Sounding off: A reality check

Last month, J. Laughton Johnston argued that the Viking Energy windfarm offers many benefits for Shetland. But James Mackenzie remains unconvinced. here, he outlines the ongoing environmental and economic concerns that many share about the project.

J. Laughton Johnston asks us to keep a proper perspective on Shetland’s renewable options, although he really only presents one option: the Viking Energy (VE) windfarm.

It remains to be seen how the long awaited addendum to VE’s Environmental Statement will alter the planning application. What Laughton, and other supporters of the windfarm, fail to recognise is that several reputable bodies, both statutory and non-statutory, national and local, have objected to the planning application because of what was presented in that statement. Although these bodies are concerned with environmental and cultural protection or conservation, their objections were not motivated by such things as “exaggerated fears”, “apathy”, “wilful ignorance”, climate change denial, or fastening on worst case scenarios, but by close and objective examination. The Environmental Statement was found wanting, not least because of irreconcilable contradictions, and questionable logic.

In the broader community, there are many arguments for and against windfarms, and this one in particular, but to get a better perspective, I believe we need to take a very careful reality check as to what this country, let alone Europe and the wider world, faces in the near future.

The UK Climate Change Bill has committed to an 80 per cent reduction of carbon emissions by 2050. A recent report produced by the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE), Generating the Future: UK Energy Systems fit for 2050 demonstrates the task that lies ahead if this target is to be anywhere near realised.

No doubt there will be people who dispute the authors’ findings, and there may well be other factors to take into account, but the report makes for sobering reading. For example, assuming that 33 GigaWatts (GW) of power can be realistically produced by renewable energy (excluding biomass) by 2050, we shall need: the equivalent of 9,600 2.5 MW onshore wind turbines, 38 offshore London Arrays (of 341 turbines each), 1,000 miles of Pelamis wave machines, 2,300 SeaGen tidal machines, 1,000 hydro schemes, a Severn barrage, and 25 million 3.2kW photovoltaic panels. Biomass, nuclear and fossil fuel (including carbon capture and storage) power generation will also be required.

If we do not cut demand, the implications are almost unimaginable, in terms of the quantity of nuclear and fossil fuel power stations that would need to be built. Should we cut demand by 49 per cent (medium reduction), roughly 80 GW would have to be provided by the latter, while a high reduction of 67 per cent would still require 60 GW.

But in that case, renewables would be supplying 58 per cent of the national grid. Given intermittencies of supply and demand, this would require phenomenal changes in energy infrastructure, let alone the construction required for the supply and demand sectors.

The report’s authors conclude that turning the government’s targets into reality “will require the biggest programme of change ever seen in the UK”, and it will require a national strategy “informed by a high degree of whole-systems thinking . . . underpinned from the onset, by critical evaluation of the economic, engineering and business realities of delivery across a system.”

The executive summary states that “there is no silver bullet” (where have I heard that phrase before?), but that the UK needs “to exploit its renewable energy resources to the fullest possible extent”. This might be seized on by Viking Energy and its supporters as carte blanche for their project, but – and it’s a big but – without a national strategy, even at a Scottish level, it will be tantamount to a shot in the dark. Handing out licences and subsidies to the highest bidders and first-comers in the market place without any whole-systems thinking is to risk a waste of precious resources that cannot be afforded at a local, national, or global level.

There is also a danger to our present systems of democracy. Already there are government plans to streamline the planning process in order not to hold up the development of windfarms (or, for that matter, airport expansion). There may be an argument for altering the planning process itself, if there is a consensual national and rational strategy – and consensus for such an alteration – but to impose it from above, just because the perceived need is for more windfarms anywhere and everywhere the wind blows, is a big step on the road to autocratic government and divided communities.

Some VE windfarm supporters have pointed to this undesirable outcome: windfarms are coming, like the Martians, whether you like it or not, so we had better make the most of this one while we can, i.e., with the partnership of Shetland Charitable Trust (SCT).

There is, however, a fundamental flaw in this argument, because there is, even on Viking Energy’s admission, no guarantee that SCT will be a partner. We are told that only after planning consent is obtained will “detailed analysis and lengthy discussion and debate” take place with financial institutions. “It is only at that stage that the Trust would be able to access sufficient financial information to be able to make a final decision.” (VE website).

So here is a rhetorical question: what will happen if the decision or advice is that the project should not go ahead? There seem to be three options: (1) SCT sells its share of the planning consent, if it can (perhaps depending on the Busta House partnership agreement which remains confidential, or on its financial desirability), and the projected income is lost; (2) SCT and Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) sit on the consent until economic conditions improve; and (3) against its better judgement it “goes for bust” – depending again on SSE’s say-so. Moreover, the decision, unless there is a national strategy in place, will be informed primarily by volatile market forces, and an inadequate consideration of the true carbon implications.

