FAR north councillors have backed a £3 billion development to build 277 wind turbines eight miles off the Caithness coast amid hopes Wick can reap the potential spin-offs.
It is the second multi-billion pound off-shore development to get the green light from councillors in three months.
Highland Council’s north planning committee agreed yesterday not to object to plans for the Beatrice Offshore Windfarm Limited and a final decision is expected to be made by Scottish Government later this year. The giant development, on the north-western point of the Smith Bank, would be located south-east of Wick.
If the project, which is a joint venture between SSE Renewables and Repsol Nuevas Energias UK, is given the go-ahead, it could provide 1000MW of electricity to power more than 796,000 homes and bring up to 950 jobs to the far north.
Councillors were told by planning official David Mudie that the scheme would inject £125 million into the Highland economy
"There are significant opportunities related to the supply chains in the Highlands," said Mr Mudie, who pinpointed Wick, Nigg, Invergordon and Ardersier. Construction could start in two years time and electricity could be exported by 2018 from the site.
Landward Caithness councillors Alex MacLeod and Willie Mackay, along with Wick member Bill Fernie, who all sit on the committee, said they were delighted to support the development.
Mr MacLeod said its construction would put the far north firmly on the map as the main renewables base in Scotland and offer a huge boost to Caithness in the "post-Dounreay" era.
He said: "This is extremely positive news for the north Highlands. It is right that the Highland Council lends every support to this vital development in our waters.
"It will put Caithness on the map as Scotland’s number one destination for offshore renewables. It will open up a world of opportunity for our major ports, and will create the conditions for economic growth and development.
"Increasingly, folk are realising that the north Highlands is the right place, with the right people, at the right time. We will make sure that Beatrice works, and works well."
Mr Fernie said it presents a great opportunity to upgrade Wick Harbour.
"There is huge potential for investment in the Wick Harbour area," said Councillor Fernie, who predicted other related developments could "flow" from the huge wind farm.
Mr Mackay said he was excited by a reference in the planning report about the possibility of Wick being a potential base for turbine manufacturing.
However, Thurso councillor John Rosie warned his colleagues not to get too excited about the development and said Wick’s infrastructure needed huge improvements first.
"I am not too excited because I think there could well be problems attached to this, I don’t think it’s safe to assume that all the work will come to Caithness and the Highlands," he said.
Mr Rosie described the area’s rail line as "19th century" and said planes had "enormous difficulties" getting in and out of Wick Airport.
He called for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to press Caithness and the Highlands’ case for assurances on jobs.
Kirstanne McDowall, spokeswoman for the Beatrice wind farm, said it is too early to say how many jobs could be created in Caithness or what improvements could be in the pipeline for Wick Harbour.
The planning committee’s vice-chairwoman Audrey Sinclair expressed concerns about the potential impact on shipping in the area and asked how many local fishery interests were represented on a working group. Mr Mudie said there were 14 members, of which two were from Caithness.
In March, the council gave its backing to build one of the world’s largest offshore windfarms 13km off the east coast of Caithness for Moray Offshore Renewables Ltd’s £4.5 billion project to build 339 turbines.