Energy and climate change minister Ed Davey has signalled a willingness to look at bringing down charges for transmitting electricity from islands such as Shetland to the UK’s national grid.
Speaking during a visit to the isles today, when he visited the small Burradale windfarm whose five turbines are among the most productive in the world, Mr Davey said he was excited by the “fantastic potential” for renewable energy in this part of the country.
The secretary of state met representatives of Viking Energy, who lobbied for action to bring transmission charges down. Earlier this year, Viking gained consent for a 103-turbine windfarm generating anything between 370MW and 457MW of power.
Should an interconnector cable between Shetland and the Scottish mainland get the green light, under the current regime a windfarm operator faces paying charges more than 60 times higher than a producer in the south of England to transmit power.
Mr Davey said examining the transmission charges issue was part of the reason for his visit as the UK government continues its quest to find sources of clean, secure and affordable energy to keep the lights on.
“It seems to me there’s a fantastic potential here, whether it’s onshore wind, offshore wind, whether it’s on marine or tidal,” he said. “As we tackle the issue of transmission charges, which I want to see tackled, we’ve got to make sure we do it in a way which is affordable to consumers whether they’re living in Shetland or Scotland or elsewhere in the UK.
“I wouldn’t be here in Shetland today if I wasn’t committed to looking at the issue, looking at it in detail, working with my colleagues Alistair Carmichael [and] Tavish Scott, working with the Scottish government, working with the developers, working with the community here to see if we can find a way forward.”
Viking project manager Aaron Priest said it had been a useful opportunity to get the developer’s views across. The minister had been clear that he wanted fresh information so that the government can reconsider transmission charges for Scotland’s three island groups.
During his trip, Mr Davey also visited Total’s under-construction gas plant and attended a 30-minute question-and-answer session with pupils at Brae High School.
But while he had the opportunity to meet industry representatives and some senior SIC councillors, South Mainland member Billy Fox questioned whether Mr Davey would have heard the “bigger picture” on Shetland’s energy future.
The minister’s schedule did not include time with opponents of the Viking windfarm. The 800-strong campaign group Sustainable Shetland’s appeal for a judicial review of Scottish ministers’ approval of the project will be heard in early 2013.
The Shetland Times asked Mr Davey if he had a message for objectors who feel the project is too large for Shetland’s landscape, and who are concerned about the disturbance of peat bog and the potential health impact on those living in close proximity to turbines.
He responded: “I think we need to try to make sure we understand their concerns, whilst making sure we also recognise that we have huge challenges to make sure we have secure energy, and we need to make sure we have cleaner energy.
“In terms of trying to respond to people who don’t like these windfarms, we have ensured that the planning system enables a local voice to be heard more strongly, and I issued a consultation paper last month to look at the community benefits of a community hosting onshore wind.
“The proposal here by Viking will see a huge benefit for the local community – not only will the community partly own the project, but there’ll be additional benefits as well. I think it’s important that people who are opposing these issues give some recognition to that and the fact that it’s important for wider energy policy.”
Next week, Scottish and Southern Energy will impose a nine per cent rise on the average dual fuel bill for householders. With already high levels of fuel poverty in the islands, there are those who feel more could be done to reduce demand for energy by, for example, funding schemes to help people equip their homes with better insulation.
“Some of these price increases are driven by international factors,” Mr Davey said. “We’re seeing global oil and gas prices going up, and the only way to help consumers and businesses is to help them have lower bills.”
He said government programmes would help millions of people to insulate their homes and ensure that products are more energy efficient – both of which would reduce consumption and lead to lower gas and electricity bills.
In addition, he wants to encourage better competition in the energy market and ensure people are able to change providers easily. “I’ve done an awful lot on trying to improve the ability for people to switch, and I think over the next year or two we will see more people switching to get the best available tariffs,” he added.
Brae pupils quizzed Mr Davey on various subjects including Scottish independence and whether he still believes entering a coalition with the Tories was a good idea.
The minister said he felt this summer’s London Olympics demonstrated that Scotland and the rest of the UK were “better together”. Unsurprisingly, he strongly hopes people will vote “no” in the forthcoming independence referendum.
The Liberal Democrat fully accepted that his party had upset many voters by joining forces with the Tories and taking some “difficult and unpopular” decisions in the national interest.
But, despite the battering the party has taken in the polls, he told pupils he hoped policies such as reducing the tax burden for people on low incomes would earn voters’ respect at the next election.