Decision on windfarm converter station put off for proper carbon audit

One objector described the photomontages of the proposed buildings as an "exercise in deception". Click on image to enlarge.

Councillors have agreed to defer a decision on siting a windfarm converter station at Upper Kergord for the proposed Viking Energy windfarm, pending further information on carbon emissions becoming available.

The application was for outline planning permission to build three large metal-clad buildings, each up to 150m long, 40m wide and 22m high. Two of the buildings would be for housing transformers and related electrical plant for the windfarm, the other would be for a spare converter transformer.

The building proposal, a necessary part of the windfarm to convert AC to DC to minimise transmission losses, would involve removing 50,000 cubic metres of peat on a 14 hectare site. It attracted two letters of support and 21 against, including from Tingwall, Whiteness and Weisdale community council. Many objectors attended the meeting in person.

The planning hearing should have offered an opportunity for both the applicant and objectors to put their points of view, but the applicant, Scottish Hydro Electric Transmission Ltd (SHETL), was not able to attend due to the on-going transport problems. However the planning board felt the hearing should carry on. Councillors Bill Manson and Caroline Miller left the meeting.

Although organisations such as the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), RSPB and Shetland Amenity Trust had not objected, they had raised concern about carbon emissions from removing peat, and carbon balance and carbon payback. SNH advised an environmental clerk of works be appointed to oversee the work, should it go ahead. The Scottish government’s Climate Change Division has not objected, but has raised concerns on noise and air quality.

Planning official Richard MacNeil said that the application was for a development in priniciple, and the planning service had no objection to the development. He said it had “sufficient merit” to balance negative aspects such as visual impact. The issue in question was carbon balance.

He conceded that the planning service had no “in-house expertise” in dealing with carbon stored in peat, and there appeared to be none available from any of the agencies or the government, which he called “both surprising and disconcerting”.

He was therefore not confident the planning service could say the proposal would not have an unacceptable impact on the environment in terms of carbon emissions and recommended the decision be deferred.

Objector and vice chairman of Sustainable Shetland Kevin Learmonth said the application was an integral part of the Viking Energy application for the windfarm and should be treated as such. The whole point of the windfarm was to reduce carbon dioxide, and the statutory bodies could provide no data for the release of carbon. “Any decision would be premature,” he said.

Speaking for the community council, objector Florence Grains said the proposed buildings would be a “bad neighbour development”. It was a departure from the development plan, the area was not designed for industrial use and the proposal should not be considered as a piecemeal development – it was classed as a major development.

If granted it would affect businesses and Shetland’s global geopark status.

Objector Paul Featherstone spoke of the effect of his sea trout hatchery. It would be impossible to prevent silt and peat run-off into the burn, he said, which would compromise small fish. He warned of a “toxic flush” in heavy downpours and of the “huge possiblity” of a “peat failure” on the hill causing unstable peat ending up as slurry in the burn.

Former teacher Ian Fraser called the photomontages circulated by the applicant as an “exercise in deception”, not indicating the size of the development.

Councillor Laura Baisley made the point that the Kergord landscape was “not quite natural” as it was already home to agricultural sheds. These were not attractive – she had seen a brown one and the proposed buildings would be green – and although she said the decision on the proposal was “really difficult” and the water course had to be protected, she appeared to be in favour of the proposal. “We have to be pragmatic.”

Councillor Cecil Smith said there was not enough information available to make a decision and moved deferral. He was seconded by Iris Hawkins, who said she would like to see everyone, including SHETL, being able to take part in the debate.

Meanwhile the planning board agreed to the siting of three 70m high meteorological masts applied for by the Viking Energy Partnership.

Seven objections were received, although none from community councils, SNH or the Shetland archaeologist, and 19 individuals expressed support.

The masts are to be at Mid Kames, Scalla Field, Weisdale, and Runn Hill, North Nesting. The guy wires to the four-tonne slabs for the masts will be fitted with bird deflectors and work on them will not be done during the nesting season.

Chairman of Sustainable Shetland Billy Fox cited non-compliance in previous planning applications when one mast was still in place after consent had run out in 2008. The planning condition stipulated complete removal after permission had expired and this had not happened, he said.

He was also concerned at the failure of a mast which had collapsed – this had only been highlighted by Sustainable Shetland and he said: “The integrity of the masts must be called into question.”

Councillor Josie Simpson recommended permission be granted as it was important to get as much information as possible. He was seconded by Ms Baisley, who said she hoped the developers and planning staff would learn from their mistakes.


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