Debating energy futures on Lewis: Energy transitions, emergent politics, and the question of the commons

By Dr Annabel Pinker, James Hutton Institute

It is widely accepted that we are in the midst of an energy revolution, transitioning from carbon-based fuels to renewable and increasingly decentralised forms of energy production. But does this entail a new politics as well? How do new renewable energy schemes reconfigure existing arrangements of power, technology, infrastructure, expertise and everyday life, and what sorts of emergent politics do these changes imply?

These questions, partly inspired by the work of Timothy Mitchell (2011) on the role of fossil fuels in shaping political life, were some of the initial framings that guided a Leverhulme-funded research fellowship on energy transition in Scotland I began in 2015. Two years later, they led me to begin around a year of ethnographic fieldwork on the Hebridean Isle of Lewis, where concerns over the form that energy transition should take are particularly acute.

In what follows I first want to tell a story – as briefly as possible given its complexities – about the fault lines over Lewis’ energy futures made visible through an ongoing controversy over plans to build the island’s first large-scale windfarms.  I’ll then wrap up with a few thoughts about some of the larger questions around energy transition raised by what is unfolding on Lewis.

The Stornoway windfarm and the ‘Gang of Four’

At the time I first arrived on Lewis, in the Autumn of 2017, a heated debate was underway around one of the proposed windfarms in particular. Lewis Wind Power (LWP) – a consortium made up of EDF; the Stornoway Trust (Scotland’s oldest and largest community landowner); and Wood Group (a multinational company specialising in energy infrastructures) – was planning to build a 36-turbine, 180-megawatt development on common grazings land belonging to the Stornoway Trust estate.

Four crofting communities that exercise use rights over the land proposed for development were opposing the scheme. They argued that community land should be used to build community-owned windfarms, not windfarms owned by large multinational corporations, on the grounds that the former are of greater benefit to local people. This ‘Gang of Four’ – as some of their supporters fondly refer to them – planned to contest the Lewis Wind Power scheme via three principal means:

  • Firstly, they aimed to use Section 19A of the crofting act to register their objections to the Stornoway windfarm;
  • Secondly, they intended to use Section 50B – which had never been used before – to gain new rights to develop their own wind farms on common grazings land;
  • Thirdly, they intended to seek planning permission to build four wind energy projects on the site already pegged for the Stornoway windfarm.

I was intrigued. I had never heard of such a determined and multi-pronged response – deploying legal, political and technical tools – to a proposed windfarm development in the UK. Except perhaps on Lewis – where plans to build what would at the time have been Europe’s largest windfarm on Barvas Moor, to the north of the island, were rejected by the Scottish Government in 2008, after sustained opposition from local people, external supporters and some NGOs.

It seemed that some on Lewis did not necessarily regard wind energy projects as a panacea to fossil fuel use, as they are so often cast by governmental and dominant environmental narratives. There was little doubt amongst windfarm opponents that commercial wind energy infrastructures could be as tied up with extractivist logics as any oil-rig.

On the other hand, Lewis is no stranger to extractivism; a significant proportion of its workforce sustain livelihoods (and crofts) on the island by virtue of offshore contracts in the North Sea. The question of how to transition to low-carbon energy arrangements thus appeared no simpler or less contested on the island of Lewis than it is anywhere else.

If anything, the particular density of connections between different aspects of life on Lewis (grid infrastructures, political networks, religion, everyday practices, land) – linked partly to its being an island – seemed to make all the more visible the multi-layered and highly ambivalent implications of crafting alternative energy futures.

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A tale of two interconnectors

Much of the contestation around the Stornoway windfarm, and the future of wind energy on Lewis more generally, revolves around the weighty question of the interconnector, the undersea cable that transports electricity between Lewis and the mainland.

The Stornoway scheme is not the only windfarm planned for Lewis. Proposals for two other windfarms on the island – a 48-megawatt development planned in Tolsta, to the north of Stornoway, and the 162-megawatt Eishken scheme in the Lochs area have recently been granted planning permission. In all three cases, developers have applied for planning permission to increase the windfarms’ installed capacity.

The planned windfarms are all designed to export the electricity they generate to the mainland. However, the current interconnector, which passes between the islands of Harris (to the south of Lewis) and Skye, has reached its full capacity (around 20 megawatts).

Given the substantial increase in generation that would be introduced by the proposed windfarms, Ofgem (the UK’s energy regulator) tentatively approved plans to install a new interconnector with the capacity to carry some 450 megawatts of electricity between Stornoway and the mainland earlier this year.

