Wind farm developments off north coast 'can be biggest investment in Caithness since Dounreay'
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A councillor has predicted that wind farm developments off the north coast of Caithness could generate the biggest investment in the county since the coming of atomic power.
Councillor Matthew Reiss says floating offshore wind technology offers "an enormous opportunity" for the area, although its economic benefits will have to be weighed up against the visual impact.
He was speaking after he and two other Thurso and Northwest Caithness members of Highland Council took part in an online meeting with the team behind the proposed Pentland Floating Offshore Wind Farm.
Planning permission is being sought for a project consisting of between six and 10 floating turbines, with a maximum blade-tip height of 270m, to be located around six kilometres north-west of Dounreay.
“Potentially, if you fast-forward 10 years, this may be the precursor of several Beatrice-sized wind farm projects," Councillor Reiss said.
“In terms of the economic scale of this, it could be the largest investment in the county since Dounreay and Vulcan so it's very important."
The Beatrice offshore wind farm in the outer Moray Firth consists of 84 turbines using jacket foundations. Floating wind can take advantage of water depths where fixed-foundation turbines would not be viable.
“The six to 10 turbines that they are talking about in this planning application are basically to test the technology," Councillor Reiss said.
“One important point is that if they do end up only six kilometres offshore, that's something that has to be weighed up against the economic benefits.
“The main reasons for having them close to the shore are to avoid shipping lanes and also it is cheaper, for obvious reasons, to have them closer in. But that is something that will have to be sorted out in the future when the planning is fully discussed."
The project would be led by Highland Wind Limited, backed by Danish fund management company Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners (CIP).
Councillor Reiss was joined by colleagues Struan Mackie and Karl Rosie for the online meeting with the developers, including project director Richard Copeland.
“Obviously no decisions have been made yet about where the maintenance base might be," Councillor Reiss said. "I have also asked for more information to understand how the power will be transmitted south.
“If this project goes ahead the cables will come ashore at Dounreay. We know that SSE has plans to upgrade the transmission lines but I would like to find out more about that.
“The main purpose of the meeting was for us to understand a little bit more about this project and also in my opinion, importantly, to pass that on to the wider public so that people have as much information as possible at an early stage.
“There seems to be a general acceptance that offshore floating wind farm technology is the way ahead in deeper water where what are now conventional offshore turbines can't be sited simply because the water is too deep.”
Asked whether Scrabster would be the natural location as an operations and maintenance base for an expanding offshore wind energy sector, Councillor Reiss said: “I very much hope so, and I know my two colleagues do as well.”
He added: “We have asked about employment prospects locally, about community benefit, about the transmission of the energy south, all these kinds of things. We also need more information about the effects on seabirds, especially the renowned puffin colony near the county boundary.
"I think what we've done is establish a good line of initial communication. I suggested that we should have meetings every two to three months in the future and that seemed to be well received.
“It's very early days. It's quite hard to visualise what it will look like, the turbines are so large. But what I am reassured about is that they are definitely willing to help us to understand it better and to assist us.”
Councillor Reiss underlined the importance of reliable air and road links if the county is to play its part in large-scale growth in offshore wind.
“As Dounreay and Vulcan decommission, and as offshore wind appears to be set to become a major industry in the area, Wick John O'Groats Airport becomes ever more crucial," he said. "It is just so important to get that airport reopened properly.
“We also need some money spent on upgrading the A9 north of Tain – not hundreds of millions, but we do need some money spent on it.
"We're not asking for a dual carriageway or anything like it, but just some basic upgrades to some of the twistiest sections south of Dunbeath and round Portgower as well."
Councillor Mackie said Caithness is well placed to become a "centre of excellence" for the floating offshore wind sector.
"For decades the nuclear industry and North Sea oil and gas has provided generations of highly skilled and well-paid work to the region and it is clear that many of those same skills are in demand to commercialise floating wind," Councillor Mackie said.
"I believe there is huge potential for coastal communities like Caithness to take advantage of these opportunities and position the far north as a future centre of excellence for floating offshore wind, if we can properly link industry, supply chain and academia.
"The regeneration of Wick harbour and the creation of highly skilled jobs with Beatrice is an example of what could happen if we are able to commercialise this new technology in the same way as conventional turbines on both sea and land. It is vital that government at all levels are aligned and that we create an attractive business environment for investment.
"It is clear that global firms are looking at the Pentland Firth as an area rich for development and, with the consents that are already agreed, I hope that industry and academia can be brought together to squeeze every benefit out of this exciting technology."
A spokesperson for CIP said: "The area we are investigating here has a good wind resource.
"Offshore wind farms have in many places been a driver for local development, for local jobs and also for supply chain development, and the same should be expected here.
"The project will go through approval steps for obtaining permit and consents for construction."