By LOUISE THOMASON
THE FUTURE of renewable energy in Shetland received a major boost this week as Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond announced a major study to explore a grid of cables across the North Sea.
It came as Viking Energy, the company behind the proposed windfarm for the north central Mainland, claimed that a draft socio-economic impact assessment report suggested that as many as 230 jobs a year could be created by the project.
The new North Sea study follows preliminary work undertaken by the Scottish goverment, and although clearly a grid is some way off such a development would strengthen the case for a suggested £4.8 billion undersea power cable between Shetland and England.
Experts say a grid would be technically difficult, but given tough new targets for renewable generation may be necessary to harness wind, wave and tidal power from remote locations where such energy is abundant.
The development was greeted positively by Viking Energy. While the plans do not affect the windfarm project directly, Viking’s Aaron Priest said the study “provides further encouragement in a strategic, long term sense”.
The socio-economic impact assessment report, by AB Associates and engineering consultants Avayl, predicts that during the construction phase of the windfarm, the islands could see a population increase of around 350, after which time “2,000 job years could be generated during the development’s 25 year lifecycle”.
It is estimated that among the jobs created, for every 15 of the 154 turbines around three engineers will be required, as well as maintenance, infrastructure, management and administration.
Outwith direct employment in the windfarm itself, education and employment prospects throughout Shetland could also benefit, as further education is developed to equip local people with skills for the new jobs.
Viking’s David Thomson said: “Demographic statistics predict Shetland’s 18 to 64 year olds will drop by 19 per cent by 2024. One of our core visions is that the windfarm will help reverse this worrying population decline by giving young people a reason to stay in the islands.”
An example of this is an apprenticeship-based HND course in mechanical and electrical engineering which could be developed at the NAFC. Mr Thomson said: “We have started talking to schools and colleges about establishing courses to equip people with the skills we will require, which range from engineering to administrative posts.”
The uncertain future of the oil industry and Shetland’s dwindling cash reserves have been among the most important arguments for the building of the windfarm. In light of this, Shetland chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses James Smith said that the positive impact on job prospects and the island’s population was an encouraging aspect of the renewable energy project.
“The industry is still young and I can envisage the day when the number of young Shetlanders working in the offshore oil industry is exceeded by the number working at the forefront of technology in the renewable energy sector.”
However, Viking refused to reveal the draft report in full.
Sustainable Shetland chairman Billy Fox said that due to this, the report “appears to be yet another premature bout of speculation by Viking Energy”.
“Until we see the report we have no idea how these jobs may relate to losses in other sectors that this project may be detrimental to, for example tourism and quite possibly aquaculture. In socio-economic terms there are also questions relating to health issues, quality of life and possible effect on property values,” he said.
Mr Thomson said: “Our priority is letting people know what is going on. These kinds of details can get lost – the full report will cover many more issues – and we are confident about what has been covered so far and wanted to talk about this.”
Mr Fox said Viking should be concentrating on getting its planning application together. “This is where Viking Energy should be concentrating their efforts. Whether or not permission will be granted is still very much open to debate on environmental and other grounds. Until the environmental impact assessment is published, bodies such as Scottish Natural Heritage, Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, etc, will not officially enter into the debate. We now need to get to this stage.”
Viking Energy representatives this week travelled to Edinburgh to present the details of the proposed windfarm to MSPs. Mr Thompson said: “It was a chance to introduce the project to a range of MSPs, including those who have a remit and responsibility towards energy, and also an opportunity for them to ask questions about it. I feel it went well, they were clearly interested in the project. We would like to thank Tavish Scott for arranging the meeting.”