In the coming months, over 100 new apprentices will start a new career with SSE, with some of the new recruits getting their boots muddy for the first time at one of our wind farm or hydro developments in the north of Scotland. When I meet them, I’ll ask the same question I put to anyone taking their first steps with the company – why SSE?
As you’d expect, I tend to get a mix of responses – including job prospects, training and locality – but many also point to an affinity with ‘the Hydro’, a respect for our history in the Highlands and a belief that we are committed to the region for the long-term.
It’s this standing in the community that makes us determined to be a ‘responsible developer’. That means two things. Firstly, it’s about adhering to the planning process in a responsible way – adopting best practice when designing and siting renewable projects, preferring cooperation over confrontation. Secondly, it’s about going beyond what is set out in regulation – actively working with local business and communities to make sure they gain long-lasting economic and social benefit from the wind farms and hydro schemes they host.
The 1950s is often thought of as a golden era of investment in energy in the Highlands, when we delivered ‘Power from the Glens’, including stations at Mossford, Grudie Bridge, Fasnakyle and Shin. In that era, the ‘Hydro Board’ was spending about £300m a year – in today’s money. Today, SSE is spending around double that on renewable energy in Scotland and more than five times that level in total.
I’m proud of our plans for investment in the Highlands, but I agree that it can’t be at the detriment of the area’s other priorities. That’s why all of SSE’s projects currently in planning are located in the Highland Council’s ‘area of search’ for wind farms, avoid key tourist locations and make maximum use of existing energy infrastructure. Our proposals also go through a robust internal ‘filter’ before they are submitted and many are modified during the planning process.
There will always be those who oppose some changes or new developments, some may be extreme and try to scare people with wild claims, but some concerns are reasoned and justified – that is why a balanced and objective assessment by planning authorities is important.
Supporting a local supply chain
Our responsibility clearly doesn’t end with the planning decision. As the largest renewable developer in the country, SSE is taking a natural lead in building a sustainable local supply chain. In the construction of our Gordonbush wind farm, near Brora, Dingwall-based RJ McLeod was awarded £13m in contracts for the £100m 35-turbine project and multiple local suppliers from the Sutherland area provided materials such as stone, concrete, timber and fuel for the site.
We want to add to this support with initiatives such as the Open4Business portal, an online platform that allows local businesses, large and small, to review opportunities and bid for contracts with SSE and our major contractors. We‘re also the majority owner of Wind Towers (Scotland) Ltd – Scotland’s only wind tower manufacturer – and have recently doubled the workforce at the Machrihanish plant.
Creating sustainable employment
A criticism often levelled to the renewables industry is that few long-term jobs are created. Whilst it’s true that generating clean, green energy from a hydro station or wind farm requires less manpower than a coal plant, the numbers are anything but small. A recent report highlighted that the renewables industry in Scotland supports the employment of over 11,000 people.
SSE is also helping young people across the Highlands to gain a foothold in the industry. We expect 15-20 new apprentices and nine technical skills trainees to join our team in the Highlands this year. We’ve moved part of our trainee engineering programme to Inverness College and have helped 32 young people from troubled backgrounds find employment through a partnership with Barnados.
Providing real benefit to the community
It’s equally important that communities see real benefit from the renewable developments that they host. We recently announced details of a new Scotland Sustainable Energy fund that could be worth more than £90 million over 25 years. The new fund will be available for organisations promoting skills development, community energy schemes and improving the built and natural environment. This is in addition to the £150 million SSE has already committed to project-specific community investment funds.
Our 76MW Strathy North Wind Farm in Sutherland will be the first wind farm to benefit from this additional funding, providing a total lifetime value of £9.5 million. We intend that half of this will be ring-fenced for the immediate community hosting the wind farm and the remainder used to support skills, community energy and environmental projects available to both the local and wider community.
These building blocks are crucial to the success of SSE’s investments in the Highlands and will help unlock the region’s undoubted potential for renewable energy.
Our long history in the area comes with a sense of responsibility, but I firmly believe the actions we are taking now will not only protect our legacy, but build on it, so that when today’s apprentices are the ones asking ‘why SSE?’, they’ll get an even better response.