Over the past few months, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has consistently and robustly made representations to UK energy regulator, OFGEM, around the various challenges presently facing the islands, from Grid connection delays and exorbitant Transmission Charges to the cost of electricity and the security of the islands’ electricity supply.
As recently as last month, Comhairle Leader, Paul Steele, wrote to OFGEM Chief Executive, Jonathan Brearley; “The experience of the Western Isles over the past 20 years has been one of disappointment around Grid roll-out issues. This system has allowed SSEN Transmission to routinely delay the Western Isles Transmission Link from 2008 to 2012 to 2015 to 2018 to 2023 to 2025 and, lately, to 2027”. On 7 July this year, National Grid recommended that the planned 600MW connection for 2027 should be abandoned in favour of a 1,800MW for delivery by 2030 with a view to enabling island Onshore Wind Farms and ScotWind Offshore Wind Areas N3 and N4 to contribute to 2030 UK decarbonisation targets. Now OFGEM has announced that omission of this 1,800MW link from a separate Onshore Wind Network Options document means that the regulator is unable to automatically authorise investment in its delivery. Discussions continue between the Comhairle, OFGEM and SSEN Transmission in an effort to secure the necessary OFGEM authorisation for this key piece of Net Zero infrastructure.
Assuming that this authorisation can be secured, the Comhairle will continue to push for delivery of the 1,800MW link before 2030. Cllr Steele continues, “SSEN Transmission have told us that every effort will be made to accelerate delivery of the 1,800MW Transmission Link solution ahead of 2030. We believe that this acceleration is technically possible, not least because 1,800MW is a common cable configuration and cable procurement can now be bundled with other SSEN Transmission projects to create real scale when ordering from the market. Also, design work for the cable track and terminal converter stations has been completed with consents largely in place although the scale of the converter stations will obviously have to be increased to accommodate new voltage levels. Clarification is now required regarding whether OFGEM will be supportive of delivery of the 1,800MW Transmission Link ahead of 2030”
Cllr Donald Crichton, Chairman of the Comhairle’s Sustainable Development Committee, who has consistently made representations, commented: “In our view, the failure to deliver enhanced grid to the Western Isles over the past 20 years represents a major strategic and regulatory failure. Our islands have a key role to play in the decarbonisation of the UK through the supply of large volumes of renewable electricity Onshore and Offshore but this relies on adequate Grid connectivity. In that context, the proposal to deliver a 1,800MW Transmission Link by 2030, or before, must be viewed as an opportunity and all elements of the system must redouble efforts to deliver Grid for the islands as quickly as possible.”
In addition to these electricity Transmission challenges, OFGEM’s recent determination in respect of SSEN’s Distribution Business Plan, 2023 to 2028, has raised grave concerns in the islands. In its Business Plan, SSEN Distribution sought OFGEM authorisation to replace the existing, 31 year old, subsea electricity cable between Skye and Uist with two new subsea cables; one between Ardmore (Skye) and Clachan (North Uist) and a second between Dunvegan (Skye) and Lochcarnan (South Uist). In its determination, OFGEM disallowed the provision of two new cables and even the replacement of the existing cable which is of the same vintage as the previous Skye to Harris subsea cable which failed with catastrophic consequences in October 2020. Again, the Comhairle is engaging with OFGEM over its shortsighted approach to asset replacement which could have similarly catastrophic consequences for the Uist and Barra community in the near future.
In light of OFGEM’s failure to regulate electricity prices or to enable Grid connection to the islands, the Comhairle will now consider whether OFGEM is fit-for-purpose as an energy sector regulator for the 21st Century when the planet is plunging into climate crisis and island households are having to choose whether to heat or eat due to rapidly escalating electricity prices.