Renowned for its stunning scenery, pure air and sense of peace, a new Viking battle is disturbing island life on Shetland more than a thousand years after the first.
Last month, after a protracted process involving petitions, court fights and appeals, the bulldozers finally moved in to start work on a £580 million, 103 turbine windfarm which was granted planning consent eight years ago.
The plans were first raised in 2005 when they were presented to the islanders as a community-owned enterprise with the potential to earn them £37 million a year.
However, the involvement of Shetland Islands Council (SIC) as developers 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.
It later announced it would not be contributing further, and the project is now solely funded by Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE).
From the outset, the Viking Energy windfarm – the largest in the UK in terms of output, capable of powering 500,000 homes annually – has been a controversial prospect for many islanders.
When the plans gained consent in April 2012, the developers quickly faced a court challenge over their wildlife impact assessments.
In 2013, an Edinburgh judge ruled that they did not follow EU law on bird protection. Appeals took this to the UK’s highest court, where judges then ruled in favour of SSE in 2015. The plaintiffs, community group Sustainable Shetland, were not pleased and raised £200,000 to contest the plans. They remain a vocal opponent of the wind farm and maintain there should have been a public inquiry before it was approved.
Chairman Frank Hay said consultations throughout the planning process had been lacking and that alternative proposals for a gas powered station in Lerwick had never been properly considered.
“This was going to happen, no matter what, he said. “A lot of our efforts were wasted. This is about pursuing a carbon zero agenda, regardless of value for money for energy customers.”
He said the land the windfarm will be cited on is ‘predominantly peat.’
Indeed, the developers reduced the number of turbines – originally proposed to be 150 – partly due to the planned location across the peat bogs. Peat bogs store significant amounts of carbon emissions, even more intensely than forests.
“They are digging through vast quantities of peat, some places three of four feet deep” he said. “They are carbon stores and here we have Viking just digging them up.”
Last month, 20 people from across the isles signed a petition expressing concern that Shetland Islands Council’s (SIC) recognition of a global climate emergency had not taken into account current evidence on the carbon value of peatland.
Petitioners said that since the original approval was given to the Viking wind farm from the Scottish Government in 2012 “much of the science has fundamentally changed and we now indisputably recognise peatland as a store of carbon equal to or greater than that of rainforest”.
Mr Hay said the 129 sq km windfarm had divided the community. “I think it’s got worse since the diggers moved in,” he added. “It is really the economy versus the environment. Things are getting quite heated. Former friends no longer speak to each other, families are split. It’s almost a taboo topic.”
Lorna Moncrief, 65, is the fourth generation of her family to live in Shetland, in Aith.
She said: “We are just concerned about wildlife and the areas being desecrated.
“I am all for green energy but you can’t call it green when you are digging up half the island, it’s ridiculous. They keep saying now we should be preserving peat and then they dig it up to build a windfarm. I think it’s madness.”
She said landowners were being paid compensation for having turbines and added: “The only green part about this is the money.”
“We wouldn’t have minded a few windmills to power Shetland but this isn’t to power Shetland, it’s to power the whole of the UK.
“Nobody has listened to us from the start.”
Central mainland councillor Moraig Lyall added: “I believe that it will turn the heartland of our islands into an industrial zone dominated both in sight and sound by a forest of mechanical giants.
“I feel sad that so many seem to think that ruining the landscape is our only option to maintain economic prosperity. This decision is not being taken by SSE to benefit the people of Shetland but to satisfy the thirst for ‘green’ energy on the mainland and to swell their profits.”
Protesters held a picnic in Upper Kergord in July to show their concerns over the windfarm.
More than 50 people held a picnic next to the site of an access road, which is being built for a large substation linked to the development.
Placards on show included “Where was our voice”, “Nature not money” and “Wir hills are wir lungs”.
Tour guide Laurie Goodlad said: “We are really not happy with what’s going on here.”
“We just want to have a picnic in an area of outstanding beauty.”
The scale of the project and lack of community benefit were some of the concerns raised by the protesters.
One picnicker said the “the damage is done”, adding that the windfarm was “simply too big”
SSE say the windfarm – due to be operational by 2024 – will bring investment to Shetland and help resolve energy supply issues on the island. It will also benefit the island in terms of community pay-outs for local projects, around £2 million a year, and support 400 jobs during the construction phase and 35 jobs during its 25 years in operation.
A spokesman for SSE Renewables said much of the wind farm site was on ‘heavily eroded and degraded peat’ and ‘is therefore a net emitter of that stored carbon.’
“Viking’s Habitat Management Plan (HMP) has been approved by SEPA, SNH and Shetland Islands Council,” he said. “An independent expert advisory group, Shetland Windfarm Environmental Advisory Group (SWEAG) will oversee the comprehensive programme of conservation measures, which include extensive peat restoration over 260 hectares of significantly damaged and eroded habitat.
“SSE Renewables is a responsible developer and will ensure that people and contractors operating the Viking construction site do so to the highest health and safety and environmental standards, with strict adherence to consent conditions.”
The project failed to secure government subsidy last year, but SSE pledged £7 billion of private capital in low-carbon investments in the UK and Ireland over the next five years as it targets a “green recovery” from the pandemic.
A community investment review, carried out by SSE Renewables, earlier this week showed that more than £3 million has been allocated to areas across the north-and north east of Scotland to fight Covid 19 – with nearly £1.5m going towards community groups helping in the front line response.
Around £6.1m was allocated to 443 projects across the UK.
Funding was also granted to groups including the Royal Burgh of Wick Community Council towards materials for a 3D printer to make masks and visors.
Managing director of SSE Renewables Jim Smith said: “Viking wind farm will help kickstart the green economic recovery, bringing much needed low-carbon investment to Shetland.
“In doing so, it will trigger the building of the associated transmission connection to the islands, which will itself help resolve longstanding security of supply issues on the island.”
Scottish Government energy minister Paul Wheelhouse said the windfarm was a ‘great symbol’ for the green recovery that the Scottish Government is’ determined to foster and encourage.’
He added: “I am determined that this excellent outcome should be a starting point for similar investments and connections to unlock equivalent potential and benefits on the Western Isles and in Orkney.”
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding