Campaigners opposing a massive windfarm development in the central mainland of Shetland said they were overwhelmed by the turnout at an “open meeting” held last night (Wednesday).
Bixter hall was bursting at the seams after around 150 islanders took up an invitation by Sustainable Shetland to “anyone who shares our concern about the Viking Energy project”.
Representatives from the project team complained bitterly this morning (Thursday) that they had been told in advance they would not be welcome at the meeting.
The meeting was chaired by Aith school head teacher Jim Nicolson who introduced four speakers, Sustainable Shetland chairman Billy Fox and committee members Kevin Learmonth, Rosa Steppanova and Allen Fraser before opening the floor for questions and comments.
Mr Nicolson said that he was disappointed that only one councillor, newly elected member for Lerwick South, Jonathan Wills, was prepared to listen to islanders’ concern.
Viking Energy, a community owned company, proposes to build a 554MW windfarm in partnership with Scottish & Southern Energy, and export the electricity via a subsea cable to the Scottish mainland.
In September last year, Shetland Charitable Trust agreed to buy the council’s shareholdings in Viking Energy for £900.
Mr Fox told last night’s meeting that Sustainable Shetland had only been formed in February by a small group who saw the need to kick start a debate about the project.
He said he had become worried about the proposal after developers last year were unable to answer many of his questions during an initial consultation process. He became even more worried, he added, when he heard former energy minister Brian Wilson saying on the Newsnight Scotland TV programme that Shetlanders did not care for their moorland.
He stressed that Sustainable Shetland was not against renewable energy or windfarm projects “per se”, but was worried about the industrial size of the 154 turbines proposal.
“We are not doing this by choice. We are doing this because we think it is necessary. It is our money that Viking Energy is using to convince us of something which I think the majority of islanders don’t want.
“The vocal minority is the folk who are proposing the windfarm, with the silent majority being against it,” he said.
He added that the massive windfarm projects on the continent during the last 20 years have not resulted in any reduction of carbon dioxide emission as the demand for electricity continues to rise.
Sustainable Shetland said the proposed project would cover an area of 32,000 acres, 11 miles long and seven miles wide.
His speech was followed by a short presentation from Kevin Learmonth who described the proposed investment of £60 million of community funds held in the Shetland Charitable Trust as a “one horse gamble”.
Viking Energy Ltd is expected to finance half of the £600 million development costs. To release finance via bank loans, SCT will subsequently have to put forward around 20 per cent, or £60 million, from its funds.
Mr Learmonth described such an investment, representing 25 per cent of the overall value of the charitable trust, as “reckless”, as it could put the annual budget of the trust, which supports a wide range of charitable causes throughout Shetland, into jeopardy.
“In an investment you risk what you could afford to lose,” he said, adding that Shetland could not “afford to lose this amount of money” should the project turn out not to be successful.
Councillor Wills accused the panel of scaremongering, saying that no decisions on any such investments had been taken yet. He also said that the transfer of Viking Energy Ltd from the council to the charitable trust has not been completed yet as it is being investigated by the Inland Revenue.
Rosa Steppanova then described the notion of disturbing large peat bogs to construct wind turbines on it as equivalent to destroying tropical rain forests to plant biofuel crops.
She said peatland was one of the rarest habitats on earth with only three per cent of all habitats, but it played a vital part in storing the world’s greenhouse gases.
“The moors of the northern hemisphere are superior in storing carbon dioxide. We should restore and improve our peat lands,” she said.
Finally, local meteorologist and tour guide Allen Fraser told the meeting about his concern about Viking Energy’s projections.
He said that according to his wind data for the area, construction of the proposed wind farm would be severely hampered by the wind itself as average speeds would limit the amount of days a large crane necessary to erect the turbines, could safely operate.
He said in a worst case scenario it could take up to 22 years to erect 154 very large wind turbines as mobile cranes could only operate in winds less than 15 miles per hour. There were only seven weeks per year that such conditions were prevalent in the area for the proposed windfarm.
The meeting then moved to the question and answer section. Many speakers stressed the point that it was important to formally object to the project rather than just voicing concern.
Whiteness community councillor Allan Inkster said it was his understanding that Viking Energy Ltd had already spent £1.6 million of community funds in developing and promoting the project and asked: “Can we get the same amount of money for this group?”
Councillor Wills said that he would report back to his colleagues in the council chamber, adding that that he felt more councillors should have been at last night’s meeting “to listen to some of your concern”.
The largest round of applause of the night was received by Tresta man Jack Young, when he stood up and summed up the feeling of the meeting, saying: “There is still a lot of confusion, but I find myself being mostly against it.
“This will have a huge visual impact on the landscape. It is a vast industrial project. This is an abomination; it will destroy the visual amenity of the place.”
A spokesman for Viking Energy said company representatives were “effectively barred from attending”.
“To describe such a one-sided affair as an open meeting is a disgrace,” a statement issued this morning read.
It continued: “The group has also refused to enter into any kind of meaningful dialogue regarding the facts. It currently bases its opposition on an out of date layout, speculation and unfiltered downloads from the internet.
“A prime example of this is at the core of the publicity material for the meeting. Sustainable Shetland claim the windfarm will cover 32,000 acres. The boundary of the site, in reality, covers 9,884 acres or less than 3 per cent of Shetland’s land area.
“Within that site, the actual footprint of turbine foundations, the crane pads, the roads and the borrow pits comes to 371 acres.”
“Viking Energy will produce a brochure in early April. That will provide people with a factual basis to make judgments on. A sensible debate on those facts can hopefully follow. That debate should involve two sides rather than one.”
Sustainable Shetland chairman Billy Fox reacted by saying: “The invitation to our open meeting was extended to people who shared our concerns and wished to offer support.
“It was never intended to be a meeting for public debate.
“Sustainable Shetland is a constituted group and the purpose of our open meeting was to find out what level of public support we have.
“Essentially it was an extended working meeting of the group.”
He questioned as to why Viking Energy’s recent round of meetings with local grazing committees were held in private.
By Hans J. Marter
27 March 2008
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