Community energy companies on the Isle of Lewis, together with Community Energy Scotland, have condemned SSE’s announcement last Thursday that the new cable between Skye and Harris will be a like-for-like replacement of 33kV instead of the larger cable of 132kV that the community groups were pushing for.

The organisations – Urras Oighreachd Ghabsainn (Galson Estate Trust), Horshader Community Development, Point and Sandwick Trust and CES - have issued a statement hitting out at the decision and also the manner in which it was made.

With the UK government and devolved administrations committed to achieving Net Zero on carbon commissions by 2050, the group question why SSEN are passing up the opportunity to create additional export capacity of 100MW of green energy – especially when there are projects in the pipeline, such as the proposed Arnish community wind farm of up to 30MW, which cannot go ahead otherwise.

SSE justified their decision not to use a bigger 32kV cable on the grounds that they had not used it before for subsea connections and that they would have to carry out six months of tests to find out if it was fit for purpose, adding unacceptable delays to the process. 

But the community energy groups have since discovered that SSE already use a 132kV cable to connect the Isle of Wight to the English mainland.

In a joint press release, the group said: “The 132kV cable is one that has been tried and tested in marine environments, including by SSE themselves to the Isle of Wight.”

SSE’s decision is, according to the group, driven solely by cost, as the 33kV cable will cost £25million while the 132kV cable would cost £90million.

They have vowed to take the case to Scottish Government and have now called on SSE to put in two of the proposed 33kV cables, to provide some resilience and additional capacity, if they refuse to upgrade the link to 132kV.

Their full statement, originally published on Friday, reads as follows: “We are extremely disappointed with SSE's announcement that they are not going to upgrade the cable between Harris and Skye, and also with the way in which the decision was made without proper consultation or scrutiny.

“SSE previously indicated that they would brief us fully on the pros and cons of a like-for-like replacement versus a bigger cable and that they would allow us to have a say before making their final decision. SSE did hold a meeting with local generators yesterday (Thursday) but there was no consultation. They simply announced that they had already taken a decision and that it was their prerogative to do so. The fact that they actually issued their press release announcing the decision while the meeting with local generators was still in progress speaks volumes for their regard to community opinion.

“It is clear that this decision is the cheapest of the two options for SSE, but it is far from obvious that it is in the interests of the developing the local economy, or of achieving net zero, or in the long-term interest of consumers. In fact, we believe a big opportunity to upgrade and green the Western Isles grid is being missed.

“The main explanation SSE gave for choosing the smaller 33kV cable instead of a bigger 132V cable is that they have not used the former before in a subsea situation and that their internal ‘type testing’ to authorise its use would take till the middle of next year before it could be ordered. We are not convinced.  The 132kV cable is one that has been tried and tested in marine environments, including by SSE themselves to the Isle of Wight. That is why we are so disappointed that SSE made their decision before sharing their analysis beforehand.

“This is not the end of the matter.  Following our meeting with Ofgem today, we have written to SSE to ask them to install a second 33kV cable at the same time as replacing the existing cable. We see no reason why it could not be delivered at the same time as the replacement link, avoiding any prolonging of the outage. That would at least provide some resilience against future cable breakages and also provide some additional capacity for community projects. We will also be writing to the Scottish Government to express our concern and to ask them to support the case for a second 33kV cable if SSE refuse to provide the 132KV option we asked for.”  

In Thursday’s announcement, SSEN Distribution said they expected the replacement cable to be energised and operational by the end of August 2021.

According to their timescales, the replacement cable which will provide increased capacity of between 8 and 10MW would arrive in the UK in late May 2021.

The original cable, which runs from Ardmore, Skye, to Beacravik, Harris, developed a subsea fault on 16 October this year. 

SSEN Distribution claimed their analysis had shown the replacement process would be delayed until February 2023 if the bigger cable was chosen – another claim that was met with scepticism by community energy representatives but was accepted by Na h-Eileanan Siar MSP Alasdair Allan, who on Thursday welcomed SSEN’s decision to go ahead with the minimal upgrade in 2021.

Dr Allan said: “This is encouraging news, as Lewis and Harris have not been connected to the national grid since the cable broke… Many will be disappointed, as am I, that the opportunity is not being taken by SSEN to install a larger capacity cable, though the waiting time involved for that would, I would recognise, have been completely unacceptable. The earliest date that a larger cable would be able to be operational, would be February 2023.”