But the approval came with a caveat: the costs of building the new interconnector could only be justified if sufficient energy production could be guaranteed on Lewis. This would mean that both the Stornoway and Eishken windfarms would need to win the Contract for Difference (CFD) auctions, the Government’s subsidy mechanism for supporting low-carbon electricity generation, which would enable them to go ahead to construction.

This September, there was a surprising twist in the long-running tale of the Stornoway windfarm. It was reported that whilst the Tolsta and Eishken schemes had both been awarded subsidies, the Stornoway development had failed in its bid.

Given that the Stornoway windfarm is highly unlikely to go ahead without a CFD subsidy, the proposed construction of a new subsea interconnector has been thrown into doubt.

The promise of a new interconnector

Despite the Stornoway windfarm’s failure to win a CFD subsidy, many – including the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (the Western Isles Council) – continue to see the construction of a new interconnector (and the commercial windfarms that would come with it) as a crucial lynchpin of Lewis’ economic future. Until now, they have regarded the existing commercial proposals for energy generation as the most reliable means of pursuing this goal.

If both the Eishken and Stornoway windfarms were constructed, the Council and the Stornoway Trust would – if they had the resources to invest – garner a reliable source of income over the 25-year life of the schemes. In 2018, Lewis Wind Power offered the Council a 30% share in the Eishken windfarm (which Lewis Wind Power has since returned to the landowner as they did not feel it was a viable development for them; it is not clear whether this agreement remains in place with the new developer) and the Stornoway Trust a 20% share in the Stornoway windfarm.

The Council and the Stornoway Trust also point out that a new 450 (the case has been made for 600) megawatt interconnector would have enough surplus capacity to permit the installation of a number of smaller wind energy schemes. Some have proposed that these could potentially be developed by a group of the island’s community landowners and development trusts, of which some already manage highly successful renewable energy schemes.

The promise of energy self-sufficiency on Lewis

By contrast with the above position, there are some that argue that the Stornoway windfarm’s failure to secure a subsidy could be seen as an opportunity, pointing out that if no new interconnector is built, there is potential for crafting an altogether different approach to energy generation on the island. Where a subsea cable would carry electricity generated on Lewis for mainland consumption, the argument goes, its absence could open up possibilities for islanders to seek ways of increasing energy demand and storage in situ.

Islanders often point out that energy prices on Lewis are disproportionately high by comparison with the mainland. Some ask why electricity generated by current and future island windfarms shouldn’t be used by residents and businesses based on Lewis, rather than distant consumers – and not only for light, but for heat too.

In this view, limited connectedness with the mainland is regarded not as a loss, but rather as a means of stimulating more connectivity on Lewis – not only in terms of developing new grid and energy generation infrastructure, but also in terms of constituting and revivifying new and existing forms of collective life.

A hybrid approach to energy generation

Others (including members of the four crofting communities who are contesting the Stornoway windfarm) tend to espouse a middle way. They are keen to use any means of establishing more community-owned energy installations on the island – including by exporting electricity through an upgraded and larger version of the Skye interconnector.

Their key concern is that windfarms built on the island should be owned not by multinational corporations, such as EDF, but by local people, who would reap financial rewards far greater than the amount commercial developers typically make available to localities in the form of community benefit.

This is not a pie-in-the-sky prospect, they argue, pointing out that many community landowners and development trusts on Lewis have successfully installed large-scale wind turbines in order to support community projects. Amongst these, Point and Sandwick’s 9-megawatt windfarm, Beinn Ghrideag, remains the largest community-owned wind energy scheme in the UK.

Powering the opposition to the Stornoway windfarm

Point and Sandwick’s example has served as a key source of inspiration for the four grazings committees not only in opposing the Stornoway windfarm via the Scottish Land Court, but also in putting together (and submitting for planning permission) their own wind energy projects for the same site Lewis Wind Power seeks to develop.

Wind energy consultants working on these projects declared to me last year that they had never before heard of two separate projects submitted for planning permission by two separate developers for the same site in close succession. One of the arguments made against the crofters taking forward a project of this kind is that they do not have the capacity or experience to do so. Part of the crofters’ aim in developing their schemes is to demonstrate that this view is mistaken.

A similar observation might be made of the crofters’ legal struggles. On July 17th 2019 the Scottish Land Court handed down a judgement rejecting the appeals of the four grazings committees against the Crofting Commission’s refusal to grant them permission to build turbines on the common grazings (via 50B of the Crofting Act) – in large part because their proposals were considered detrimental to the Stornoway Trust’s existing plans to build a windfarm on the site.

