How a windfarm of 154 turbines each as tall as the Great Pyramid has divided community and provoked bitter debate over future of the isles
By PAUL RIDDELL
THERE will be 154 of them, each as tall as the Great Pyramid, stretching across the north central Mainland, a colossal man-made forest of white steel designed to harvest Shetland’s most evident natural resource to make money for the community.
That, in essence, is the windfarm scheme Viking Energy, the joint partnership formed between Shetland Islands Council and Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE), hopes Scottish ministers will approve when they receive a planning application either late this year or early next year.
Yet the proposed windfarm, which may come to dominate the physical landscape of Aithsting, Sandsting, Delting, Lunnasting, Nesting and Weisdale, is already dominating the psychological horizons of hundreds of Shetlanders, whether they are in favour or against.
True and deep divisions are rare in society, and when they do exist it is seldom for long, but the windfarm plan has created a palpable fissure in this small community, with entrenched positions, wild conspiracy theories and wilful misunderstandings often more prominent than rational, reasoned debate. Windfarms are controversial around the world; nowhere more so however, it seems, than in Shetland.
For the next three weeks The Shetland Times will examine the major issues involved including global warming; the political machinations; renewable energy targets; the drying up of Shetland’s oil funds and questions over the isles’ economic future; the impact of windfarms on the environment and human health; the nature of the potential benefits to the community; and how the project is affecting local democracy. The following gives a broad outline. Next week and on October 17th the issues will be addressed in detail.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the international group of scientists who monitor climate change, warned in their fourth assessment report last February that unless drastic action was taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the global temperature will rise by an average of between 1.8C and 4C (3.2-7.2F), and perhaps by as much as 6.4C (11.5F).
As a consequence, sea levels are likely to rise by 28-43 centimetres (11-17 inches), swamping low-lying islands, cities and coastlines. Ice will probably disappear over the Arctic in summer by the second half of the century and there will be many more heatwaves and tropical storms.
All this, the scientists said, was caused primarily by human activity. From the industrial revolution until the present day the concentration of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, has risen inexorably to over 400 parts per million. The concentration of methane, less abundant but a much more effective greenhouse gas, is also rising.
The scientific consensus – there are mavericks who refuse to believe the planet is heating up, but their numbers get fewer – is now broadly accepted by political elites around the world, with even both US presidential candidates accepting the science and pledging to act.
In Scotland the response to global warming has so far had a very narrow focus. Most greenhouse gas emissions come from energy provision in the form of transport, heating and electricity. Electricity accounts for 20 per cent of the energy “mix”, with heating responsible for the largest chunk – 53 per cent – and transport for the remaining 27 per cent.
Efforts are being made to introduce better insulation for houses, but the principal aim of the Scottish executive, and now government, has been to generate 31 per cent of all electricity from renewable sources such as hydro, wind, wave and tidal, by 2011 and 50 per cent by 2020.
Last year the European Union agreed a target of 20 per cent of all energy to come from renewable sources by 20 per cent, a much more ambitious target which is already forcing governments to think more about reducing the impact from the heating and transport sectors.
The British and Scottish governments have encouraged private firms to establish renewable energy projects to be connected to the national grid or local grids through subsidies in the form of Renewables Obligation Certificates (ROCs). Thus, windfarms have sprouted up all over the country. The scheme at Burradale, which produces electricity for the local grid, is an obvious example. It is regarded as the most efficient in Britain, Shetland’s notorious winds allowing it to operate for approximately 50 per cent of the time.
The SIC’s rationale for becoming involved is predominantly financial. As the outgoing acting head of the charitable trust, Jeff Goddard, pointed out recently, before the latest round of turmoil on the world’s financial markets, the trust is living beyond its means. Its capital base is being eroded by revenue rather than investment spending.
Similarly, the council’s oil reserves are being depleted; the recent warning from head of finance Graham Johnston that capital spending would have to be cut from around £20 million to at least £15 million a year is a symptom of this.
The SIC should be commended for forward thinking about how to address this issue. The question is whether the windfarm is the right project. A significant second order question concerns the opportunity cost: whether the finance, time and energy devoted to the windfarm, largely to the exclusion of other potential forms of economic development, might have been more wisely deployed.
The scale of the financial commitment is enormous. The 50:50 partnership between the SIC and SSE that is Viking Energy will demand a £50 million investment from the charitable trust and a further £200 million raised through equity and/or bank loans.
Viking Energy project officer David Thomson admits the investment is risky but is adamant that any business venture of the scale of the windfarm carries risks. He says the company’s most conservative calculation of the returns for Shetland amounts to £18 million a year on average after only two years. That, by any measure, is a substantial financial dividend. It would double the trust’s current income.
In addition there will be community benefit payments of around £1 million. It will be up to the trust how to disburse this money, whether through electricity price savings or energy-saving measures.
Mr Thomson also points out that the project would bring 50 jobs, £4 million in wages and spin-off economic activity and an approximate £2.7 million in rents for crofters and landowners.
An oft-stated view is that the 554MW windfarm is a done deal. This is simply not true. Due process must be gone through. Viking Energy is preparing exhaustive documentation on the economic and social, environmental and public health impacts of the windfarm to accompany its planning application, which Mr Thomson says should be ready by the end of this year.
