24th May 2018
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Sounding off: Wreaking havoc on cherished hillsides with repulsive wind(power) of money

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Viking Energy is an apt name, says IAN TAIT, considering the energetic Vikings were a race famously unbothered by other people’s opinions, and who rode roughshod over all that they found. But the strategy better resembles that of Shet-land’s lairds, he contends.

In the 19th century the community had no input in how the environment around them was shaped; their masters did as they pleased. Today we have a similar scenario, facing an irresistible force that will affect our islands forever, with seemingly little we can do.

Actually, I’ve more respect for those landlords, because they made no pretence at dialogue with their tenants, whereas Viking Energy hold great store by the “consultation” that has taken place.

I went to the company’s roadshow that went around to convince us that the windfarm is good for us and I learned two important things.

Firstly, these roadshows, the last stage before going to the Scottish Executive for consideration, are just a sham. When asked what now could halt this monstrous develop­ment, the spokesman admitted that it was only refusal of planning permission at the highest level, or the technical impossibility of the cable being laid. In other words, nothing we think counts for anything.

The second point highlighted is what Viking Energy mean by the “community”when they proclaim that heaps of money are coming back that way. It turns out that when they refer to the “community” they mean the private energy company.

A different story is told, depend­ing on the context. Sometimes the windfarm is a private company with a Shetland-owned constituent. Alter­natively, the “community” are in charge of the money, and it’s not a profit-minded big business at all.

But the charities regulator is told that Shetland Charitable Trust (which bankrolls the project) is an independent organ, not part of the county, so best to distance the council’s stake; it is private after all. But the charitable trust comprises virtually councillors only, so anyone can see it is the council’s windfarm stake. So, the windfarm isn’t the council’s, but is, but it isn’t, but… Anyone can see though the company’s data manipulation, as indicated by Richard Rowland (Readers’ Views, 27th March). The deception started when Viking Energy pronounced that “two thirds of local residents do favour a wind­farm” (Windylights 1). This illusion was dropped in 2007, when they declared that there was a 50 per cent favourable outlook towards their windfarm.

However, this jiggery-pokery deri­­ved from questionnaire feed­back. How many responded? Only 750 – which means fewer than two per cent of Shetlanders favour it, nothing more. To imply anything else is fantasy (at best). Viking Energy misuse statistics as if they were running a Liberian election. It isn’t a ringing endorsement.

Viking Energy promised a de­tailed model of central Shetland, so people could get a true idea of the impact on the landscape. The centre­piece of the roadshows was a giant model purporting to do this. It depicts the whole of Shetland, so that areas distant from the sites are included, and the turbines’ impact is minimal; try making your own by sticking 100 matchsticks in the Gilbertson Park, and view your wind­farm from the Burgh Road.

We won’t be looking at Shetland from a satellite, having a viewpoint nearer the ground, so where’s the model? One director/councillor lamely offered, in the manner of a Lerwick shopkeeper: “The model’s on the boat.” Hmm… Viking Energy have a homely attachment about how “there’s noth­ing new about windpower in Shet­land” (Windylights 1). This specious comparison has little validity, as if comparing a wheelbarrow to an articulated lorry.

The contraptions used in the 1930s were small, bought with private savings, were for crofters’ own use, and there were no profits pocketed by power companies. The machines just needed a pole and wires, and now that they are obsolete, there’s no evidence left to show they were ever there. Compare that to the stupendous windfarm. No, windpower isn’t new in Shet­land, but monumental capitalistic greed on the scale of the Viking windfarm is something entirely new.

Heritage in the way of progress

One can walk over Shetland’s hills and see areas unspoilt for millennia. You’ll find history and wildlife that has existed in peace for 10,000 years. Moorlands destitute of people later became homes for Stone Age farmers, then were abandoned as the peat advanced.

Our own ancestors pastured their livestock, and nowadays these land­scapes are the resort of birds, sheep, anglers, hikers. The disdain that Viking Energy shows for our herit­age is contemptible. “To industrialise this area and to site an enormous quarry… is a hideous affront to nature and a crime against all wildlife” (Robert Sandison, Readers’ Views, 10th April).

