It is an issue that has divided a community for more than a decade.
When plans for a giant wind farm to be built on pristine peatland on Shetland were proposed in 2005, it was presented to the islanders as a community-owned enterprise with the potential to earn them £37 million a year.
But after 14 years and growing concerns over Shetland’s fragile biodiversity being shattered by the 145ft turbines being built on pristine peatland and the infrastructure required to construct them, hundreds of islanders are now calling for the project to be scrapped.
Frank Hay, chairman of Sustainable Shetland, an action group formed in 2009 to take on the council-owned Viking Energy Shetland (VES) and partner Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE)’s multi-million pound Viking Wind Farm, said: “It’s basically economics against the environment. The scale of the wind farm and where they are proposing to build the turbines, it’s simply not right.”
More than 800 members of Sustainable Shetland, who raised £200,000 to challenge the farm’s planning consent, resulting in a hearing at London’s Supreme Court in 2014, cite the approval of the wind farm without a Public Local Inquiry as another motivator.
The involvement of Shetland Islands Council (SIC) as developers soon attracted accusations of conflicts of interest, which led to the council transferring its share – 50 per cent of ownership – to Shetland Charitable Trust, which invested about £10m in the project.
In March this year the trust announced it would not be contributing further to the wind farm, with SSE providing all future financing.
The risk of peatslides is just one of the concerns held by local meteorologist and geologist Allen Fraser. He said: “Most of the access roads are floating roads on peat more than five metres deep, which will disrupt the natural drainage into the valleys, resulting in erosion and peatslides.
“Carbon release and pollution risk was not properly investigated. It is clear from the works already begun that planning and environmental constraints placed on the developers are being circumvented or ignored.”
Sustainable Shetland says the community has “real concerns” over the health implications for those who live near or within the wind farm. The 129 sq km wind farm, which will traverse the Shetland archipelago, will be built almost entirely on peatlands, raising fears over a massive release
Mr Fraser said: “The wind farm and others granted or in the planning process will stretch in a practically unbroken line through the length of the islands for more than 70 kilometres, all on peat, on an island chain of low hills that is 110 km long and only 10 km wide at the widest point.
“Access roads and power lines, along with at least 12 super quarries, will
criss-cross and permanently scar the hills for 150 km.”
Richard Lindsay, head of Environmental and Conservation Research at the University of East London, who has visited the site, said: “The simple fact is that just 30cm of peat over one hectare contains the same amount of carbon as one hectare of tropical rainforest – around 280 tonnes.
“Most of Scotland’s peatlands have been absorbing carbon for thousands of years, so when you damage them you release this long-term store.”
Efforts to restore the peat by SSE could prove fruitless, said Mr Lindsay. “One way of looking at it might be robbing Peter to pay Paul, in that some of the peat is being restored but what is the long-term damage?” he said.
Campaigners have argued that Shetland cannot support the £700m interconnector cable that would transmit energy from the islands to the Scottish mainland. Mr Fraser said: “Not one amp of power generated by these giant windfarms is for use in Shetland, it is all for export down the cable. There is no guarantee of any community benefit after the shareholders and owners of the windfarms have taken their cut.”
Islanders who oppose the VES windfarm do not oppose renewable energies but are instead asking for “appropriate local scale wind and tidal power plants”. In 2012, when the original planning application was submitted, SIC received 2,772 individual objections and
1109 letters of support.
Mr Hay said: “The question is, is the environmental damage justified? We don’t think it is. Shetland has a unique landscape and we’re just horrified by the prospect of it.”
Shetland will hold a by-election next week to replace long-serving MSP Tavish Scott. When contacted, Shetland Islands Council declined to comment on the development.
A spokesman for SSE Renewables said: “Viking wind farm is a unique onshore wind project that will deliver millions of pounds of direct investment into the Shetland economy and employment during construction and its lifetime.
“Green energy from Viking will deliver a significant contribution to climate change targets and help Scotland’s transition to net zero emissions by 2045 and provide a vital source of economic diversification for the islands.”