Scottish ministers will then consider the application and rule on it. Business and enterprise minister Jim Mather has been diplomatic in his statements on the subject. Government thinking is pro-renewables, but not at any price. It is likely to be 2010 before any decision is announced.
Two things, however, are clear. Ministers think a diverse range of renewables projects is necessary, including technologies still in their infancy relative to onshore windfarms such as offshore windfarms and wave and tidal power systems, but onshore windfarms will have the biggest share of the renewables cake. And there is no danger of an onshore windfarm “saturation point”. In the absence of new nuclear power stations, which the Scottish government will not countenance, the appetite for construction is a long way from being satiated.
More fundamental than even the planning process, however, is the interconnector cable which would link the windfarm in to the UK national grid. Without that the windfarm will never be built.
Scottish Hydro Electric Tranmission Ltd (SHETL) is responsible for the interconnector, which it is estimated will cost over £500 million and requires approval from the electricity regulator Ofgem. Approval is currently being sought.
Viking Energy has no financial stake in the interconnector – it will be required to pay transmission charges to SHETL. The British government recently indicated that it was not minded to cap these charges, which are much higher for remote electricity producers than those nearer main markets.
The reasoning given, as Mr Thomson points out, is that is not necessary. The government believes projects such as the Viking windfarm will be successful without the cap. Mr Thomson says that what is required is some certainty about what the charging regime will be; if they are too high the project will be unviable. “The estimates are anywhere between good and unacceptable.”
Mother-of-two Linda Bannister, of Gardie, Weisdale, voices a widely-held opinion in Shetland: the windfarm project is far too big for a place this size.
“The general impact on the whole of Shetland is going to be huge,” she says. “A lot of people don’t really realise what is going to happen, and how big it is.”
Articulate and thoughtful, Ms Bannister is no NIMBY type. She says everyone in the Weisdale valley, apart from two landowners, is against the project. She is worried about a number of different aspects of the project, from the finances to the impact on human health.
“On the financial side, I’m not sure if it is going to be that beneficial financially to actually devastate the whole mainland of Shetland. They could be throwing away our entire oil funds on this.
“If it was just the visual impact of having windmills on the hill opposite then I wouldn’t worry about it, but it’s the sound and also the flicker. In the winter the flicker will make no odds, it is just in the summer. And really, we’ve got it good compared to some of the folk near here.
“There are other areas that will be far more affected by the windmills than us. The windmills are going to be far closer to their houses. In Aith, on the north-west side, there is going to be a huge pile of windmills so every morning the light is going to be flickering through their windows – for the whole year. There are health reports that say it is not good for you living close to windmills.”
Instead of the windfarm, Ms Bannister would like to see a much smaller scale hydro-power and windfarm system built together, using the wind power to pump water back up to a high loch.
“They could power the whole of Shetland like that, and then sell it to Scottish and Southern rather than being in partnership with SSE.”
It was the concerns of people like Ms Bannister that prompted Billy Fox last year to establish the Sustainable Shetland group, which opposes the Viking Energy scheme. It now has 337 members.
Mr Fox is an intelligent and reflective man, the very antithesis in character to some who have contributed to the debate.
He resents being portrayed as anti-green for objecting to the windfarm. He just doesn’t believe wind power is the answer – and thinks the Viking scheme may actually end up increasing Shetland’s “carbon footprint”.
“We are most definitely not NIMBY types,” Mr Fox says. “We are pragmatic types who do not oppose wind generation per se. As a group we support renewable projects that are fit for scale, will benefit the community and make a contribution to reducing carbon emissions.
“Schemes such as the wind turbines proposed to link in with the district heating scheme and what is proposed for Foula and Mid Yell are exactly what we would like to see.
“Some of our members have wind turbines next to their houses and have no problem with them. Accusations of NIMBYism are easy to make from PR companies south or from remote corporate headquarters. We oppose this project because we care about our environment and our community well being.”
In particular, he is nowhere near as sanguine as Mr Thomson about the financial benefits.
“The financial modelling is, in our opinion, extremely suspect. Capital costs still being quoted are seriously out of date, both for the windfarm and interconnector. Ofgem and Westminster’s decision not to cap transmission charges also has a huge bearing on the financial model,” Mr Fox says.
“The project may make some money; equally it could be the biggest financial disaster ever to face Shetland. Figures touted as the ‘potential’ return to the community are wishful thinking. Shetland’s investment share of the project is equal to, or even more, than the total funds in the Shetland Charitable Trust. This is a very high risk eggs in one basket gamble with our money.
“There is a strong argument for saying that if we commit to this windfarm, we could be condemning Shetland to a very risky future, where our entire community funds are risked on a single wind farm and access to a single cable to export that power.
“A change in government, or unforeseen economic circumstances, as we have at present, a change in power cable ownership (national grid is a private commercial company, not a government infrastructure provider) and we could be staring financial ruin in the face. Governments for the national good may bail out inept banks; they will not bail out a bankrupt community of just 22,000 people.”
Mr Fox is in no doubt that the majority of people in Shetland are against the Viking Energy project. Whether he is right is perhaps a moot point. Unquestionably, there is substantial opposition. It is perhaps the nature of the division rather than its extent that is the most worrying thing for Shetland.