Shetland’s proposed forest of wind turbines could be chopped down after 25 years if wave or tidal power emerge as better ways to generate renewable energy.
The knowledge that Viking Energy’s plantation of 192 turbines may only dominate the skyline for a generation rather than forever could help sway people who are turning against the windfarm because of its sheer size and visual impact.
The ability to scale down or remove the windfarm at the end of its 25-year planning consent was confirmed by company director and SIC councillor Bill Manson on Friday at a press day prior to the project going out to public consultation this week.
He said: “Shetland will have had time to get used to wind turbines and decide whether we like them or not.”
Until now there has been a widely held impression that Viking Energy’s 300-foot high turbines were only going to hug a few hills along the desolate valley of the Lang Kames between Voe and Sandwater with a few more dotted around towards Vidlin and Nesting. But the company’s Windylights free brochure released on Friday has revealed for the first time a much larger proposed layout for the windfarm.
The turbines and the network of new roads to service them would snake along the spine of most of the north and central Mainland, stretching across the high hills from Firth to Weisdale, taking in Brae, Voe, Aith, Kergord and Skellister.
Each turbine of at least 3.6 megawatts would tower twice the height of those that people have become familiar with at Burradale.
Representatives of the 90 per cent council-owned Viking Energy said the expanded layout had been chosen to try to avoid sensitive areas where rare bird activity is greatest.
The central Mainland area was selected by the SIC planning department as most suitable for a windfarm partly due to its lack of important conservation sites.
The company wants, and may receive in no uncertain terms, reaction to its layout plan. Mr Manson said there was scope to clump the turbines closer together and to reduce their number by about 20 and still keep the windfarm’s capacity above the desired output of 600MW.
However, it could not be down-sized much more, he said, or the project would no longer be sufficiently viable for a £400m interconnector cable to be laid between Shetland and Scotland.
Viking Energy’s hope is that planning consent will be won in 2009. But Shetland’s equal partner in the venture, Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE), said in January the windfarm was not likely to be fully up and running until 2015.
With the 25-year restriction on planning consent it is possible some of the turbines might stand for less than 20 years before they are required to come down. Experience in Denmark has shown that turbines can last longer than their life expectancy of 25 years.
If the venture has proved itself a roaring success, earning the Shetland community the £26m-a-year pre-tax profit that Viking Energy estimates, and providing 50 permanent jobs, it may prove difficult to budge.
Viking Energy company secretary David Thomson said on Friday that at a conservative estimate it is expected that the windfarm would become profitable within seven to 10 years of starting production.
As consultation gets into full swing, one opinion frequently aired is that the windfarm should be scaled down to a far less intrusive size to generate only the power Shetland needs rather than sending huge amounts south. Viking Energy maintains this can’t be done for technical reasons because the Shetland grid can only cope with about 20 per cent of its supply emanating from wind Â a level it is already at.
Nationally, around three per cent of the power supply is from wind and a limit of 20 per cent also applies due to the need to have other power sources when the wind isn’t blowing.
The interconnector cable is the key not just to the giant windfarm but to all future renewable energy ventures in Shetland of any scale, including wave and tidal and the small windfarms proposed by community developers in North Yell and by Shetland Aerogenerators for the hills between Quarff and Cunningsburgh.
Aaron Priest of Viking Energy said each of the two strands of the cable proposed for Shetland would be rated at 335MW.
Mr Thomson admitted the requirement for an expensive cable was one of the windfarm’s downsides. But there were strong positives too, not least the likelihood that each turbine would produce twice the power of the average turbine elsewhere in the UK.
“Our belief is that the benefits outweigh the costs,” he told journalists.
One of the concerns aired during the session was that Shetland has actually missed the boat as far as wind power goes. There are scores of applications up and down the country for onshore and offshore windfarms that are not hindered by the requirement for an expensive cable.
Mr Thomson said the company did not believe the UK would reach the stage where it could say it did not need new connections to renewable energy supplies. He also believed that many of the proposed alternative energy schemes would drop out long before coming to fruition.
He said: “We think they are going to need as many windfarm projects as they can get.”
However, Mr Manson conceded that wave and tidal power technology could come from behind and overtake windfarms as the green energy source of choice. Indeed, he said a small proportion of the profits to Shetland from Viking Energy would go towards tidal and wave power research.
He said the islands might one day switch from wind power to sending tidal and wave power down the cable.
Mr Thomson said that scenario was conceivable and once a cable system has been established it could be upgraded to allow Shetland to sell perhaps two or three gigawatts of power down to the UK mainland from various energy schemes.
There are still enormous hurdles to the Viking windfarm, potentially the biggest of which is public opinion. Because it is a “community” project it requires the community’s solid backing and if it fails to win such backing it may not even reach the stage of the planning application being submitted later this year.
Previous indications have been that three-quarters of local people support the windfarm, gauged through a small MORI poll.
Mr Thomson predicted there would be a dip in that support but not a decisive one, although he was clear that local opposition could stop the venture. “If the community in Shetland doesn’t want it to happen, it won’t happen,” he said.
Mr Manson warned of the danger of being overpowered by a few vocal protesters. “You always hear from the most vociferous,” he said, before quoting a saying by his council colleague John Nicolson: “You have to try and hear the folk that’s not speaking.”
Asked about the blanket local opposition in the Western Isles to a windfarm proposed by engineering giant Amec, Mr Manson said that company had set the environmental lobby wild from the start by proposing turbines in protected conservation areas.
The project was also very different in that the Western Isles community was not set to benefit substantially from the profits.
Mr Manson said: “I don’t think Shetland wants a windfarm totally for the benefit of others.”
Viking Energy believes we will have to wait at least two years before we know if the windfarm might happen. No serious money will be required until planning permission is in the bag. Reaching that stage should cost the SIC around £1m.
The company expects planning consent to be the lever which brings the interconnector cables. This crucial part of the jigsaw would be paid for and maintained by the National Grid which will charge Viking Energy to carry its power.
The government in London has the power to cap, or subsidise, charges until at least 2020 but, as Mr Thomson said, the price that will be set is “one of the big uncertainties” in the project.
Before the cable goes ahead, the shareholders of Scottish & Southern Energy will have to give their company the green light to push ahead with Viking Energy and the commercial banks will have to be persuaded to risk lending the bulk of the £580 million to build and erect the turbines.
As Mr Thomson said: “If the numbers don’t stack up . . . this project won’t happen. It is not a done deal.”
Councillor Manson said the SIC could step away from the project, and its partnership with SSE, at any point, even after obtaining planning permission.
In the event of a deadlocked dispute between the two companies somewhere down the line, the assets would be split 50/50, he said.
In his presentation, Mr Thomson addressed the fear that Shetland might be overwhelmed by the huge windfarm. He said Shetlanders had expressed serious reservations in the 1970s about the coming of oil which might destroy not only the islands’ wildlife but its culture too.
Instead, he said, our standard of living today owed “an immeasurable amount” to oil and the prosperity it has brought. Now, in the era of climate change, Viking Energy was in existence to bring “an economic and environmentally positive legacy” for Shetland.
Hurdles to overcome
Obstacles in Viking Energy’s path:
* Shetland public opinion;
* rules protecting wildlife and the environment;
* normal planning requirements;
* government ministers in Edinburgh who have the final say on planning permission;
* the electricity regulator Ofgem who will decide if a £400m cable should be laid;
* government ministers in London who will have to cut charges for use of the cable;
* Scottish & Southern Energy shareholders who will have to back their company’s venture with the SIC;
* commercial banks and investors who need to be convinced to risk the bulk of the £580m cost
By John Robertson
16 March 2007
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