Who Owns the Wind?

3 Oct 2022 james

The promise of a publicly owned renewable energy system

Resident at a Moray West wind farm community consultation event

The North Westerly gale billows and shakes the heavy white pvc of the marquee on the Portsoy harbourside, Aberdeenshire. Festival goers drift from stall to stall, under the pallid light of sun through plastic, dithering over the t-towels and pots of honey. At one end of the tent, a wall is taken up by a row of roller banners printed with text and logos, maps and images. A man in his twenties with an alert haircut stands eager to do battle on behalf of the Moray West community consultation team.

Facing a half-interested audience sheltering from the wind, his task is to explain the great benefits that stand to accrue on the back of the Moray West wind farm that is moving towards construction far out in the Moray Firth, east of Inverness. All the data, it seems, is on display in the exhibition. Off the coast of Caithness, in 150 feet of water, 65 turbines will be erected over 110 square miles of seabed – an area the size of Bristol. They will generate 860 megawatts of electricity, enough for 30% of Scotland’s energy needs (according to the exhibition), powering up to 640,000 homes and saving 1.1 million tonnes of CO2 every year. It will employ 60 personnel working out of its port base in Buckie, to the east of Portsoy where this tent stands. Everything is clear, apparently, about this bright future.

As a visitor to this, the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival, I  listen in to the community outreach officer and scan the text and diagrams that cover the 6 foot high panels. It is hard to find out who’s behind this scheme. Who owns it? It would be easy to assume that Moray West was being undertaken by Moray West, that the company is the project, or the project is the company. Closer inspection of a handout reveals that the initiative is undertaken by Ocean Winds, but quite who they are is unclear.

Moray West offshore wind farm and the cables running from it to the coast and beyond

One panel gives a detailed map of how the wind farm exports the electricity it generates. A cable will run 40 miles across the seabed, until it reaches the coast at Sandend just west of Portsoy. From here another cable, a further 20 miles long, will be run underground along the valleys of the Burn of Fordyce and Burn of Inverkindling until it meets the National Grid at the substation of Blackhillock near the town of Keith. From there the power will flow to anywhere in the UK, to the bulb that lights your room, to the battery that fuels your laptop or phone.

I step outside the marquee. The power of the wind has whipped the grey sea into white horses that ride in and break upon the arm of Portsoy New Harbour. There are clusters of anoraked visitors on the quayside. During a break in the rain they stare down at the few wooden vessels moored in the Old Harbour. The perfect lines of a Herring Fyvie and a Herring Zulu. Each of these boats is maintained with love, care and volunteers. These ships, these machines, were part of the fleet that captured in its nets the gargantuan harvest of North Sea Herring. The tools that created silver scaly mountains on docksides, mighty piles of barrels of pickled fish, and substantial profits for the owners of the Zulus in the years of the Herring Boom before the 1st World War. People have fished these offshore North Sea waters for over a thousand years, and for all but the last century and a half they used the power of the wind. The wind in flax or cotton lug sails.

A Zulu fishing boat registered to the port of Banff – c. 1904

Far out at the very horizon are the pale grey lines of offshore turbines, the rhythmic pillars of Moray East wind farm. Up and running since 2022, it’s the second largest offshore wind farm in the world, and also owned by Ocean Winds. But who is this company that owns the tools that reap the harvest of the wind across the sea?

This symbol of the new post-fossil fuel world is owned by the capital behind the existing oil & gas world. Ocean Winds is owned by EDP Renewables, which is itself owned by EDP (the Portuguese oil & gas corporation, Energias de Portugal), who are in turn owned by the China Three Gorges Corp, BlackRock Inc, Oppidum Capital SL, Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, Amundi Asset Management, Norges Bank, Qatar Investment Authority, Sonatrach, and ‘remaining shareholders’. BlackRock is one of the world’s largest investment companies that holds – among other things – the biggest single shareholding in BP and is constantly criticised for its investment in fossil fuels. Here too is Sonatrach, the Algerian state oil & gas company.

This is a pattern we see again and again in the infrastructure being constructed around Britain and elsewhere across the globe. Infrastructure that is intended to address climate chaos – witness the Viking onshore wind farm in Shetland and the planned HyNet Carbon Capture scheme in Liverpool Bay.

The turbines that generate profit for these shareholders must stand somewhere, but the electricity is worthless unless a cable can connect the wind farm to the National Grid. Who owns the seabed that the turbines stand upon? Who owns the farmland that the cable crosses once it reaches the shore? Neither of these things is revealed in the community exhibition.

