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Could Thurso be in line for the far north’s first solar farm?


By Iain Grant

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The wind farm would be built on grazing land west of Thurso. Picture: iStock
The wind farm would be built on grazing land west of Thurso. Picture: iStock

A multinational’s bid to develop the far north’s first commercial solar farm has elicited a mixed response from Thurso Community Council.

A tract of grazing land at Westfield is being earmarked for the venture by the Scottish arm of French-based Qair International.

As well as 134 megawatts of solar power, a further 200MW is projected to be generated by an adjoining battery storage unit.

Four of the Edinburgh project team made their pitch at the community council’s latest meeting on Tuesday evening.

Some community councillors seemed reassured by a pledge that some of the community benefit spin-offs from the scheme would accrue to the town.

But others remained implacably opposed to any further renewable energy developments in Caithness.

Qair Scotland Ltd is working on a number of studies to support a forthcoming planning application to develop on ground at Lythmore Farm, four kilometres west of Thurso.

While it has provisionally earmarked 346 acres of grazing land, company director Martin Davie said it would likely only utilise a third of this.

It has identified a section of blanket peat in the middle of the area, which it would avoid.

Mr Davie said it expects to firm up the exact site in the next couple of months.

Project consultant Jean Curran, managing director of Atmos Consulting, said it will stay clear of any land with peat more than a metre and a half deep.

She added that ecological, environmental, hydrology and habitat surveys are under way. This included taking account of the use of the site by foraging otters.

Ms Curran said it is also looking to mitigate any potential noise nuisance from the battery storage unit. This included the use of inverters and fans and the deployment of vegetation and physical barriers.

Community councillor Colin Johnston was unimpressed. “Why are you coming here?,” he asked. “We've got enough wind farms as it is and we don’t need any more.

“It’s not going to make our electricity bills any cheaper – we’re not getting anything out of it.”

Mr Davie said Qair has many renewable energy projects up and running and in the pipeline throughout Scotland.

After speaking to the Shearer family, who own Lythmore Farm, it had initially considered wind turbines.

But he said: “We decided against that as it would be too over-powering for Thurso. The landowner thought that himself.

“He then said could we look at it for solar and we found that the p/v (photo voltaic) output now works for this area given the advances in technology over the past 10 years.”

Technology has advanced to allow photo-voltaic panels to work in the far north. Picture: iStock
Technology has advanced to allow photo-voltaic panels to work in the far north. Picture: iStock

Mr Davie added that though the land is in the neighbouring Caithness West Community Council patch, Qair is willing to extend the community benefit package to the adjoining Thurso and Halkirk community council areas.

Community councillor Bert Macleod countered: “But that is not going to help us pay our electricity bills.”

Mr Davie agreed but said townspeople would share in the community benefit.

He said: “There’s no numbers on it just now but we would agree to pay X amount per megawatt or per acre and that would apply over the 30-year lifespan of the project.

“It would be up to you to decide how that money was spent.”

Vice chair Billy Sinclair said local people face the highest standing charges in the country despite being net exporters of electricity.

He asked: “Why do we need more developments up here?

“Caithness as a whole gets no benefit from all this energy we’re producing and local people are sick fed up of our objections being over-ruled. They give us a little bribe to keep us happy.”

Asked by treasurer Jean Husband why battery storage has been added, Ms Curran said this is to help “smooth the curve” to help the national grid balance the supply of electricity with demand.

She added that the growth of renewable energy is needed to help the UK meet its climate change targets.

Asked by Highland councillor Struan Mackie how many jobs the scheme would create, Ms Curran said this is currently unknown.

She said: “We haven’t done that calculation yet but it will be an important part of our study to identify that.”

Mr Davie added that it has funded engineering apprenticeships for local youngsters with a view to them finding work on the development sites.

After the meeting, Qair’s energy and environmental engineer Sham Singh said that the energy regime in the UK makes it very difficult for renewable energy firms to offer discounts to householders living beside developments.

He said: “We, however, want to help as much as possible the communities in which we operate and that is why we offer community benefit packages.

“This is our first engagement with people here and we are keen to maintain a close dialogue with them.”

Mr Singh could not put a timescale on Qair’s plans for the far north.

He said it is dependent on the progress of its planning application and when it can get a slot to connect with the national grid.

Qair recently mailed about 300 households in and around Westfield about the scheme and on Wednesday held a drop-in session in the Pentland Hotel, Thurso.

Highland Council’s policy is to support the principle of solar farms provided they “minimise the impacts on communities, landscape and visual amenity”.


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