HIGHLAND councillors are backing controversial plans for the world’s largest offshore wind farm off the Scottish coast – saying the economic benefits far outweigh objectors’ concerns about visual and environmental impact.
The £4.5billion project would see up to 339 turbines, some reaching 670ft above sea level, in the Moray Firth east of Caithness, covering a total of 114 square miles.
Anti-windfarm campaigners claim the project proposed by Moray Offshore Renewables Ltd (Morl) – made up of a consortium of energy firms – would destroy marine wildlife and be ‘a blot on the landscape’.
But Highland Council’s North Planning Applications Committee has unanimously supported their planning officials’ recommendation to “raise no objection” to the development.
Caithness Councillor Bill Fernie said: “This would bring significant economic benefits to the area, particularly ports along the coast, including Wick.
“If these are successful and work, the possibility is they [windfarm developers] will keep exploiting that field and others in the area.
“It could be a beginning to a huge industry at sea. We have the experienced people who could be employed here.”
A report to councillors said the economic benefit to Scotland was £312million, with the north reaping £113million.
Morl is a joint venture between Spanish/Portuguese firm EDP Renewables and Spanish oil and gas company Repsol Nuevas Energias.
The proposal has attracted vocal opposition from a number of campaigners, including American tycoon Donald Trump, who is fighting plans for a similar offshore windfarm off the Menie Estate where he has his Aberdeenshire golf course.
Morl say the proposals represented the culmination of three years of development work, data gathering, extensive environmental studies and broad consultation.
Work, if approved by Scottish Government ministers who will consider the application possibly in the autumn, would start in 2015, with completion by 2020.
The wind farm, the developers claim, could produce up to 1,500MW of power – about the same as a conventional power station – providing power for over one million homes.
It would also be a major boost to the Scottish Government’s target of generating 100 per cent of the country’s demand from renewables by the end of the decade.
The council is a consultee, with final consent for the development controlled by the Scottish Government regulator Marine Scotland.
Unlike onshore developments, there will be no automatic Public Local Inquiry if opposition is raised by local authorities.
The planning committee was told that the current application would be visible from a number of viewpoints in Caithness, particularly Wick.
However, Councillor Fernie said that, as the closest turbines would be some 22km from the coastline, many onshore windfarms were more visually obtrusive.
He added that another proposed offshore windfarm in the Beatrice Field would be closer to land – some seven to eight kilometres – than this development.
Mr Fernie said: “This project has to be welcomed for the economic benefits it will bring. Regarding the visual impact, there are onshore windfarms that are much bigger.”
SNP Councillor Maxine Smith, whose constituency includes Invergordon Harbour which may benefit from construction of the project, said: “I fully support this. It is an exciting project which could start something even bigger.
“The economic benefits far outweigh any other issues here.”
The committee agreed to respond to the consultation raising no objections subject to a number of conditions, including one ensuring that the local fishing interests be represented on the planned liaison group.
The local authority only received one objection to the plan, from the RSPB, who are worried about the potential impact to seabirds.
None of the 12 community councils consulted, which included Helmsdale, Brora, Golspie and Dornoch, responded.
Concerns raised by the Ministry of Defence and Highlands and Islands Airports about aircraft safety are still being discussed with the developers before going to Scottish Government ministers for consideration.
And anti-windfarm campaigners are outraged at the plans.
Stuart Young, a consultant for Communities Against Turbines Scotland and chairman of Caithness Windfarm Information Forum, said: “They are going to be in people’s eyes and in their windows. It will be inescapable. They will be a blot on the landscape which will be left for future generations to deal with.
“We have absolutely no idea what damage this will do to the marine environment.
“If you take a massive area like this and carry out massive civil engineering work on the sea bed it is obviously going to cause damage.”
Linda Holt, spokeswoman for Scotland Against Spin said: “To raise no objection is blinkered and irrresponsible when so many questions about aircraft safety and impacts on wildlife remain outstanding.
“This is why such important consultees as Marine Scotland Science, RSPB, National Air Traffic Services and the Crown Defence have all objected.
“The economic benefit to the Highlands of this development is exaggerated and ignores the damage it will do to marine tourism and fishing.”
A spokesman for Mr Trump, who is opposed to a similar offshore wind farm overlooking his Aberdeenshire golf course, said: “This project, like all wind turbine proposals, is totally dependent on subsidies that will cost the taxpayer dearly.
“Watch your wallet – Scotland’s energy bills will continue to skyrocket and the coastlines will be decimated by these steel-and-concrete monstrosities.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Scotland has astounding green energy potential and vast natural resources, and we have a responsibility to make sure our nation seizes this opportunity to create tens of thousands of new jobs and secure billions of pounds of investment in our economy.”
The world’s largest operational offshore wind farm is the 175-turbine London Array.