THE wild Atlantic sound that divides the Hebridean islands of Harris and North Uist may be bridged for the first time by a £30m structure that harnesses the power of the waves to produce electricity.
The revolutionary project is to be considered by the Western Isles Council as part of its plans to turn the Outer Hebrides into a renewable energy powerhouse. A series of tidal or wave-power generators would be linked to form a platform for a bridge across the four-mile Sound of Harris. Not only would it provide a road link from the northern tip of Lewis to the most southerly point of the Uists, more than 130 miles away, it would also pay for itself from the energy it provides.
The council will be asked by officials to approve funds for a feasibility study in December. If the project goes ahead it will provide a blueprint for other islands off the Scottish coast which want to be joined to their neighbours but lack the funds to finance a fixed link.
Councillor Donald Manford, chairman of the council’s transportation committee, said: "If we want this to happen then we have to start planning now.
"Every causeway that has ever been built to bring our islands closer together came about because someone had the vision to do it. We have to have the same vision now. We also want to promote the development of renewable energy and we will look at whether the bridge can incorporate either the tidal or wave-power technology that is currently under development. Our hope is that in this way it will eventually pay for itself."
The Sound of Harris is one of only two stretches of water still dividing the inhabited islands of the 135-mile-long Outer Hebridean chain.
Although a successful council-run ferry service crosses the sound, it adds at least an hour to the journey between North Uist and Harris, and it will eventually need a multi-million-pound replacement.
Council engineers are convinced that a better long-term solution would be to bridge the sound, which is a relatively-shallow body of water, from a point on Harris across to Berneray, an island already linked to North Uist by a causeway.
Murdo Murray, director of technical services, said the next logical step would be to build the road link, with room for ships to navigate beneath, over a network of renewable energy power stations.
"This is a real opportunity to not only benefit the economy of the islands by linking them up, but also to provide renewable power," Murray said. "We will be looking at whether we can support the bridge on a series of wave-power stations and build a road across the top of it."
The project is likely to be viewed favourably by the Scottish Executive, which has set an ambitious electricity generation target for renewable energy of 18% by 2010 and 40% by 2020. Power companies are currently planning an underwater cable to transport power produced in the Outer Hebrides back to the mainland from a number of planned wind-power schemes.
The Scottish Renewables Forum, which represents companies working in the industry, said the proposal demonstrated the value of renewable energy to remote communities.
"The council is to be commended for such a forward-thinking proposal that will help cut carbon dioxide emissions, create jobs and provide an important link between the islands," a spokesman said.
If Harris and North Uist are linked, the only remaining island not connected by road to the Hebridean chain will be Barra.