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by Staff Reporter
08 April 2024
Associate Feature: Community care

Partner content

Associate Feature: Community care

Scotland has moved the dial on achieving its net zero goals in one very important way: as a nation, we’re no longer talking about what should be done in the future; we’re having conversations about how best it can be done right now.

This dialogue relies on the renewables industry taking local communities on the net zero journey, listening and acting upon particular needs and aspirations.

Muirhall Energy, an independent developer and operator of renewable energy assets in Scotland, has constructed more than 150MW of onshore wind projects, boasting a planning success rate in excess of 95 per cent. 

With a 3GW plus pipeline of onshore wind and battery storage projects in development, its sights are set on securing at least another 3GW of developments by 2030. Built into this are community wealth-building initiatives, including an Initial Investment Fund, Community Investment Fund and sponsorship partnerships.  

Muirhall’s managing director Sarah McIntosh is both positive about what’s being achieved in renewables and realistic that even more can be accomplished.

“What the Scottish Government has done with the Onshore Wind Policy Statement and the Sector Deal – with its commitments to deliver on deploying 20GW of onshore wind by 2030 – is welcome. As an overarching principle, the government has shown real leadership,” she notes. 

“The introduction of National Planning Framework 4 gives strong support for all forms of renewables where impacts can be managed. However, we need clear guidance for developers around various aspects of development such as biodiversity net gain and working on peat, and also need to see planning teams in local and central government increasing resources in order to process planning applications in a reasonable timeframe.  At the moment it can take several years between submission and a decision on a wind farm and that is too long.

“There’s more that we can do, working with government, to communicate the benefits of renewable developments to communities. It will only be a just transition to net zero if we are empowering our communities and bringing them with us on our journey”.

McIntosh points out that, on a major applications front under the new NPF 4 regime, around a third of all wind developments are refused by planners.

She says: “I think we have seen a few decisions which have surprised industry, and we still need to work incredibly hard to develop proposals which ministers, local authorities and consultees like NatureScot can approve.”

McIntosh is part of the Scottish Renewables’ G12, the group whose pipeline of developments will deliver the Scottish Government’s onshore wind ambitions. The G12 act as an advisory body to the Scottish Onshore Wind Strategic Leadership Group on the delivery of the Sector Deal. 

“Government is very much supportive but we do see individual MSPs strongly opposing developments in their area despite the wider benefits that the growth of renewables is bringing to Scotland.”

For McIntosh and Muirhall, development is all about working closely with communities and forming partnerships and relationships which will last the lifetime of the development.

“What we try to do as a developer is go out as early as possible to communities on our proposed wind farms, in tandem with the landowners, to start that conversation.  We explain what we’re proposing and get feedback as to what they like and don’t and that helps us develop more sensitively designed projects. Although we can’t always meet all aspirations, we take account of all concerns. That might be about access, for example”.

Access has been an important consideration in the development of Muirhall’s Glen Ullinish proposal on Skye. With concerns raised about the impact of deliveries via public roads on local communities, businesses, tourism and emergency services, the company is proposing to construct a quay on the eastern shoreline of Loch Caroy to accommodate delivery of turbine components closer to the site. This will reduce the delivery route on the public network from 40 miles to two.

“We listened to what the community said. If you have abnormal loads coming in during the summer months, it’s going to impact tourism. So we took that away. It’s a considerable extra expense but it’s the right thing to do.

“The local community also asked us directly: ‘There are so many wind farm applications here, are you guys talking to each other?’ So we founded the Skye Developers Forum. Not all have come on board and that’s fine, however the majority have. What we’re doing through the forum is looking at what more we can do to help in areas such as tourism.”

While the focus is, understandably, on communities nearest to wind farms, Muirhall is also looking further afield. 

“There are some communities that could really benefit from funding, but which would never see income from a wind farm, with some of these in the most deprived areas in Scotland,” says McIntosh. “So with one of the projects just about to go live, we’ve been looking at the local authority’s targets in terms of tackling poverty. We’re looking to tie in with that what we can do in terms of benefiting those areas in a way that’s tangible to them through education and renewables. 

“For instance, we may fit solar panels on social housing to reduce electricity bills for those individuals. We’re also trying to get people into jobs – to get them out of deprivation and poverty by creating employment in that area or giving them the tools to do it.”

McIntosh is also keen to focus on the ‘just’ element of the phrase ‘just transition’.

“It’s not just about putting wind farms on a hillside – that’s the transition element, moving from fossil fuels to renewables and meeting targets. The ‘just’ piece is the community aspect. It’s the societal impact. It’s about listening to our young people, who are coming out and saying: ‘The status quo is no longer acceptable to us’, whether it be from an environmental perspective or otherwise.

“We have to listen, but we have to ‘do’ as well. That’s why I’ve tasked our team to look for ‘youth ambassadors’ to tell the world their views on Scotland and renewables and what it really means to them. That might change the conversation at the dinner table with parents and grandparents. I’m not saying they’re all against it but if that changes the narrative, it can only be a good thing. We all need to listen more because we don’t do that enough.”

Muirhall’s MD underlines delivering community benefits is not all about sharing money. 

“What we’re hearing from our dialogue now is communities are feeling empowered and I love that. It’s not always an easy conversation but they feel empowered to say to us: ‘The same old, same old is not going to cut it here. We need something different.’ So we’ve taken a step back and asked: ‘Okay, what more can we do? How can we make this even better?’ 

“We can do this because we are an agile company. We are a team of 50 and so we’re able to be nimble. 

“Muirhall’s founder Chris Walker and I sit at the table with our team. We talk about these things and we reach decisions that benefit our communities in such a significant way because they don’t get stuck in the traditional corporate machinery. It gets done.

“From a communities and developer perspective, right now is a very exciting time for us.”  

This article is sponsored by Muirhall Energy

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