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Wind farms off north coast 'could provide a lot of highly skilled jobs for Caithness'

By Alan Hendry

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The Beatrice offshore wind farm during construction. Picture: BOWL
The Beatrice offshore wind farm during construction. Picture: BOWL

There is a growing belief that waters to the north of Caithness could play host to major offshore wind farms comparable in scale to the Beatrice and Moray schemes off the east coast.

Scrabster is being seen as ideally placed to benefit from any expansion following on from the proposed development off Dounreay aimed at testing and demonstrating floating offshore wind technology.

Between six and 10 floating structures could be built under plans being drawn up by Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners (CIP), a Danish fund management company with a stake in Beatrice Offshore Windfarm Ltd (BOWL). Located 10km from the Dounreay site, the development would be an update on the previous Dounreay Trì project.

The turbines could have an upper tip height of 192-270m.

Councillors believe it could be a precursor to large-scale developments in years to come – and that Scrabster has the potential to emulate Wick harbour, which provides the operations and maintenance base for the £2.5 billion Beatrice project in the outer Moray Firth.

Councillor Matthew Reiss, who represents Thurso and Northwest Caithness on Highland Council, said: “My understanding from contact in the business world is there's a strong assumption that there will be large offshore wind farms off the north coast. If you look at the areas of seabed that are up for lease, these are substantial areas.

“The good news could be that this could provide a lot of highly skilled jobs for the county, hopefully in Scrabster. But as councillors we need to wait for details."

He pointed out that offshore wind development in the outer Moray Firth began with the two-turbine Beatrice demonstration project. BOWL is now Scotland's largest wind farm, with 84 turbines, and will be followed by the 100-turbine Moray East offshore wind farm, due to be fully operational in 2022.

A new offshore wind leasing round announced in June is set to clear the way for dramatic growth in renewable energy around the Scottish coastline. ScotWind Leasing has been described by Crown Estate Scotland, the organisation that manages Scotland’s seabed, as a multi-billion-pound investment opportunity that will form a major part of the country's "green recovery".

Councillor Reiss believes offshore wind farms are more acceptable to the public than clusters of onshore turbines towering over communities. However, he has misgivings about the combined visual impact of large turbines at sea and a series of inland wind farms along the coast.

“For the public, for people living along the north coast, I think the most important details will be the visualisations," he said. "What would this look like? If the turbines are going to be 270 metres tall it's approaching three times the height of the existing Causewaymire turbines, so these are truly massive structures by any standard.

"We will also wait for information on new substations, possibly power lines, and lighting on the turbines.

"Environmentally, one specific thing will be information from ornithologists regarding flight paths for geese, some of which are endangered species, coming from Iceland and Greenland.

"Going back to what I think will be the public interest in the visualisations, my gut feeling deep down is that people in general are much more accepting of offshore wind turbines, some distance from their homes, than onshore.

“We could end up with what planners call a corridor, whereby people going along the North Coast 500 will see onshore wind farms on one side and offshore on the other. I have counted up potentially six onshore wind farms from Thurso to Melvich.

"They're such huge developments that they are going to be with us for 25 years, probably longer, and it's so important to get it right.

"It's not all bad, but overall my hunch is people would rather have a massive offshore wind farm rather than lots of turbines next to their houses and villages.

"It's going to be very difficult to size up the economic opportunities against the environmental and visualisation problems. It's going to be really tricky. If we fast-forward 10 to 15 years this could be a huge thing, for better or worse."

Wick is the operations and maintenance base for the BOWL project. Picture: Alan Hendry
Wick is the operations and maintenance base for the BOWL project. Picture: Alan Hendry

Councillor Struan Mackie, who also represents Thurso and Northwest Caithness, said: "I believe that floating offshore wind has huge potential for coastal communities.

"The Beatrice project, which uses established technology, has demonstrated significant economic benefit to east Caithness. The development has secured long-term, highly skilled work in the renewables industry both direct and in our local supply chain through Wick harbour and a number of regional fabrication yards like Nigg.

"Without prejudicing any decisions to be made by Highland Council, there is great expectation that floating offshore is well placed to build on what established offshore production has achieved. Our local supply chain is Caithness is highly geared towards complex projects with a workforce with vast experience gained from Dounreay and other renewables project from across the north.

"We are fortunate that we have very active ports in Caithness that are investing in the future and already creating jobs. Scrabster is of national strategic importance to Scotland and the UK. Recent investments by the harbour authority, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and Highlands and Islands Enterprise in the St Ola Pier will ensure that the far north is well placed to capitalise on any opportunity that comes forward."

Eann Sinclair, Highlands and Islands Enterprise area manager for Caithness and Sutherland, said: “We’ve been aware for some time that the seas off the coasts of Caithness and north Sutherland are of significant interest to companies seeking to secure licences in the ScotWind offshore leasing round. It has been our view that this area offers a powerful combination of natural assets, appropriate infrastructure and skilled workforce – so developer interest would seem to back up that assessment.”

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