Ministers are believed to be on the verge of a U-turn on their manifesto pledge to halt the spread of subsidised onshore windfarms – on remote Scottish islands, at least.
The business secretary, Greg Clark, visited the Isle of Lewis in the Western Isles on Monday to discuss the possibility of government support for turbines off the mainland.
Iain Maciver, estate manager at Stornoway Trust, said his conversations with Clark had convinced him the minister was preparing to offer financial support for non-mainland windfarms. The minister had “seemed very positive” about the idea of allowing them to compete for subsidies, he said.
“He said he could’ve said no, but he felt that because of the unique island factors – the benefits not just for Lewis and Scotland but for the UK deriving from island renewables – he was wanting to study the consultation,” said Maciver.
The business department launched a consultation last November on whether it should make an exemption to its 2015 manifesto commitment to “end any new public subsidy” for windfarms.
The Guardian understands the government will decide whether to make a special case for the islands later this month.
The Scottish government warned this week that if Westminster ruled out allowing onshore windfarms in the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland to compete for subsidies, £2.5bn of investment would be put at risk. The islands are also heavily dependent on expensive diesel imports for power.
Paul Wheelhouse, Scotland’s energy minister, said: “Our position on island wind is both consistent and very clear – we must do all we can to enable our island communities to benefit from this substantial resource, large enough to meet 5% of total UK electricity demand, provide a significant boost to decarbonising our electricity supply, and would be worth up to £725m to local economies.”
SSE and EDF are among the companies hoping to build windfarms on the islands. In a letter to Clark earlier this year, they claimed the islands had some of the best conditions in the world due to their high wind speeds.
“The resources on the islands are underused and this is our opportunity to tap into them and bring jobs, low-carbon energy and a sustainable supply chain to remote parts of the UK,” they said.
Viking Energy, a joint venture between SSE and the Shetland community, said it welcomed the constructive engagement between the UK and Scottish governments this week, and was hopeful of a positive outcome on the consultation. An EDF-commissioned ICM poll of 1,000 Isle of Lewis adults in January found that seven in 10 supported windfarms on the islands.
Income from the windfarms would be vital for crofters and farmers, and the projects were key to keeping young people on the islands, Maciver said. “What’s at risk? Our community basically, particularly the rural community … If this is not allowed to happen, where would the next developer for the islands come from?”
Matthieu Hue, chief executive of EDF Energy Renewables, said: “Island wind projects would provide substantial benefits for remote communities in Scotland and offer good value for consumers – especially due to the abundant wind conditions of the Western Isles.
“The benefits for local people come in direct payments from the windfarm and opportunities for communities to invest in the projects. The effect of these large-scale investments would provide a tremendous boost to the local economy and significantly contribute to the UK government’s industrial strategy by providing work for the UK supply chain and island businesses.”