Scottish islands go with the wind

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The dash to exploit the immense potential power of wind and wave energy off Britain's coasts has developed into a two-horse race between rival Scottish islands.

Over the past few weeks, Orkney and the Western Isles have emerged as competitors for the title of Britain's green energy capital. Both have now won political support and funding for ambitious plans to develop big renewable energy projects – as part of the Government's £260m programme to expand green energy use to combat global warming.

Late last month, the Scottish Executive, which runs Scotland's devolved government, and Highlands and Islands Enterprise gave Orkney £400,000 to assess plans to build a marine power test centre near Stromness. This would study the potential for wave and tidal power plants around Scotland.

Orkney was chosen ahead of several rival bids including one from the Western Isles, but the Hebridean islands have now won their own boost from the Department of Trade & Industry.

After a visit to Stornaway last month by Brian Wilson, the minister leading the Government's energy review, the DTI is to spend around £30,000 on a feasibility study to assess the island's full green energy potential.

The Western Isles council is pressing ministers to support an ambitious proposal to set up an "energy innovation zone" that will attract wind, wave and fuel cell energy firms and research companies. The proposal, which the council hopes to finalise by Christmas, is based on the immense wind and wave resource in the Western Isles. In theory, that energy could meet about 40 per cent of the UK's 58 gigawatts of peak electricity demand.

The DTI has also agreed to help address one of the big obstacles to harnessing and then exporting that energy – the weak electricity grid link to the mainland and from the Highlands to the south. The DTI is considering various plans to upgrade the current submarine cable, which has a capacity of 20 megawatts. These include costly and perhaps over-ambitious proposals to lay a new undersea cable down the west coast direct to England's large electricity markets.

Calum MacDonald, the MP for the Western Isles, says the low-capacity grid links, and planning problems laying larger cables on land, are the big obstacles to com- mercial exploitation of the island's energy resource. "By connecting directly to the south-east of England, we would open up an almost limitless market for the green energy which only the north-west can supply in abundance."

On Tuesday, meanwhile, Scottish Power is due to unveil plans for a £70m wind farm to the east of Glasgow. It is understood that the scheme, if granted planning permission, will generate 120mw of power. Earlier this month the energy company unveiled another £150m project to develop Scotland's largest wind farm 10 miles south of Glasgow. It is estimated that the 240mw scheme could supply electricity for 150,000 homes.