Sustainable Shetland is urging the council to stage a fresh wave of consultation meetings on Viking Energy’s controversial £685 million windfarm following last week’s release of an addendum to the project’s planning application.
The proposal has been scaled back from 150 to 127 turbines and Viking has drastically reduced its estimate for the project’s “carbon payback” time to less than a year. But protest group chairman Billy Fox said members remained steadfastly against a windfarm which they view as being much too big for the isles.
Senior officials have still to consider whether to stage another round of meetings between now and December. Mr Fox believes it is essential that it does so before submitting the SIC’s final response to the Scottish government’s energy consents unit.
“We do feel very much that the majority of folk are still opposed to this even in its revised form,” he said. “We would urge the council to hold a series of public meetings similar to what they did in September and October last year. They have time to run another series of meetings and that’s absolutely crucial if they want to properly gauge the response to the addendum.”
A government spokesman said it was likely the addendum would be treated as an entirely new application – a process which can take up to nine months, meaning it may or may not be determined before next spring’s Holyrood elections.
Energy minister Jim Mather is standing down in May so it could fall to a new minister to deliver a ruling on Viking in the summer of 2011. However, project manager Aaron Priest said: “Our hope and expectation is it will be considered by the current minister well before the election in May next year.”
Sustainable Shetland is especially sceptical about the new carbon payback estimate, with Mr Fox saying it had been a “quantum leap” from Viking’s previous worst-case scenario of 14.8 years.
“We feel it’s being built on valuable carbon sink habitat that should be protected at all costs. Our position on it hasn’t changed,” he told The Shetland Times.
“They’ve come up with this idea that 68 per cent of the windfarm area is actually eroding, which we find quite incredible. The initial impression appears to indicate that the figures they’re using are being extrapolated from erosion studies that were carried out in 1982-1987, when sheep stock intensity was extremely high.”
Sustainable Shetland intends to scrutinise the carbon calculations in more detail – along with other elements of the addendum including Viking’s habitat management plan – before the consultation ends on 19th November. It has also asked for a two-week extension.
Mr Fox accepted it would be quite difficult to assess Viking’s manual calculations on carbon payback, suggesting it was “a bit like sitting a maths exam and having the answer but no workings”.
“They claim to have had it ratified … with the Macaulay [Land Use] Institute, but we don’t feel that can have been done. It may have been run past Richard Birnie [Macaulay’s head of communications], but we can’t feel it’s been anything like peer-reviewed.”
Mr Fox said he would be interested to see the responses of SEPA and SNH because any strong objections from them, or the SIC, would strengthen the case for a public inquiry. He said the prospect of an inquiry was “not very attractive” but Sustainable Shetland fully intends to “make the challenge to the bitter end”.
A community fund consultation in November on direct benefit payments of £1 million a year which may be ring-fenced for some of the communities most affected by the windfarm has also raised Mr Fox’s hackles.
“I’m very cynical about this. It seems very fortuitous for it to drop out of the paper on the same day that the addendum was first advertised. When you’ve got a major player in the Windfarm Supporters Group [Bobby Hunter] chairing up the steering group then questions have to be asked.”
The community fund group is made up of representatives from a number of the isles’ community councils, some of whom Mr Hunter said this week were against the windfarm.
Mr Fox said talking about creating the fund now was “premature” because it would be a long time before the windfarm would turn a profit, and he even questioned whether there will be “any profit out of it at all”.
Mr Fox added: “I take the view that it’s just yet another bit of carrot dangling to try and promote the project, and again it’s all about the money when really the real issues here should be environmental.
“In terms of getting the planning application through, there will be a socio-economic element but we feel the planning consent should very much hinge on the environmental issues.”
• Anyone who wishes to register their support or objection to the project must do so by Friday 19th November. You can respond either by emailing EnergyConsents@scotland.gsi.gov.uk or by writing to: Energy Consents and Deployment Unit, Scottish Government, 4th Floor, 5 Atlantic Quay, 150 Broomielaw, Glasgow, G2 8LU.