By NEIL RIDDELL
NEW technology could allow Viking Energy to significantly reduce the number of turbines needed for its highly contentious proposal to build a 150-turbine windfarm in the north central mainland.
David Thomson told trustees at this week’s meeting of Shetland Charitable Trust that, while there were categorically no plans to increase the number of turbines, the possibility of further reducing them remains.
The current proposal is to use 80 metre-high, 3.6 MW capacity turbines but 90 metre, 5 MW turbines are already commercially available and could theoretically allow Viking Energy to reduce the number to around 120 or less.
Viking Energy project manager Aaron Priest said that, for the purposes of the ongoing environmental impact assessment (EIA), the company had to take the largest possible number of turbines as the basis.
But while 3.6 MW turbines are where the capacity of the turbine manufacturing market is focused at the moment, should the planning application be successful the picture could be very different by the time Viking Energy is in the position of actually looking to buy turbines. Mr Priest said: “Time is on our side for where things might develop.”
Meanwhile, during a presentation at Monday’s meeting Mr Thomson pointed out that the hills on which the turbines would be sited are already a net carbon emitter. He said that as part of the EIA required ahead of the submission of a planning application, the issue of peat displacement was being studied in some detail and accepted that “if it’s done badly” the windfarm could have a disastrous impact.
But he claimed that not building the windfarm “would not by default help the hills”, where peat displacement is already occurring. He said the blanket bog was of various degrees of intactness across the hills and that Viking Energy has the potential to do a lot of good to the site.
Mr Thomson said studies so far suggested that more of the peat was in a bad condition than good and Viking Energy was seeking to minimise disturbance by building turbines and access roads on the bad bits wherever possible. “We continue to look at the peat – we do not have all of the answers yet,” he said.
Councillor-trustee Allison Duncan said that because the windfarm was such a “disputed and controversial” project it seemed only fair to stage a Shetland-wide referendum on a 50-50 basis to give a once-and-for-all judgement on the project’s merits. Mr Duncan said: “Surely a project this size, and looking at [building the new] AHS, surely this is too great an issue for 22 councillor-trustees – why not leave it to the Shetland people to decide?”
Billy Fox, of anti-Viking Energy protest group Sustainable Shetland, was observing events in the chamber and described the ecological presentation from Mr Thomson as “quite scant”. He claimed the area had improved “significantly” since the number of sheep grazing on it were reduced. “The hills are rejuvenating at a remarkable rate,” he said.
Trustees were also given a presentation by Stephen Kerr of engineering consultants Avayl, which showed financial and employment projections for the windfarm. It is hoped that the first power of 50 MW will be up and running by 2013, with all 150 turbines turning to generate a capacity of 540 MW by 2016. It is estimated that 255 short term construction jobs will be created in Shetland, with a further 46 direct operational jobs during the lifetime of the windfarm. For the purpose of the planning lease, a lifetime for each turbine of 25 years will be assumed, taking the project through to 2036.
It is also hoped that within five years the windfarm will generate a profit of £36 million, with the charitable trust’s share projected to earn it some £18 million a year for two decades, but it will require an investment in the region of £60 million, as well as raising around £200 million on the markets to match the investment of joint partners Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE).
Trust acting general manager Jeff Goddard’s report to trustees stated that the expected return would be around £5 million a year if they were to invest the £60 million in the world’s markets, much less than they stand to make from investing in the windfarm. “It is these exceptionally high rates of return that makes the project worth investigating in full, in my view,” he wrote. “These returns would be far more than the oil industry ‘disturbance receipts’ of £81 million in total, which was the original funding for the trust, and would give the trustees of the day (perhaps 2016) opportunities to finance new projects.”
But Mr Fox said there were so many permutations – not least the cost of connecting to the national grid via a subsea cable – to the business case that he considered the figures as being akin to “how long is a piece of string”, while he believed 120 turbines would still be far too much for its geographical location. “That’s maybe a mitigating factor but it’s not a huge one,” he added.
He said that while there were areas of “apathy” and “complacency” and parts of the isles where people were in favour of Viking Energy, Sustainable Shetland’s petition against the project was going “really well”. The group – which was formed in March – hopes to make a calculation on the number of people who have signed the petition prior to Christmas, while membership has increased by 40 to 422 since it was launched.