Shetland could be ringed by giant offshore windfarms in a few years, generating electricity to sell across Europe.
Five vast areas of sea around the islands have been earmarked for possible development between 2020 and 2030 but projects may even be fast-tracked before then, such is the urgency with which the Scottish government is driving offshore windpower expansion.
Its voracious appetite for offshore wind means it is already beginning to push for even more sites off Shetland to be investigated outside the 12-mile zone of Scottish territorial waters.
The biggest of the five areas currently earmarked around Shetland is N7, which is 1,074 square miles between Whalsay and Sumburgh, with another 670 square miles around the West Side and Eshaness, called N5, 482 square miles off Foula and Fitful Head called N4, 186 square miles off the north-east end of Unst called N8 and 138 square miles north-west of Yell called N6.
Until now offshore windfarms have not been seen as contenders off Shetland due to the depth of water, wild seas and the sheer cost of building and servicing arrays of huge turbines and sending their electricity to market.
One renewable energy expert dismissed the government’s vision this week as a crazy fantasy.
Shetland Charitable Trust chairman Bill Manson is another sceptic, terming it “a gleam in a few folk’s eyes” at this stage.
He said the charity had “no plans” to get involved in possible windfarm projects other than Viking Energy which it shares in partnership with Scottish and Southern Energy.
However, Mr Manson agreed it might be possible for Shetland-based interests to have a financial stake as a small partner with future developers of offshore wind projects.
The technology required may be closer than some people think. In Norway, Statoil has been testing Hywind floating turbines and they are coming to Scotland with possibly the world’s first floating offshore windfarm of no more than five turbines up to 12.5 miles off Aberdeenshire.
Until now Shetland Islands Council, HIE Shetland and the Shetland Renewable Energy Forum have concentrated their marine sector planning purely on its potential for wave and tidal power. But that will have to change.
The Shetland marine renewable energy section of the forum is chaired by Ann Black, general manager of Shetland Charitable Trust. This week she said the forum had deliberately avoided offshore wind up to now because developers were interested in wave and tidal. But she said it might be on the agenda from now on.
The government’s vision for the offshore windfarm industry is set out in Blue Seas – Green Energy, a strategy document recently published by its agency Marine Scotland.
The map of potential sites is the culmination of work done by The Offshore Wind Industry Group, co-chaired by the government and Scottish Power Renewables which includes companies involved in windfarms like Vattenfall, SSE, Siemens, SeaEnergy and the Wood Group.
Further analysis is to be undertaken to help select sites within each area and to liaise with affected parties.
The key findings in relation to the North region, which comprises Shetland, Orkney and the north coast of Caithness, are that Shetland in particular has favourable conditions for offshore wind but significant strategic issues requiring attention, including the effects on fishing, shipping and the environment. The authors concluded: “Evidence at this stage suggests that these issues can be addressed through appropriate mitigation measures at the project level.”
The plan states: “Offshore wind should be recognised as an important part of the energy mix of Shetland and Orkney.” Not content with that, the recommendations go further: “Where feasible, further opportunities for offshore wind energy in this region should be pursued in order to realise potential social and economic benefits.”
The study recommends that the Shetland areas, in about 50-100 metres of water, and the single one west of Orkney, could even be “suitable for consideration for development in the short term” before 2020. The plan’s authors are even eyeing up the so-called offshore waters around Shetland, which are in the 12-200 nautical mile zone in waters 100-200 metres deep.
The government’s plans are at an early stage and one of the key actions is to increase public awareness of the proposals and to involve the affected communities. So far only one low-key public session has been held in Lerwick last August.
In a response to that consultation Shetland Islands Council suggested that the limitations of current technology could hinder the plans due largely to the deep water. The council suggested wave energy was preferable.
Concerns were also raised about taking away sites already earmarked for wave power off the south-west Mainland – a point which was taken onboard.
Giving his personal views on offshore wind this week, councillor Manson said most turbines had been fixed in relatively shallow waters up to now but the floating wind turbines being experimented with by Norway could be the best option.
But he said: “As we get further north the reliability [needed] for really boisterous weather increases and as well as the ability to build in deeper water, or to float them, there will need to be the ability for these things to withstand the more severe conditions that they will encounter.”
Other difficulties would be posed in tackling breakdowns due to there being fewer weather windows in a place like Shetland to allow workers to get onto the turbines, even for routine maintenance.
The sheer cost had already put some big companies off pursuing an interest in offshore wind, he said. “They think they can spend their money better elsewhere.”
The Scottish government has been using the figure of £3.1 million to install each MegaWatt of generating power offshore, which is about twice what Viking Energy gauges its onshore turbines to cost per MW. Developers are aiming to drive down the cost by 30 per cent to allow offshore windfarms to be built by 2020.
If the challenges are overcome Mr Manson is keen for Shetland to benefit. “I would certainly hope that if there are developments in this area that Shetland and Shetlanders are able to participate in some fashion but I have no clear views at the moment as to how that would be done. We need to see the whole picture on these things.”
Other major issues include the likely political storm from the fishing industry which faces potential huge loss of grounds around Shetland. On the other hand there is also the prospect of lucrative new spin-offs for the islands in marine and engineering-related jobs and services.
Another question surrounds the possible visual impact of distant wind turbines from many of Shetland’s unspoilt seaward viewpoints and the possible effects of vibration on fish and sea mammals and the hazard to birds.
Questions also arise as to how electricity would be transmitted from offshore, whether by cable to Shetland for onward transmission via a converter station and interconnector to the UK or to a passing Norway-UK interconnector or perhaps straight to the mainland.
The five areas of Shetland seas are among 25 “medium-term areas of search” within 12 miles of Scotland’s coast which the Scottish government wants to see “progressed” from 2020 to 2030. Originally there were 30 areas including another two in the North region, N2 and N3 around Orkney. They were removed due to “a number of technical and environmental constraints” assessed by Marine Scotland last year. N1 lies to the west of Orkney.
Before then it has six sites which are to be developed in the short term for offshore windfarms and which will go a long way towards fulfilling First Minister Alex Salmond’s pledge last week to generate 100 per cent of Scotland’s electricity needs from renewables by 2020. These include windfarms off Islay, Argyll and the Forth.
The UK government is also developing two offshore windfarms outside the 12-mile zone around Scotland.
The Shetland areas and the 20 other medium-term sites would enable the government to greatly expand that target for 2030. At this stage however Scottish ministers have only deemed them to be “subject to further assessment”. However, in Blue Seas – Green Energy it says further work could identify potential for bringing forward windfarms in the North region, which is essentially Shetland and one site west of Orkney.
It also states that there is further room for development in the region, both within territorial waters and outwith the 12 mile zone, in offshore waters.
All the Shetland-related information is contained in reports on a new Offshore Wind Scotland website launched last week by Mr Salmond and run by the government and its development agencies, Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise. They see offshore wind as “arguably Scotland’s biggest economic opportunity for a generation”.
Indeed it is even being touted as the source of “Scotland’s next industrial revolution” and the government is pushing hard to make the country a world leader in the field.
Mr Salmond said last week in a video speech to the All-Energy exhibition in Aberdeen that renewables, and offshore wind in particular, offer the potential to “re-industrialise and re-engineer Scotland” in what he called “a huge adventure”.
Scotland is estimated to have about a quarter of Europe’s offshore wind and tidal energy resource and about one tenth of its wave power capacity.
Mr Salmond believes that by 2020 Scotland will be producing twice the amount of electricity that it needs, with nearly half still coming from non-renewable power stations. The excess will be sold. Up to 10 GigaWatts is now expected to come from the offshore windfarms planned around Scotland by 2020.