The process is not over yet. There are suggestions that – if necessary – the crofters may seek to take their case regarding their right to install turbines on the Lewis Wind Power site to Scotland’s Court of Session. Meanwhile, a further land court hearing regarding Lewis Wind Power’s application to build the windfarm could be held in Stornoway early next year. Whilst the crofters’ attempts to oppose the scheme have thus far not borne fruit in legal terms, they and others point to the ambitious precedent they are setting in mobilising crofting law as they have done.

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A few reflections

The multiple legal, political, technical and material entanglements implied by the dynamics surrounding the Stornoway windfarm are already fairly evident in the broad brushstrokes of the case I’ve given above (for those interested in learning more about the issues at stake, see Malcolm Combe’s excellent blog post on the legal ins and outs of the case, and Kate Laing’s detailed reporting on behalf of the crofters’ cause). Many points could be unpacked from them. But I’ll limit myself to three:

  1. Debates about energy futures are highly political

The issues thrown up by the installation of renewable energy infrastructures are never narrowly technical, despite the claims of policy documents, developers and others. They are also highly political, in that the various proposals made for organising energy production on Lewis imply different imaginaries of the future – and with them different arrangements of power, expertise, and collectivity.

  1. Renewable energy infrastructures open up questions around land, what it’s for, and who owns it

Debates about energy infrastructures tend to be closely tied up – directly or otherwise – with debates over land, what it’s for, and who should control it. This is markedly so on Lewis, where it is the crofting system that has enabled the ‘Gang of Four’ to contest the Stornoway scheme. Without it – as one of my research participants put it – the Stornoway Trust could have gone ahead with its windfarm project unopposed and the crofters would not have been able to lay any claim to the development site or propose their own uses for it.

However, even as crofting has provided the framework for the communities’ legal and political campaign, members of the ‘Gang of Four’ and some of their supporters acknowledged that the construction of large-scale wind energy projects on common grazings land could lead to the commodification of land and the crofting system.

Some in fact have made the case for transforming common grazings from crofting land (since only a small minority of Lewis residents continue to graze sheep beyond their own crofts) into common land, with multiple potential uses – including the construction of infrastructure, such as turbines and housing.

Thus, debates about energy futures are woven into ongoing conversations about the future of land and crofting on the island.

  1. The decentralisation of energy may contribute to the decentralisation of power relations

Renewable energy infrastructures have the potential to expose, disrupt and rework existing power relations. This is already manifestly the case on Lewis where, since the 1923 formation of the community-owned Stornoway Trust to manage land gifted by Lord Leverhulme, and the spate of land buyouts on the island from the late 1990s onwards, some 70% of its land mass is now in community ownership.

A high proportion of these buyouts were facilitated – at least in part – by the promise that wind energy schemes, subsidised by generous government feed-in-tariffs in existence at the time, could become a vital source of income for nascent community landowning trusts. A number of trusts on Lewis (both those that own land and those that don’t), buoyed by funds particularly from renewable energy infrastructures they have installed, are now coming into their own as drivers of local development.

This process is in turn slowly beginning to shape existing institutional and power dynamics on the island, which have tended to revolve around the joint activities of the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council), the NHS, the Crofting Commission, and the development agency, Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

A similar process is underway with respect to the four grazings committees that have been opposing the Lewis Wind Power scheme. The inspiration and support of existing community energy developers have enabled them to fight a case (with the aid of top-flight legal representation) that is opening up and reworking the politics around how land is used and who decides over its use in an era of transition.

Wind has always proved disruptive on Lewis. Anyone on the island who remembers the uproar over the Barvas Moor windfarm and the hurricane of 2015 could tell you that. What is new now is that wind power is being harnessed in locally-scaled ways, by community trusts and crofting groups, with effects that are helping to shape debates around the sorts of troubling question that are being asked in many other places – but as they manifest on Lewis.

Questions such as: What does community look like and how can it be sustained in lively and dynamic ways at a time when many declare that what has in the past been its central fulcrum – crofting – is dying out? In these times of austerity and the existential threat of climate change, how, by whom, and for what purposes should land be managed? What kinds of future are generative and sustaining for humans and non-humans alike, and how far can they be achieved through existing institutions and configurations of power?

On Lewis, wind energy is undoubtedly playing a role in opening up new political spaces through which to debate such questions.


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