Brian Wilson: Fife offshore windfarm scandal should see SNP Ministers sacked

The Neart na Gaoithe windfarm off the coast of Fife was a chance to do something big for Scotland but it has been blown, writes Brian Wilson.

Scotland has abundant supplies of wind energy (Picture: Ian Rutherford)

Who says there is no Gaelic in Fife? The words Neart na Gaoithe – Power of the Wind – are familiar as Poileas Alba and less popular.

NnG is an unbuilt windfarm, 12 miles off the Fife coast. It represents an extraordinary saga, full of unintended consequences.

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It also reflects a level of policy failure in St Andrew’s House that would astonish past generations of Ministers and mandarins.

I wrote a lot about NnG because I understood its critical importance to the Scottish economy; in its own right and as a platform for long-advertised but miserably under-fulfilled potential for serious industrial gain from renewables.

NnG, promoted by the Irish company Mainstream, could have been consented by Ministers in 2014. It was controversial – opposed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – and, like much else, kicked into touch.

Post-referendum, Ministers made a fateful error – a single consent covered not only NnG but three windfarms in the same sea area. Critically, only NnG was poised to win subsidy under the Contract for Difference (CfD) scheme.

The RSPB spotted their opportunity and went to the Court of Session, opposing consent on grounds of “cumulative impact”. Lord Stewart heard the case in May 2015 and ruled 15 months later in the RSPB’s favour.

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Effectively, the Scottish Government was trying to save the project for the company. Their interests were interlinked. Ministers would blather about it being worth £2.1 billion to the Scottish economy which could have been true. But isn’t.

In May 2017, the Inner House of the Court of Session overturned Lord Stewart’s judgment. The RSPB went straight to the Supreme Court in London which in July 2017, finally ruled against them.

For fully two years then, the project’s very existence – and vast profitability – depended on the Scottish Government fighting the case through the courts with taxpayers’ money.

As happens in this industry, Mainstream promptly flipped NnG to a developer with deep pockets. EDF – to be fair to them – were uninvolved in what had gone before and inherited no commitments. So they acted commercially, as they would, and went abroad.

The Finance Minister, Derek Mackay, bleats about EU procurement rules. If these are the chains which bind him, then what is the point of his job? The leverage which circumstances created in this case were exceptional and cried out for intervention.

Between 2015 and 2017, technical advances saw subsidy for offshore wind plummet. The second CfD round secured projects at barely half the rate from two years earlier.

Thus, as the trade unions – and thank heavens for them – point out, the unplanned delays meant NnG, while benefiting from these advances, retains the higher subsidy level – an additional £130 million annual profit, the unions estimate, over the 15-year CfD contract.

Even in these inadvertently propitious circumstances, Scotland is fighting for leftovers, reliant on goodwill from EDF and their Italian contractors who have taken the main work to Indonesia. I desperately hope something comes to Fife – even if only a few per cent of the prize. That begs another question – how much can be done here?

Methil is owned by Scottish Enterprise who also have a stake in Burntisland, part of Forth Ports. Offshore wind has been on the horizon for a decade.

These yards should, through public investment, be state of the art, doing the big stuff, leading a supply chain employing thousands.

We endured years of Salmond windbaggery about great renewable inward investments which all turned to dust. The Fife yards are different. They exist but have needed serious investment to compete.

In an accountable administration, Ministers would be sacked. By accident more than design, there was a slow-motion opportunity to do something really big for Scottish industry. It has been blown.