AMID northern Scottish communities’ concerns on new wind farm-generated energy transmission lines and huge pylons across the skyline, SNP MP Ian Blackford has criticised the approach taken by power giant Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks (SSEN) in consulting his constituents.

“SSE[N] has frankly let itself down through the consultation process,” the MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber said. “I don’t think it is SSE[N]’s finest hour in terms of engagement with the communities – leading to a degree of disquiet and concern.”

Blackford says his published reports proposing a “green industrial future” benefiting Scotland’s economy in infrastructure development up to 2050 – including northern wind farm generated energy – will also depend on “mitigating the impact on families, households on the routes.”

He says SSEN admitted it should have begun its community outreach programme before early 2023 over its £20 billion electricity upgrade project including three new 400kV transmission lines and substations up to 2030. “Are we going to have more pylons, are we going to have more transmission onshore as well as offshore?” Blackford said. “Yes, we are. But that should be done in consultation with local people, with their consent.”

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Strathpeffer and Contin residents, whose villages could be affected by near 70m-high pylons on a route linking Spittal with Beauly, have been sceptical of the public consultation and “lukewarm” efforts by politicians, regulator Ofgem, UK system operator National Grid and SSEN in answering their concerns about the proximity of pylons to their communities, including possible additional infrastructure required between 2030 and 2050. Strathpeffer Community Council chair Ron McAulay said: “We have been asking SSEN, Ofgem and National Grid for this plan from the start.

“We were promised sight of it before Christmas 2023 but there’s still no sign of it. Communities understand the need for upgrading the network but not at the cost of our beautiful landscape.”

Activist group Better Cable Route (Strathpeffer & Contin). member Dan Bailey said details should be available on the proposed network to 2050 and beyond, adding: “This may entail an enormous expansion of electricity generation and transmission over and above the current proposals.”

HE went on: “The initial consultation was mishandled and the fact SSEN has continued to be secretive and heavy-handed in their dealings with communities gives us little confidence that the process will improve without political pressure.”

The National: Ian Blackford

But this is not SSEN’s fault alone, he says. “There was no effective consultation on the design of the Spittal-Beauly link or public record on the decision for a new overhead dual-circuit line where government decisions seem to havebeen made before SSEN was involved.”

SSEN Transmission has since announced a new phase of more than 40 public engagements in for this month and next under its “Pathway to 2030” infrastructure programme, whose remit falls short of 2050 goals. This includes statutory events for power lines and substations and what is termed “engagement on refinements” to overhead pylon routes.

SSEN Transmission declined comment for this article but the new public events notice quotes managing director Rob McDonald describing the historic scale of a programme to make the north of Scotland “a clean energy powerhouse” in a leading role delivering UK and Scottish energy security and net-zero targets, and encouraging further public participation.

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Sources also point out that under an accelerated regime SSEN held its first public consultations two months after the company was confirmed in its role under Ofgem’s “accelerated strategic transmission investment framework” (ASTI) in December 2022. How much earlier could it have reasonably consulted public stakeholders?

Blackford has received mixed appraisals on the energy infrastructure issue from constituents. Bailey said: “It is good news that Ian Blackford has been liaising with SSEN on our behalf. But his interactions with the company have been conducted behind closed doors.”

Blackford says his conversations with Ofgem and National Grid were “because we are singularly unprepared for the opportunities that come with green energy output.” These he describes as inefficiencies prevailing in the grid and unfairness in the energy markets. “It’s an absolute outrage that we’ve been penalised because of the cost of wholesale gas when we in Scotland produce six times as much gas as we consume,” he said.

Blackford is also angry that northern Scotland is not sufficiently compensated for its energy output amid a cost of living crisis and cases of fuel poverty. “I’m amazed there isn’t more debate on that,” he said.