Downsizing the Viking Energy wind farm project and selling it to Shetland has proved to be a bigger and far more complicated job than Allan Wishart expected.
Last August the 65 year old Lerwick North councillor resigned as chairman of Shetland Islands Council’s infrastructure committee and transport partnership ZetTrans to concentrate on co-ordinating plans to build one of Europe’s largest onshore wind farms.
He also resigned from Viking’s board of directors and from Shetland Charitable Trust, the first councillor ever to do so, to avoid any conflict of interest with the organisation that shares control of the plans with power giant Scottish and Southern Energy.
Last month the Standards Commission ruled he had acted appropriately after an anonymous complaint that he could not square his roles with the SIC and Viking.
Mr Wishart’s initial contract was for one year, but twelve months later there is still much to do and the company has asked him to continue on a month-by-month basis until his mission is accomplished.
As well as co-ordinating the project, the former Lerwick Port Authority chief executive sees it as his task to persuade people that community ownership of a huge wind farm in Shetland’s central mainland is the best way of guaranteeing the future prosperity of the islands.
He says he is more convinced than ever before that this is an opportunity not to be missed, but at the same time is open about the mistakes that have been made along the way.
His appointment followed a wave of objections from the local community and statutory bodies to Viking’s plans to erect one of the biggest onshore wind farms in Europe – 150 massive wind turbines from Nesting to Scatsta exporting power to the mainland through a new subsea cable that would attach Shetland to the national grid for the first time.
Viking responded by announcing they would review the project and submit an addendum. That was due early this year, but now Mr Wishart will only guarantee it will be ready before next Christmas.
“I am very reluctant to say when it will be out. I know there is a feeling that the project has lost its momentum, but I like to think that when the addendum comes out the content will be much more acceptable.”
While refusing to reveal the details of the re-design, he made it clear that it will be significantly smaller, possibly by as much as 20 per cent.
After long discussions with statutory bodies, the figures on bird impact and carbon payback time will improve, he says.
The wind farm’s efficiency will also improve through better siting, compensating for a reduced number of turbines.
“The project has significantly changed. The changes in turbine numbers have been made in such a way that impacts on birds and carbon payback has much improved.
“Say for instance you have a 10 or 20 per cent reduction in numbers. This will not just be a 20 per cent reduction in impact on birds or a 20 per cent improvement on carbon payback. It has been done in such a way that the improvements are much higher.
“I would say that all the objections have been taken on board and a lot of attention has been paid to all the comments made in the village halls. I am confident that the whole project now looks a lot better and will be accepted a lot better.
“As well as having a reduction in numbers the actual output of the wind farm will not be reduced to the same percentage. It will be a smaller project, but I can’t put figures on it.”
Citing the recent deep water drilling disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and the pressing issue of energy security at a time of peak oil, Mr Wishart says he is more committed to the case for a wind farm in the isles than ever before.
“People are now realising that there is a big problem and there have to be alternatives. I haven’t heard from anybody in Shetland an alternative that is better than what Viking Energy is doing at the moment.
“I hear about using gas – well, that is finite. I hear about tightening our belts – well, that will happen anyway with the reduction in government funding.
“A year ago there were more vociferous anti-wind farm feelings and statements. I would say that has become far more muted. Other people who keep their finger on the temperature in the community would say the same.”
He is convinced that if the council went through another round of consultation with the community, the number of people making the case against the wind farm would have reduced.
Yet he freely admits that miscalculations were made when Viking’s plans were first published in 2003, particularly about the resistance they would face locally. When opposition erupted throughout the island’s public halls, the company realised the issue was more complex and more time was needed.
“This is the first time in this country that a community involvement on such a scale has been pursued. So it is new for us, new for the community and the charitable trust, and new for Scottish and Southern.
“It is all new territory and I suppose if you could rewind it to 2003 or 2004 it would be approached differently.”
Mr Wishart believes it is crucial for local people to understand “the downside of not having a commercial wind farm in Shetland in the longer term”.
“Given the pressure on government to achieve the targets set by the EU, there will be a wind farm in Shetland. It is absolutely vital that the community has a big share in that. My views on that have been strengthened and reinforced.
“The people who are involved in this from the charitable trust side are elected and ultimately responsible to the community. It is difficult to see a vehicle that could be more community responsible than the system we have at the moment.”
He had hoped his mission to persuade Shetland of the benefit of a wind farm would have been accomplished by now. “At my age there are a lot of domestic interests to follow. I have worked all my life, and it is time now to slow down,” he says.
“I would have liked all this done and dusted, but I can’t leave it at this particular stage when it is just at the point of going through the next process.
“But I would do it all again because I believe in the project. I believe that a large community shareholding in a project of this size is very important for the future of Shetland.”
Once the addendum is submitted a 28 day consultation period kicks in with Shetland Islands Council having an additional 28 days to make its recommendation. After that it is up to the government’s Energy Consents Unit to decide whether to grant approval.
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