A major wind farm could be utilised as a tourist attraction in the far north, a Highland councillor has said.
Kirsteen Currie envisages the Strathy South development in Sutherland as a “Whitelee of the North”, a reference to the UK’s largest onshore windfarm near Glasgow.
The 39-turbine project was approved in 2018 following a public inquiry after Highland Council and others, including the RSPB and NatureScot, objected.
The project was back before councillors this week to examine an application to raise the capacity from 133MW to 208MW.
Developer SSE also wants to increase the height of turbines from 440ft to 656ft.
The council’s north planning applications committee did not to object to the proposed changes, but recommended four turbines be removed.
A final decision will be taken by Scottish Ministers.
The move delighted local residents who held a demo in support of the wind farm in 2015.
Supporters living in Strathy, Bettyhill and Melvich also sent messages of support ahead of the meeting on increasing capacity.
Three local community councils also support SSE’s proposal.
It is estimated the wind farm could generate 53 jobs and around £13.7 million in community funding.
In addition, an invitation from SSE to buy up to a 10% share in Strathy South is being examined to create another income stream.
SSE already operates the 33-turbine Strathy North wind farm.
Ms Currie said the proposed wind farm could have a “transformational” impact on the area.
She said: “No matter how we feel personally about these developments, the community really want this and it is in line with policy.
“Particularly on the north coast, we are seeing a huge influx of visitors but there is not always a lot for people to do in that area.
“We don’t have a lot of magnets to slow down tourism and keep people there.”
She pointed to the 215-turbine Whitelee wind farm which has walking, cycling and riding trails and a free visitor centre.
“They are making a sustainable destination. An eco-friendly, family-friendly, outdoor, healthy good place to be.
“Is there a Whitelee of the north we can have where we can encourage visitors and locals to use the tracks, enjoy the hills and enjoy all kind of different pursuits?
“We could make it a real attraction and another boost for the local community. It is going to provide jobs and a legacy for that community, as we’ve seen with other developments locally.
“The impact it is going to have I believe is significant.”
Strathy Point B&B owner Patsy Macaskill said the wind farm is important in terms of jobs, employment, local investment and community funding.
She added: “I thought councillor Currie’s comments, about making the Strathy wind farms a sustainable destination, were really interesting.
“Many of our B&B visitors ask about Strathy North wind farm and whether they can cycle and walk the tracks.
“So I think there might be something in what she’s saying. It would certainly help to put us on the map.”
SSE said the council decision is an important step in the consent process for Strathy South.
A spokesman said it reflects the “fantastic” support from the community: “As a responsible developer we listened carefully to people’s views to ensure that we considered local needs and priorities wherever possible.
“We are committed to delivering a significant contribution to renewable energy targets, while supporting jobs and substantial investment in the economy of the Highlands.”
He added: “The creation of a sustainable destination is something that could be explored if there was widespread community interest.”
A spokesman for RSPB Scotland said it supports renewable energy development to help tackle the nature and climate emergency.
He said: “All windfarms must be carefully located in order that the negative impacts don’t outweigh the benefits. Tourism facilities would require careful planning.”
“In the case of Strathy South, we remain convinced that this is not a suitable place for wind development due to the risks to the incredible wildlife and irreplaceable peatland, which can be an important carbon store, supporting efforts to reach net zero.”
He added: “The nearby Forsinard Flows nature reserve shows that there are great destinations in the area where people can stop and appreciate the landscape and wildlife.
“However, any plans for increased tourism facilities at the Strathy South site would require careful planning.
“It would need to go through the appropriate processes to consider any environmental impacts, especially on nearby areas that are protected because of their incredibly special wildlife and peatland.”
Meanwhile, a Highland tour operator expressed disappointment at the project.
Duncan MacLean, who runs Invergordon Bus Tours, said: “It’s so sad in the Highlands as a whole that there is a pandemic of apathy (on renewables).
“I find it depressing that people in the Highlands have no compassion for their area.
“I won’t send a tour north of Helmsdale now because of wind farms.”