There is, therefore, already significant risk attached to the obtaining of planning consent. Apart from that financial uncertainty, we should remember that if there is a decision to go ahead with the windfarm a big hole will still be made in SCT’s funds in order to invest initially in the project. This may well have a serious negative effect on valuable if not essential services provided to the community. As for the debt – in the order of £400 million – that will be incurred, VE’s website tells us that “onshore wind energy is considered a sound investment and many banks will offer preferential borrowing rates for wind energy projects”. Given the performance of banks in recent years, and the current recession, this perhaps should be taken with a generous pinch of salt. And, as the RAE report states, “Current market forces and fiscal incentives will not be adequate to deliver the required shareholder value in the short-term or to guarantee the scale of investment necessary in this time-scale [2010-2050].”

Much is made by Laughton and others of maintaining Shetland’s high standard of living, although I am not certain if it is that alone that attracts people to live here. If we are to reduce carbon emissions, we must cut demand, and that may require sacrifices. If this is done wisely, we can ensure that needs rather than wants are protected. We should be aware also of the concluding paragraph of the RAE report: “. . . the significant changes required to the UK energy system to meet the emissions reductions targets will, inevitably, involve significant rises in energy costs to end users.”

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It may be possible to avert or mitigate those costs – and avoid the financial risks of joining the national grid with the VE windfarm – by looking at other options. I am at a loss to understand why it is morally wrong to have an idea that Shetland can be self-sufficient in energy, but that it is impracticable I would dispute. Recently a tidal power researcher was quoted on BBC Radio Shetland as saying that an interconnector was not necessary for tidal power here. Perhaps this is because the tide “switches off” – not twice, but nearly four times a day – at different times in different locations.
Installing more than one machine in different locations may then produce a regular, if fluctuating, supply of power to the local grid. As has been pointed out, the Total gas plant could be used to generate electricity instead of the diesel power station, thereby reducing carbon emissions. With an upgraded local grid, we may be able to support more windfarms such as Burradale.

Wind to heat schemes and solar panels, along with improved insulation, could cut costs to consumers, both in the public and private sector. There are many other measures from individual to corporate that can be taken – but just as a strategy is required nationally, so do we need one here, one that can ensure that there is co-operation rather than competition, and one that does not conflict with the overall national aim: carbon emission reduction. The main point is, that being separate from the national grid, we have the opportunity to develop our own infrastructure and avoid the severe problems the former is going to encounter.

It is a common misconception that Sustainable Shetland is against an interconnector per se. What it does object to is an interconnector that is inextricably tied to the Viking Energy windfarm. Here is another option: If Orkney is to develop its renewables with a new grid connection, as has been publicised recently, it is surely worthy of consideration to make a link from here to there, rather than one that bypasses it at great expense. Then we may have the opportunity to look into a windfarm in Shetland that is fit for scale, and part of a properly thought out system.

I have left environmental considerations to the last. Laughton regards the changes or degradation of the Shetland landscape as irrevocable. This is patently not always so. In-bye land can be reverted to arable or biodiversity management, and the ESA heather management scheme has already resulted in remarkable improvement in the condition of blanket bog. So-called improvement of apportioned hill land ceased long ago, and now there is government recognition of the importance of conserving and restoring peatland as a carbon sink, and there are convincing arguments for granting financial incentives for doing so, as has been pointed out in recent reports by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural England.

Building 70 miles of new road, the majority of it on active bog (as is admitted in the VE ES), and blasting large quarries out of hillsides, just because there are already roads and quarries in the landscape, is, to say the least, a dubious rationale. These developments will certainly be more irrevocable, and run counter to any properly thought out peat conservation programme. Moreover the roads proposed are on a completely different scale to ones like the tracks to Uyea or the Hams of Roe, which would not be capable of supporting the vast vehicles needed to transport turbines. It has been demonstrated on more than one occasion that “floating roads” sink because of the weights they carry; this severely damages the structure of blanket bog. Meanwhile, a dozen or so 140,000 cubic metre quarries on the upper hills like Scallafield – which, incidentally, supports a thriving but increasingly rare plant community – are again on a far larger scale than most people realise.

At the end of the day it is, or should be, as we were promised, a matter of choice. Do we sacrifice the environment for a risky financial venture, to maintain an unsustainably high standard of living, with no guarantee of overall carbon emission reduction? Or do we opt for a more modest, measured, and integrated local energy strategy which can deliver benefits to as many people and the environment as possible?

James Mackenzie

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Let us know what you think of this article, or anything else in this month’s magazine, by writing to Shetland Life at The Shetland Times Ltd, Gremista, Lerwick. Or by emailing the editor at


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