I’m a keen hillwalker, and last year’s perambulations included a ramble through the Aithsting/Weis­dale border area. It’s an enchanting place; miles of unspoilt land, without even a fencepost in sight.

From Skalli Field, over Maa Water towards Tumblin, and with panoramas down to Kergord, away to Noss or across to Foula, it’s a refreshing scene. Go and look for yourself.

At a sweep, this would be dese­crated forever by Viking Energy’s appalling project. Take note – the evidence shall not last just for the lifetime of the windmills until they are taken away. The megalomaniac scheme shall be there for thousands of years, because if a hut can be found 5,000 years later, how long will hundreds of thousands of tonnes of concrete foundations last? Ten thousand years? More? The com­pany’s position that it will safeguard and enhance the Shetland environ­ment is pathetic and insincere.

To rub our noses in it, the coun­cil’s own policies count for nothing if it is dazzled by the lure of money. The Shetland Cultural Strategy (2009) professed care for the land­scape, and our convener declared that they want “an environment which is conserved and enhanced”, which evidently meant turning it into the biggest industrial site in Shetland’s history.

The Policy Guidance: Domestic & Community Aerogenerators and Solar Energy (2004) stipulates development which “does not have an unacceptable impact on the character and appearance of the landscape” and “does not have a demonstrable adverse effect upon local residents or occupiers of neigh­bouring land by reason of visual impact…” Which means you can’t have a huge turbine in your garden, but Viking Energy can have 154 of the vastest ones in Britain.

Most contentious is the effect the windfarm would make on our scen­ery, as the turbines skulk on the skyline over a 20-mile radius. From Whalsay you’d get a grandstand view of what Viking Energy has in mind for Nesting – a landscape dominated by around 70 of these giants. And that’s not even half of them Shetland has a beauty all it’s own, and tourists from built-up areas can enjoy miles of unspoilt hills, and take in rolling skylines unadulterated by pylons and the like.

What is it about Shetland’s scenery that makes Viking Energy despise it so much? They refuse to show us the true impact in their presentations; simulations show the windfarm in the distance or on misty days, but we’re never allowed to see pictures that gauge relative size.

Saving nature from itself

Viking Energy’s most cynical ploy is “help” promised to the environment. Having carved up the hillside with 60 miles of roads, excavated mountains of heather and peat, poured vast amounts of con­crete, and erected the colossal tur­bines it doesn’t stop there. The company is to “improve” the moor­lands because they are in “bad condition”.

Do they think we credulous fools will believe this drivel? In what way are the hills in “bad condition”? They will be in a hell of a lot of worse condition if they build this operation. Our hills are what they are, and if they’ve eroded by natural forces or overgrazing, that certainly doesn’t mean tinkering around digging holes for diving birds can alter things. How in name of sanity can “rehydrating the peat” make good for the industrialisation of our hills?

One of the best things about Shetland is that tourists can enjoy scenery that isn’t over-interpreted. You won’t find a clutter of paths and instructions to “step this way”. Accept the environment for what it is, and have the pleasure of dis­covering things for yourself, map in hand.

Viking Energy proposes to develop our hills into visitor routes. Do we cherish moorlands by cajol­ing visitors up all the roads that they will hack through, then offer sign­age, trails, and carparks? What gives them the right to act in this unilateral fashion?

At the roadshow I said this imposed an artificiality on the very environment that visitors want to see. That was brushed aside, because it would open up “accessibility”. Don’t these jokers realise that there have always been, and always will be, areas that are less accessible, depending on people’s varying ability. Otherwise, let’s crack on and get a road to the top of Ronas Hill and a chairlift up the Kame of Foula.

What’s wrong with the proposal?

Viking Energy have turned considerable goodwill that exists towards windpower into implacable opposition. Everybody knows that renewable energy is a good idea, we’re encouraged to recycle, there’s a waste-to-energy plant, and in several places there are wind generators already.

Shetlanders, native and adopted, love their islands and can see through this simplistic propaganda assault that says we’ll benefit from untold riches, and we’ll save the environment.

