A huge row over the biggest land-based wind farm ever proposed in Britain is coming to a climax this weekend.
A decision on whether to proceed with the 181-windmill development on the Hebridean island of Lewis is imminent – with some reports claiming that Scottish ministers had already turned down the project on environmental grounds.
The decision has implications for the growth of renewable energy in Britain, signalled this week by the EU's plans for a massive renewables expansion. If it is a "no", it will send a signal to all developers taking part in the "wind rush" expected to follow the EU's announcement. The messages: your developments will have to be in the right place.
Under the EU plans, Britain will have to increase dramatically the amount of UK electricity generated by renewable technologies, to at least 40 per cent of the total by 2020 – eight times what it is today. Wind is likely to provide the lion's share of this increase, with the number of wind turbines set to grow rapidly in the next 12 years. Land-based turbines are likely to rise in number from today's 2,000 to about 5,000, and offshore turbines around the coast likely to shoot up even more, from 150 to 7,500.
Some conservationists have expressed fears that this expansion may do great damage to cherished landscapes and to wildlife. But if the £500m Lewis project is turned down, it means that Scottish ministers have decided they cannot ride roughshod over the very strong environmental protection already provided for the Lewis site by EU law. The island is one of the richest areas for birds in Britain, and the site itself – the Lewis Peatlands – harbours substantial numbers of rare breeding birds, such as the greenshank and birds of prey such as the golden eagle, which conservationists argue would suffer if the development went ahead.
Because of its bird life, the site has been designated a Special Protection Area (SPA) under the EU birds directive – protection which can only be disregarded if the project is of "overwhelming national interest" or if no alternative site can be found.
This protection is a matter of public record and was known in advance to the would-be developers, Lewis Wind Power – a venture between the energy giants AMEC and British Energy Renewables.
If the Scottish government turns the proposal down because of the EU protection, it means that few other developers will chance their arms at trying to use sites whose environmental importance has been officially recognised.
Stuart Housden, the Scottish director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said last night: "If the decision to refuse the application is confirmed by Scottish ministers we would welcome it as a hugely appropriate decision. It sends a very strong message that in meeting our ambitious renewable targets, we do not have to sacrifice our most important environmental resources."
The RSPB has been criticised by some Scottish politicians for supporting a wind farm proposal in the Shetlands while opposing the Lewis project.
Reports that the wind farm was to be turned down were based on a letter said to have been sent to the developers by the Scottish government, saying it was "minded" to refuse the scheme. The BBC's Gaelic news service, Radio nan Gaidheal, said ministers will refuse permission for the scheme because of environmental concerns.
But the prospect of the wind farm proposal being turned down was described as "a bitter blow" by the Western Isles Council, which said it would cost hundreds of jobs. "An opportunity to help us revitalise our economy has been lost," said the council's vice-convener, Angus Campbell. "We now know the cost of environmental designations to the Western Isles – 400 construction jobs, 70 jobs at Arnish, 70 jobs associated directly with the wind farm, £6m per annum in community benefit and £4m in rental payments."
He added: "We will now engage with the Scottish government to discuss their plans for how the economy of the Western Isles can be developed. Is any development at all to be allowed in the Western Isles?"
Although in February last year the council voted by 18 to eight in support of the project – leaving the final decision with the Scottish Executive – many people in Lewis feel it would be environmentally damaging and would dwarf their island.
The politicians that supported it, namely the island's MP, Calum MacDonald, and MSP, Alasdair Morrison, met with an uncompromising end when they lost their seats. Messrs MacDonald and Morrison, both Labour, were ousted by Angus MacNeil and Alasdair Allan respectively, both Scottish Nationalists. "I opposed the application because I felt its sheer scale and location made it unacceptable to the communities it would have affected most directly," said Mr Allan, the SNP's MSP for the Western Isles.