23rd April 2018
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Sounding Off: A plea for perspective on Shetland’s renewable options

J. Laughton Johnston argues that we must look again at the Viking Energy windfarm proposal. There are, he says, many benefits, for the island and for the planet.

It seems that many objections raised against a wind farm in Shetland seek to project only a narrow and exaggerated view of things. I despair that the opportunities to benefit Shetland and the world in the face of climate change may be lost through a lack of perspective.

First, there are those who deny that climate change is related to the increased carbon content of the atmosphere, or who believe that it is all a conspiracy, or who confuse day to day weather changes with long-term climate change. So who are we lay-people to believe, the British Royal Society, the American Academy of Sciences, the French Académies des Sciences and almost every other national scientific body, or do we believe the handful of deniers? When, ever, have all these international bodies agreed on something so significant? Common sense tells us whom to believe.

We seem to be suffering from a shocking apathy, or are being willfully ignorant, as to the consequences of climate change. It will perhaps not dramatically affect the lives of those who are now adults in Shetland, but it will affect the lives of our children and it will change the lives of our grandchildren and their grandchildren; never mind the catastrophic effects it is already having on other human populations in more vulnerable situations. We must take a long term and worldwide perspective.

Everyone recognizes the potential for renewable energy in Shetland. There is so much wind here that it is still more practical to send the energy produced long distances, rather than try and produce it much less efficiently where it is most needed.

Yes, wind generators have an impact on the landscape, though some of us do not find that a problem. They will not be all over Shetland, will not be seen from all over Shetland and will not be forever. They are gigantic but we should ensure that they are a reasonable distance from any house. I suspect that seen from a township, they will not be so much larger than those recently erected right next to us at community halls. Would the same people object if someone proposed erecting 100 buildings at least five times the height of any existing building, on all of Shetland’s most prominent points? That’s what happened 2000 years ago, and the buildings were around for hundreds of years. The wind farm is planned for 25 years; let’s keep it in perspective.

But is a visual objection really defendable in the face of the impact of climate change? Which one of us would be willing to face a displaced community in Bangladesh or from a submerged atoll and say to them “sorry, can’t help, they would spoil our view”.

There is an argument that a windfarm will destroy the Shetland landscape. Where have all these strong opinions been, particularly for the last half century? Driven by agricultural policies, the once diverse and attractive inby has been transformed into a monotonous grassland. At the same time, the lower heather hills are also similarly being greened. Objectors say that there will be roads all over the hills where they have never been before. But that is happening anyway; to mention but a prominent few: to Uyea, Fethaland, the Hams on Muckle Roe. Objectors say there will be quarries everywhere. Well they already are everywhere. In other words, Shetland’s landscape has already been modified, some would say damaged, irrevocably; the windfarm is planned for only a third of a lifetime.

Objectors say that a windfarm will disturb and destroy too much peat. No one can refute my suggestion that there already is more erosion of Shetland’s peatland that will ever be disturbed by a windfarm. Everywhere possible, the windfarm roads will be floated over the peat or it will be re-buried. Then there will be national bodies, such as SEPA, closely examining every step of construction on our behalf. There is even a proposal to use funds generated by the windfarm to address “natural” peat erosion, to reduce Shetland’s present carbon contribution to the atmosphere. Objectors fastened on to Viking Energy’s very worst payback scenario when in fact the payback time will probably be under ten years. If peat is such a problem, where are the passionate objectors to the proposed huge excavation of peat at Sullom? If we ensure that preparation work is done properly, the problems of peat can be overcome and mitigated elsewhere.

Mitigation is also a possibility for birdlife of the peatlands. There is an exaggerated fear of bird deaths. Yes, there will be bird deaths. But again, let us see this in perspective. How many birds are killed annually in Shetland by power and telegraphic wires, never mind cats? And what are the prospects for Shetland’s birdlife if we do nothing about climate change? The evidence so far is that they are pretty grim.

Forty years ago there was much opposition to the oil port of Sullom, when I too had concerns about its possible direct impact on the environment. My concerns were mostly for Shetland’s seabirds and I have to say that my fears proved groundless. Sullom has become an example to the world of just how well such a port can be run. This was going to be a private venture of Edinburgh capital and the oil companies, from which Shetland would have gained very little, but a few farsighted individuals ensured that our council took some control and contrived a partnership that has benefitted Shetland enormously. Shetland is now the envy of every other council in Britain. People are coming to settle here because of the high standard of living. Prior to the Sullom development Shetland’s population was at its nadir and the young were having to leave to make a living, we must not let that happen to our children and grandchildren.

There were also fears that Sullom would be a deterrent to tourists. On the contrary, tourism numbers have increased and fish and mussel farms thrive in Shetland’s clean waters. There is no reason therefore why a Shetland of renewable energy could not be a positively attractive feature.

The idea that Shetland should plan for just enough renewable energy for itself is not just morally wrong, it is impracticable if we want to be green. Wind power, as we all know, cannot be relied upon to be continuous, there needs to be a back-up and it cannot just be wave or tide (the latter switches off twice a day). If there is no connector to Shetland, in the long term, we will have to maintain our use of imported oil or gas as a back-up, that is, just as long as it is available and we can afford it. That is not very “sustainable”. A connector on the other hand, when it is not being used for export, could provide us with renewable energy from elsewhere when we need it. And so we come to catch 22: no one will just give us a connector, there is a price and that is a windfarm. But there is also a prize and that is the finance from which we and future Shetland generations can benefit.

There are those who query why we should pay the (environmental) price for the much greater consumption of energy elsewhere in Britain. More than a decade ago, the population of many of Shetland’s seabirds began to decline. Today, I can see that I was naïve in my belief that Sullom was having a minimal environmental impact. It was, and is, just a part of the world carbon economy and is just as responsible for the decline of Shetland’s seabirds and the much greater environmental and human catastrophes across the world as is each one of us. We, in Shetland, have profited more than almost any other area of Britain from the forty year exploitation of oil, and the import of subsidies for very much longer.
It is a strange irony, then, that when along comes an opportunity to repay that, both to the wider society and to the environment, we make it out to be a threat. On the contrary, a windfarm is an opportunity and we must keep a proper perspective on the negative impacts and on the far longer and greater, positive benefits.

J. Laughton Johnston