SIC convener Sandy Cluness has made a special ruling to allow reports on the economic benefit and ornithological impact of Viking Energy’s controversial windfarm to be included on the agenda for tomorrow’s crunch meeting to determine the local authority’s stance on the project.
Head of economic development Neil Grant writes of his belief that the 127-turbine windfarm and the related interconnector cable to the mainland are “of paramount economic importance to Shetland”. SIC planners’ report, published on Thursday, recommended that councillors should object to the project.
Mr Grant’s last-minute four-page report is a summary of information already in the public domain. It estimates that the total benefit to the Shetland economy will be an average of £38 million a year for almost quarter of a century.
SIC head of legal services Jan Riise said that “access to information” legislation and the council’s standing orders “do allow for papers to be introduced after clearance date where the item has already been included on the agenda”.
Executive director of infrastructure Gordon Greenhill said the meeting would begin with head of planning Iain McDiarmid outlining his report, followed by a presentation from Mr Grant on the project’s socio-economic impact.
“Objectors and supporters of the proposals who have been invited to speak will be given the opportunity to present their statements,” said Mr Greenhill. “The council has asked those groups to nominate a spokesperson to represent their views.”
Viking Energy will then have the opportunity to make a statement, with parties asked to limit their presentations to no more than 10 minutes and avoid repeating points which have already been covered.
Councillors will then decide what position to take and forward a submission to the Scottish government’s energy consents unit. Energy minister Jim Mather has the final say on the project.
Mr Cluness has urged elected members to balance the economic benefits against the “unacceptable” environmental impact cited in Mr McDiarmid’s report when they meet in Lerwick Town Hall tomorrow. Should they decide to object it will automatically trigger a local public inquiry.
Mr Cluness told The Shetland Times he felt an inquiry was now inevitable, irrespective of the outcome of the council’s meeting. He said: “Most of these big windfarm developments elsewhere have ended up that way – I’d have no problem with that at all.”
In addition to 65 direct and indirect jobs and 174 construction posts for five years, Mr Grant’s report suggests the windfarm will help create and sustain 370 jobs through “wise reinvestment by the Shetland Charitable Trust and other investors and beneficiaries”.
Mr Grant stresses the importance of the interconnector cable to allow more renewable energy projects to go ahead, referring to Pelamis and Vattenfall’s plans for a £60 million wave energy project and interest from German firm Enertrag in an onshore windfarm at the south end of Yell.
“The project will provide substantial intergenerational economic and social benefits which should be considered alongside the head of planning’s report,” he writes.
“The limitation of the Shetland electricity grid is currently ‘strangling at birth’ opportunities for Shetland businesses, communities and individuals to benefit from generous feed in tariffs for renewable electricity sold onto the grid.
“An interconnector would be a catalyst for grass roots up developments of this nature to happen in Shetland. The rest of the country benefits and moves forward whilst Shetland developers are faced with an ongoing technical barrier to entry.”
Mr McDiarmid’s additional report on the ornithological impact notes Viking’s “heavy reliance” on measures such as its habitat management plan, designed to mitigate the impact on birds. It also says the developer’s assumption that a small number of bird deaths can be absorbed without affecting the overall population of species is “not wholly convincing”.
The RSPB and Scottish Natural Heritage both cited unacceptable disturbance of bird species in their objections to the windfarm.
Sustainable Shetland chairman Billy Fox said he found the council’s handling of the lead-up to the meeting to be “absolutely astonishing” and he anticipated proceedings tomorrow being “shambolic”. “They’re shifting the goalposts as they go along,” he said. “It really will be an interesting meeting.”