By JIM TAIT
While Viking Energy’s proposed windfarm in the central Mainland has divided the community and generated bitter debate, Shetland’s original commercial wind turbines continue to go from strength to strength.
Shetland Aerogenerators Ltd, whose five windmills on the hill of Burradale above the Brig of Fitch have been churning out power for the past six years, this week reported another set of healthy figures for last year.
While not a record, the 16.3 million units of electricity produced during 2008 is enough to reinforce the company’s claim to have the most measurably productive windfarm in the world.
That is backed up by the fact that Aerogenerators has cleared its bank loans and in a month’s time will repay the remaining investment made by Shetland Development Trust, over three years ahead of schedule.
Managing director Angus Ward said it was very gratifying to consistently achieve the outstanding results, but there was no secret to the success. His company was simply “in the best place in the world for wind energy”.
Mr Ward said last year’s figures ensured that Burradale had never had an annual capacity load factor of less than 50 per cent, calculated after all maintenance, breakdowns and internal electrical losses were deducted.
That compares very favourably with other Scottish windfarms, for instance the 52-turbine Hadyard Hill development in south Ayrshire, which had a recent efficiency rating of 30 per cent.
Turbine number two at Burradale, commonly referred to as “Betsy”, has been recognised as the best of the five machines and arguably the most productive commercial wind turbine in the world.
But due to a gearbox problem last February, Betsy was inactive for several weeks and turbine number one (Mina) actually achived the best productivity during 2008.
Mr Ward said: “We operate in a challenging environment and there are always things that need attention. It’s hard to imagine how much better these machines would do without the breakdowns but we get on pretty well anyway. Mina is actually catching up on Betsy’s lifetime figures and 2009 could be an interesting year.”
The electricity generated from Burradale reduced the amount that would otherwise have to be produced from existing oil-based generation, Mr Ward said. Last year’s 16.3 million units officially saved about seven thousand tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, although the local figure could be even higher.
“It’s easy to forget the wider benefits of wind energy,” he added. “Our project demonstrates that Shetland has the potential to make a major contribution to the issues surrounding where we get our energy from in the future and how that affects global warming.”
Fellow director Michael Thomson said an important consequence of the continuing exceptional performance was the improved returns to investors.
“We’ve beaten our business model every year and the company is a success as a result,” Mr Thomson said. “This year we’ve cleared our remaining bank loans and one month from today we will repay all of the remaining investment made by the Shetland Development Trust, with interest. This is more than three years ahead of the agreed schedule. There can be no better signal of the viability of wind energy in Shetland.”
Mr Ward, who also owns a small share in Viking Energy, said his experience with renewables had made him confident enough to be involved in the bigger project. The proposed windfarm would be extremely beneficial for the isles, not to mention being an important step towards combating global warming.
Aerogenerators was congratulated on its achievement by Sustainable Energy, the group set up to oppose the Viking Energy proposal.
Chairman Billy Fox said news that the company had met its business targets and showed that the wind energy efficiency in Shetland was second to none was a fact never in dispute.
Burradale was a scheme which was fit for purpose and fit for scale, he added, tying in precisely with Sustainable Shetland’s own viewpoint on renewables. It was suitably located and attracted little or no objections when planned, although it undoubtedly had some effect on nearby housing.
The Viking Energy development, however, was a completely different prospect, as it would be the largest in Europe.
Mr Fox said: “The project proposes a windfarm with up to 150 turbines twice the height of those at Burradale, 62 miles of roads through deep peat, fragile hills and steep valleys, a converter station covering an area equivalent to more than 10 football pitches, and up to nine quarries with the equivalent output of the Scord quarry working for nine to 11 years.
“The choice of site carries with it significant question marks with regard to topography and depth of peat, at a time when peat bog and moorland has become globally recognised as a hugely important carbon sink and sequester of carbon.”
Vice-chairman Kevin Learmonth argued that with noises now being made about Shetland Charitable Trust being unable to invest in the project, there was increasing likelihood, should planning consent be given, that the Viking Energy share would be sold on, wholly or in part.
That would remove or significantly reduce any community benefit and control that was such a cornerstone of the project’s argument, he said.
Mr Learmonth said it would be folly to turn the central Mainland into an industrialised windfarm for no community benefit. It would be much better to pursue projects fit for Shetland that would generate real benefit for local communities and not for the shareholders of large utility companies.
He added: “The Viking Energy project through its sheer scale will have an unacceptable impact on so many fronts it will change the face of Shetland forever. Yes let’s have renewables – but let’s be sensible about it.”
Sustainable Shetland has by and large concentrated on four main issues: the economic advantages of wind technology; concern over the council’s involvement; the size of turbines and noise created by them; and concern over disturbing peat.
Mr Ward countered by saying: the project would benefit Shetland directly beause of shares held by the charitable trust; the expertise provided by the SIC’s partners Scottish and Southern would be vital in decision-making; fewer and bigger turbines provided less of a visual impact than more smaller machines; and after seven years of operation the peat between the Burradale turbines was the same as it was when the windfarm was constructed.
He added: “ I think it is fantastic that: a) Shetland can take advantage of its horrible weather; b) produce electricity that doesn’t produce CO2; and c) have such a great opportunity that will never come again in our lifetime.
“I am delighted that Sustainable Shetland has congratulated our windfarm on its commercial success. I look forward in 10 to 15 years to them congratulating Viking Energy on its anticipated commercial success.”