The seabed belongs to King Charles III, or rather the Crown Estates, which accrues rental income from the lease of the rights over the seabed to Ocean Winds for the duration of the project. (The British monarch is reportedly the 6th largest landowner on Earth, so this is but a fraction of his portfolio.)

And the land through which the onshore cable runs? From Broad Craig on the rocky coast to Blackhillock substation twenty miles away to the south, approximately half the cable trench is excavated across the Seafield Estate, belonging to the 13th Earl of Seafield, Ian Ogilvy-Grant. This vital energy vein is planned to pass under the fields of Winter Barley and Spring Barley grown on undulating land, foodstuffs for malting and whiskey distilleries.

So this system that harvests the wind generates profit for international corporations and revenue for the British monarchy and the Scottish Aristocracy. These institutions are almost inherently undemocratic and a long way from being held accountable by the people in the communities through which these structures pass. For all the benefits that the community consultation team tries to persuade the visitors of  there is no attempt to explore the political realities of the project, to lay clear the differentials of power and control. As the experience of Shetlanders battling the Viking Wind Farm show, these differentials can have huge impacts on the lives of those living in the communities close projects such as the Moray West scheme.

Beyond the question of democratic control, is it fair that the profits from this system funnel back to the Crown, the Earl of Seafield or corporations based in China, USA, Algeria, Qatar and elsewhere? The profits generated from the household bills of millions of struggling families will be funnelled, through this scheme, into the hands of the already rich and powerful. This may be low-carbon energy, but where is the justice in this system to which we are transitioning with startling haste?

Wind belongs to everyone and no-one. But the private ownership of energy systems places this common resource in the hands of those who have profited from the enclosure of the commons for centuries.

We need to make a sudden jump out of fossil fuels and into renewables in order to address climate chaos, and yet currently this leap is subservient to the short-term desire for profit by those who presently hold this resource. If the systems of wind energy were in public ownership – if not the land that they are built upon – how would that alter the development of this renewable power?

Report published by the TUC on 24th September 2022

Now, after many years of planning and dreaming, the possibility of a publicly owned renewable energy company in the UK is coming into view. The TUC published a report authored by Mika Minio-Paluello and Anna Markova, entitled ‘Public ownership of clean power: lower bills, climate action, decent jobs’. It pointed out that:

‘If the UK today had a public energy champion similar to EDF in France, EnBW in Baden- Württemberg (Germany), or Vattenfall in Sweden, a significant portion of the excess profits taken by privatised electricity generators due to soaring wholesale prices would be coming instead to the government. Government would be able to use these revenues – equivalent to £2,250-£4,400 per UK household – to reduce bills or accelerate home insulation roll-out.’

In short, if the turbines of Moray West were owned and operated by a public energy company, such as those institutions in other European countries, then the profit of the sale of electricity from the wind farm would flow into public coffers. Could such a proposal become a reality here?

Three days later, in his Leader’s Speech to the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool, Kier Starmer announced:

“We will set up Great British Energy in the first year of a Labour government… A new company that takes advantage of opportunities in clean British power”….publicly owned because this makes most sense for jobs, growth and “energy independence from tyrants like Putin”.

Kier Starmer MP, Leader of the Labour Party, announcing the idea of Great British Energy at the Labour Conference, 27th September 2022

There is a huge amount that is unclear in this statement – positive though it is. (And it has been hailed as a win by key groups such as We Own It). The devil will be in the detail with Great British Energy.

Will it have the power and capital to finance the construction of renewables projects that are 100% publicly owned?

Will it be able to demand that it has an equity stake – say 10% or 25% – in any project that is privately financed?

Will it nationalise all the wind farms that are already operating or are under construction – such as Moray West?

Will it have the power and capital to do so?

What of the transmission lines, those cables that are set to run from Moray West to Blackhillock substation?

And what of the National Grid that carries the electricity from substations such as these away across Britain?

All of these things are to be struggled over, but at least the Labour commitment opens up the possibility to debate them in real concrete terms.

Such struggles are not new. There was a similar series of battles over the British National Oil Corporation in the early days of UK North Sea Oil. As we detail in our book, Crude Britannia, this bold experiment in public ownership of that offshore resource was established in 1975, but after 1982 it was steadily privatised by the Thatcher government. Until it was entirely sold off to BP in 1988. We are in the opening years of a similar struggle over offshore wind. It will no doubt be a hard fight, but there is a world to win, in places such as the Moray Firth, Portsoy, Buckie, and the farmland of Aberdeenshire.

A world in which The People will Possess the Wind.




Thanks to Jane Trowell, Annie Brooker, Terry Macalister and Emma Hughes.

And thanks to Mika Minio-Paluello and Anna Markova for their work in the TUC – continuing to inspire Platform as they have done for nearly two decades.


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