Very many Shetland Times read­ers’ letters bitterly opposing the wind­farm include heartfelt support for the principle of wind power. Viking Energy’s colossal scheme, inspired by political agendas and driven by the prospect of big money, is utterly disproportionate for the size of Shetland, and shall defile our environment for many, many, centuries.

Most of us wouldn’t mind reasonably-sized wind generators dotted over the hills, serving the needs of nearby communities. Why can’t the council spend cash ethically by subsidising community wind schemes, rather than getting into bed with big business, for the benefit of central belt power users?

Viking Energy pleads for us to support its windfarm, because we all care about the environment; to oppose their scheme is to disregard nature itself. This hypocrisy is gut-churning. How exactly can opening nine quarries, eight site accesses, building 62 miles of roads, a colossal sub-station, and 154 turbines, improve our moorlands?

Out of all proportion

The enormity of the scheme is what repulses most people. It would provide 20 per cent of the domestic power for the whole of Scotland. Yet what is the size of Shetland in comparison? We are less than two per cent of the area of Scotland, and have less than half a per cent of its population, yet Viking Energy is hell-bent on producing 20 per cent of Scottish power requirement.

They trumpet that their windfarm shall be one of the most productive on the planet. To say their scheme is disproportionate is putting it very mildly. The SIC is smitten with gigantomania, and our leaders get besotted with big projects that pay no heed to the size of Shetland.

We had the epic fight for a bridge to Bressay, controversial plans for “super ferries” on Yell Sound, and now one of biggest windfarms on the planet. Having thrown away any sense of proportion, finally “we want Shetland to be the most exciting creative and cultural island community in the world” (Sandy Cluness, Shetland Cultural Strategy, 2009).

No alternatives?

The justification for this project is alternative sources of energy to fossil fuels. Everyone knows such things will run out, and everyone other than so-called “climate change deniers” realise that burning these resources in increasing quantity harms the atmosphere.

But the issue isn’t straightforward, and big fixes in Britain won’t scratch the surface, especially when the worst offenders are developing economies. Everyone should waste less, recycle more, use less energy, and renewables are another part of the mix.

The windfarm is the antithesis of this approach. From the outset Viking Energy realised islanders would be repulsed by this gargantuan scheme, so it was necessary to assemble a bleak picture, to brain­wash us into accepting it.

The daftest thing was in Windy­lights 1, where Viking Energy worried about carbon levels in Aith and Walls. Will these monstrosities make any odds in these places, will “lums reek” any the less? Any Shetland windfarm won’t stop true villains like the Americans or Chinese from destroying our ozone layer at a terrifying rate, and, of course, we fuel these economies by our own greed for consumer goods. Viking Energy’s scheme might be big, but its not clever.

Viking Energy’s bombast is shown in the boast that the windfarm is the “biggest community energy project anywhere in the world” (Windylights 1). Considering Shet­land’s size, and distance from the rest of Britain, what rational person would think of building this colossus in such a small place?

Who is this enthusiast? Robert Smith, chairman of Scottish & South­ern Energy, that’s who. We have an endorsement from Jason Ormiston, from Scottish Renew­ables. Who might they be? They are a trade organisation representing their interests of the renewable energy industry. Money talks.

Lucre is at the back of all this, and whenever that is the imperative, issues like aesthetics, heritage, and nature all go by the board. Like Oscar Wilde’s cynic, Viking Energy knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

We know what’s good for you

The company says it has responded to concerns in many ways, like reducing the ground area of each turbine (Windylights 2). That was easy to do, whereas they are silent on the main objections; the huge height, the vast number of turbines, the scale of the project, and the inequitable principle of it.

It was breezily stated in Windy­lights 1 that Viking Energy expected “spirited debate . . . giving all sides the chance to air their views”. We’ve seen they aren’t obliged to take account of such views.

One of the most transparent tac­tics was to propose a vaster scheme of 192 windmills than they actually required, to allow a paper conces­sion. This, they blared, was to take into account public concerns about specific sites. Whoever went into a negotiation with their minimum position on offer? Anyone can see through such dissimulation.

Shetlanders don’t speak out much. Those who do are predomin­antly against this abominable scheme, so who are the constituency that Viking Energy claims support from?

