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Viking say this is as good as it gets

VIKING Energy say their revised planning application for a smaller wind farm is the final version that will be presented to the Scottish government’s energy consents unit.

The developer has spent a whole year answering the wide range of concerns raised following their initial planning application published on 20 May last year.

That plan, for 150 turbines producing 540 megawatts of electricity, generated a welter of objections from a wide range of individuals and organisations, including three of the main consultees – Scottish Natural Heritage, Scottish Environment Protection Agency and the bird charity RSPB.

Almost everyone said the project was too big and called for it to be scaled back, which Viking Energy have done.

The 150 turbines are down by 23, the final footprint is down from 252 hectares to 104, the output is down from 540MW to 457. The cost has also been reduced from £800 million to £685 million, but the income remains the same.

Shetland Charitable Trust stands to gain £23 million a year, £12 million will go on land rent (one of the main beneficiaries being the SIC), £2 million worth of business every year will enter the economy, while £1 million a year will go to affected communities. Over its quarter century life Shetland should receive almost £1 billion, and that, they say, is a conservative estimate.

The turbines that have been dropped were the “low hanging fruit”, in the words of Viking project officer and shareholder David Thomson.

All eight windmills planned north east of Voe, around Collafirth, have gone. These were the ones which would have had the most impact on birds and peat, as this area had the best quality peat moor of the entire site.

Others have been picked off here and there to minimise visual impact and the potential damage to breeding bird populations, or because they were going to be the least productive in terms of energy generation.

The company claims to have addressed every concern raised by every objector, though not necessarily to everyone’s satisfaction.

They have worked with the main consultees who were not happy with the methodology they had used to come to their findings, and say that at least everyone should be happy with the way they have reached their conclusions.

“Every single aspect of the project has been considered and reviewed, and even things that were not identified as issues or problems have had work done on them in some cases, like noise,” Mr Thomson told a press briefing on Wednesday morning.

“We have done an extremely thorough job. Nothing that was raised has not been addressed or dealt with as far as we can,” project co-ordinator and local councillor Allan Wishart added. “I am confident we won’t have another avalanche of objections.”

They have reduced the wind farm’s size, but they can not go further. “We need to have a critical mass to justify the connection to the mainland, to make an adequate contribution towards helping climate change and producing enough units of electricity to provide a potential return to investors,” Mr Thomson said.

“I think we have gone absolutely as far as we can to maintain a viable project,” Mr Wishart added.

But those potential investors, especially the banks from whom Shetland Charitable Trust will be borrowing their 45 per cent of the construction cost, are hungry to get involved in what is seen as a “no brainer” as far as fat profits are concerned.

The wind farm design could still change thanks to the advance of technology with the 145 metre high 3.6MW Vestas turbines they have planned to use already being superceded by more powerful machines. That could mean still fewer turbines or more power being generated by the same number.

However one thing the new plan does mean is that there should be around 150MW of spare capacity on the 600MW interconnector that the project depends on. That will almost inevitably open the door to a plethora of new applications for individual, community and commercial renewable schemes.

Mr Thomson is keen to point out that Shetland’s has some of the best wind, wave and tide conditions for generating electricity in the whole world. It is also a lot cheaper to build a renewable power plant on Shetland than offshore – Viking would cost an extra £130 million if it was at sea.

Visual impact has been perhaps the main concern for the wider Shetland public who do not relish the thought of spending the next 25 years staring at huge whirling windmills when they stare out of their home or car window, let alone go for a walk on the hills.

Birds and peat have been the major source of contention though, with genuine fears that the project will have a disastrous effect on important bird populations and at the same time generate more carbon than it saves by not burning fossil fuels.

The company is very confident it has addressed the bird issue, so much so that they claim their plans to improve habitat will mean some species such as whimbrel, merlin and red throated diver will see their populations increase as a result of the development.

A huge part of the work carried out over the past year has been focussed on ornithology, leading them to conclude that the overall impact will be “not significant”.

As for the carbon payback period, the company says they have abandoned the standard practice of assessing this by looking at standard government advice and guidance, instead carrying out their own detailed analysis of the land in question.

What they discovered was that the peat on the site was in such poor condition that more than 67 per cent was emitting carbon into the atmosphere, due to climate change, sheep grazing and poor drainage. “It’s a well documented fact that the central mainland of Shetland is suffering from massive peat erosion,” Mr Thomson said.

While last year their best case scenario for carbon payback was 2.7 years, their worst case scenario is now less than one year.

They say their figures have been checked by the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute and will be independently reviewed by SEPA, however they are so confident that Mr Thomson believes if they include their habitat management plans there could even be “a negative carbon payback period”.

Mr Wishart said that when he joined the council in 2007 he had many questions about Viking Energy’s plans before he became a company director and then its project co-ordinator, giving up his seat on the charitable trust to take on the paid position.

“Now I think it is one huge opportunity for Shetland. We simply can’t miss this because my fear is that if we don’t involve ourselves as a community, the resources here are so good they will be exploited by others.

“Given the interest from the European Investment Bank and other supporting banks who want to get involved in this because of the absolutely amazing return, I am completely relaxed about this.”

It has taken seven years to take the project to this stage and people will have until 19 November to send their comments to the government’s energy consents unit. The council will have a further four weeks to respond.

Viking hope to win planning consent from the Scottish government early next year and be putting the whole project out to tender in the spring.

If that happens the islands might see the beginnings of a “windrush” as other people try to soak up the spare capacity on that interconnector, which also has to be given planning consent along with a converter station at Kergord.