is currently with the Scottish Land Court.

Lewis Wind Power also acquired the Uisenis Wind Farm project in 2016 which has consent for up to 45 turbines.

Highlands and islands Labour MSP, Rhoda Grant, said: “It is totally short-sighted. It does not take into account wave and tidal energy and the waters to the west of the islands which are the most energetic in Europe.”

Isles MP Angus MacNeil said: “It is unlikely any project from the big developers to community wind will happen with the 450MW option and difficult to see how they could come to the conclusion that this is the best option.”

Western Isles council leader, Roddie Mackay, said: “We will be using the consultation period to work with the UK and Scottish governments and other local and national partners to make a robust case for a 600MW connector. “

Saying the cost of both of the projects could be “reduced significantly”, an Ofgem statement said: “Ofgem regulates network companies including SSEN, which is a subsidiary of SSE. All energy consumers pay for the cost of investment in new capacity through their energy bills and the regulator ensures that it obtains the best deal possible for them.

“Ofgem will make a decision on the business case for the Western Isles and Shetland links in mid-2019. “