We’re supposed to be impressed that there’s £2,000,000 of “direct community benefit payments” plan­ned, but nobody could tell me what these benefits would be; it was up to the council.

If this isn’t a council project, why is our money in it? I can see why some might not say much, because certain crofters shall reap plenty of money for the privilege of having turbines on the hills. Why should we subsidise them in perpetuity in such an inequitable fashion?

Nobody expected free electricity. That isn’t the objection most people have. It is fundamentally unjust to site a gigantic windfarm in Shetland to serve the demands of central Scotland, so that money comes into the local economy – loot to be disbursed as the council sees fit.

This isn’t genuinely community-based, and does nothing to raise environmental issues in the mind of Shetlanders. A fairer use of tax­payers’ money would be to offer grants to community schemes for technologies like sympathetically-scaled wind turbines in the way that some local halls already do. Why don’t we hear anything about that? No profit in it, perhaps?

There’s an evangelical zeal about Viking Energy’s propaganda com­mit­ment to the environment and sustainable energy, but this emotive claptrap implies opponents to the windfarm deny all this. Far from it – Viking doesn’t have the monopoly on “care” for the environment, which is a damn good job, con­sidering what they propose to do to it.

Taking a stand

It appears there’s nothing we can do to stop this desecration. Viking Energy bamboozles us with statistics so that we feel there’s no point in objecting anyway. Will it end up happening because Shet­landers are “moothless”? Must we become victims of political expediency?

Our own council’s planning department has to be side-stepped, and the project is to get fast-tracked to the Scottish Executive where, with present Scottish Nationalist thinking, there is enthusiasm for big windfarms.

They have had setbacks with other projects because of objections, so there is a greater likelihood the Shetland one will get the nod. Often, like in the Scottish borders, local planning officials have rejected schemes, only to be overturned by the Executive. It’s a good job we’re “moothless”, so we can be sacrificed to the urban imperative.

Viking Energy declares this is the “right project at the right time, politically” (Windylights 1), i.e. this monstrous project is driven by politics and money, whereas there’s no need to wait until further tech­nological advancement such as tidal power, or even smaller wind turbines.

What can be done to stop this? Are we moving inexorably towards the biggest blemish ever on our land­scape because we can’t do anything about it?

Some communities have fought and won. On a small scale, a windfarm in Skye with 28 turbines was reduced because of concerns by both council and community. No such solidarity here, given our council’s lack of impartiality.

To quote Allen Fraser (Readers’ Views, 27th March): “Councillors and our politicians are taking every­thing Viking Energy says at face value”.

Take heart from the Hebrides, where the council favoured an enormous windfarm in Lewis with 234 turbines and 88 miles of road. Although they reduced the turbines to 181, the scheme still attracted 11,000 objections and concerns from the RSPB. Sound familiar? The project was binned, much to the council’s disgust.

So we might have our only chance. Rest assured there will be objections when/if permission is granted for the Viking scheme, and then we can fight.

If we are to topple this megalo­maniac scheme we must oppose, and here is Viking Energy’s Achilles heel: seemingly the number of turbines can’t be reduced any fur­ther, or the scheme will be non-viable. When the time comes we must file our objections. Note, if you’ve signed the petition already that doesn’t count – we’ve got to object directly.

Moothless Shetlanders, make yourself heard!

  • The project has devoured £1,700,000 of public money, is two years behind schedule, and has now hired a marketing company to peddle their gospel.

It is impossible to squeeze the truth out of Viking Energy’s pub­licity machine, but you will find some independent views here:

These people build windfarms. Viking Energy’s turbines are much, much, larger: www.building.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=3110650

Impact on the ecology. More here than “rehydrating the pea”: www.jmt.org/assets/pdf/policy/wind%20turbines%20on%20upland%20areas.pdf

Sustainable Shetland campaign: www.sustainableshetland.org/

Dr Tait belongs to Delting. His field of study is Shetland’s traditional rural way of life, and he has traversed many of our hills through his research on vernacular buildings. A fuller version of this article shall appear in New Shetlander 248.