Who should own Skye’s windfarms?
By 2030, the Scottish Government is targeting the equivalent of up to 1000 commercial wind turbines in community-owned onshore wind energy projects6! However, it has not been clearly described how this will be made possible… There has been a substantial increase in private windfarm developments in rural Scotland, but local concerns from residents in Highland communities have been overlooked on forty occasions (between 2016 and 20217). Consulting with local communities is a legal requirement in the windfarm planning process. Skye residents perceived that private windfarm company consultations were ‘tokenistic’ and that ‘nothing would change as a result’. Interestingly, 85% of the residents said that they had no knowledge of being consulted directly by a windfarm company. They also had very limited knowledge and awareness of the progress of future proposed windfarms such as Ben Sca or Glen Ullinish.
An alternative to private ownership is co-ownership of renewable energy projects. This involves agreements between community groups and private energy companies. Co-ownership can improve local knowledge and understanding about climate issues and can improve environmental education through, for example, local school projects. Reaching a consensus in mitigation policies for onshore windfarm developments in Scotland is certainly challenging! Company-community agreements are difficult to achieve without governmental guidance on how to direct charitable funding in community-owned or part-owned projects. Joint ventures for onshore Scottish windfarms8 – where the community part-owns the commercial windfarm and can vote in company activities – were by far the most preferable option chosen by the residents in my study, and they were against solely private company ownership models on Skye. Residents from across the island wanted more widespread community support from windfarm companies in the form of small-scale renewable projects, affordable and sustainable housing, lower electricity grid transmission charges and opportunities for renewable energy apprenticeships or related subjects in higher education.
But… What has hydrogen energy got to do with wind?
The supply of electricity to the British National Grid from Skye windfarms often exceeds demand due to high windspeeds, resulting in wind turbines being temporarily shut down. Apparently we can have too much wind! In the questionnaire, I suggested that instead of shutting the wind turbines down, surplus electricity during these times could be used to generate hydrogen from water electrolysis. Hydrogen can be produced through the electrolysis (splitting) of purified water into hydrogen and oxygen using the electricity generated by wind turbines. This already happens on Orkney3. Producing hydrogen through the electrolysis of purified water is better than using seawater as it avoids the production of by-products such as chlorine gas. It is possible to store hydrogen for later use, so this form of energy isn’t wasted. Through adaptation of current windfarm projects, there is great potential for wind-hydrogen hybrid projects to expand Scotland’s production and use of ‘green’ hydrogen (which is produced using renewable energy).
I was surprised to find that a large proportion of residents were very positive towards hydrogen as a fuel source, particularly when asked about the prospect of hydrogen buses, as many studies have previously found that the public is often negative and fearful about hydrogen without previous experience9,10. Over 60% of respondents associated hydrogen with the words ‘clean’ and ‘sustainable’, whilst less than 3% were fearful of explosions associated with hydrogen. Residents appreciated that electric vehicles alone would be insufficient to reach the Scottish Government’s transport target of net-zero emissions by 2045. A combination of approaches with renewable energy – both hydrogen and wind – would be a very positive step.
Some Skye residents mentioned that there should be a broader range of people included in critical areas of environmental decision-making. Informing and empowering residents would encourage communities to be proactive and set an example for climate activism. Having community wind-hydrogen projects and involving the local community could also encourage development of a skilled local workforce and could be transformative for Skye’s transport infrastructure.
Many thanks to all the residents who made this project happen! Their many insightful suggestions can help guide environmental decisions and support good practise by large energy providers not only on Skye but for the wider Highland regions. If you are interested in reading more about the project, you can download the dissertation from: https://www.energygeographies.org/dissertation-awards.