A call is to be made for Viking Energy to give free electricity to the elderly in Shetland and cut-price power to every other local household if the giant windfarm goes ahead.
The idea, dismissed years ago by the company as inappropriate, is being championed by South Shetland councillor Allison Duncan who acknowledges that such a concession could tip opinion in the community in favour of the controversial £800 million development.
During a tour of windfarms in central Scotland with representatives from the local media and some local public bodies, the outspoken councillor said he would seek support for his cheap power plan from his colleagues. He believes people need to see a clear benefit from hosting the controversial turbine complex in the community and from risking community funds through Shetland Charitable Trust investing in the venture alongside its partner, Scottish and Southern Energy.
Mr Duncan has yet to put flesh on the bones of his idea but envisages free power for pensioners and people with special needs, a small charge to households gauged as being in fuel poverty due to their high bills, and “a substantial reduced tariff” for all other Shetland households.
The populist idea was rejected in January 2007 by SIC councillor Drew Ratter, then a Viking Energy director, who said it would encourage people to continue the kind of bad behaviour that nations were trying to tackle. He said at the time: “People will just use more, which is against everything we’re trying to do!”
Free or subsidised power might run into political or legal barriers designed to protect the system of uniform charges across the country, but there may be precedents in EU countries such as France which is said to have given cheap power to people in some communities to help persuade them to play host to a nuclear power station in their back yard.
Another option being spoken about is using Viking profits to fund small community wind projects which themselves would deliver free or cheap power to local people’s homes.
Speaking during the windfarm tour, Viking Energy development officer David Thomson did not dismiss Mr Duncan’s call. He said it should perhaps have remained on the table as a possibility but the company was careful not to promise something that was not in its power to deliver.
“There’s good reasons why we’re not promising it and there are good reasons why it would be very difficult, very complicated and probably something Viking Energy may not be able to deliver, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible and Viking Energy needs perhaps to get that across.”
Mr Thomson acknowledged it would be a way for everyone in Shetland to see the benefit of the windfarm but he felt that the same result could be achieved through the original plan from 2007 to use profits to improve insulation and energy efficiency in island homes.
Asked for his opinion on free or cheap power, he said: “Personally speaking, it would be great. [Viking Energy] have never had a problem with the idea, we’ve had a problem with the fact we can’t promise it, we can’t guarantee it.”
The idea met with the approval of some other members of the tour group at an informal session during the two-day trip to see windfarms at the Braes of Doune, Whitelee and Ardrossan. It was felt that special action was justified in order to tackle Shetland’s unenviable position as having, along with the Western Isles, the worst fuel poverty levels in the UK.
The proposal echoes an unfulfilled pledge made during the 1970s that the Shetland community would not have to pay rates again due to the oil riches from Sullom Voe and it echoes a hope at that time that the islands might get cheap oil and gas in return for the upheaval caused by Europe’s largest oil terminal at Sullom Voe. It was not to be and the islands continue to pay some of the highest fuel prices in Europe and only have access to imported gas in cylinders, not mains.
The chairman of the Crofting Foundation, Norman Leask, who was on the windfarm trip, backed Mr Duncan’s plan, saying he had always believed it should be done. He did not see that there would be a legal problem with the European Commission because of what the French had done.
Mr Leask said: “I believe this can be done legally. We have to have the will of the British government and the support of the Scottish government. I think that is one of the main ways we can get some good, because of the fuel poverty that we have in Shetland.”
Mr Leask is also an advocate of the concept of wind crofting, which would see crofters grant-aided, perhaps from Viking Energy profits, to install twin turbines on their land to provide their own power and sell back surplus to the grid.
He said these small businesses would help keep people living in peripheral areas and provide a substitute for disappearing grants and subsidies to agriculture.
Recently the Tory party has also begun speaking about cutting electricity prices if the power is sourced from renewable energy schemes.