Ocean Kinetics - The Engineering Experts

Letters / Reckoning

THERE’S BEEN a great deal of talk in the press lately concerning Scottish independence, Shetland independence, energy strategies and the need for improvements to the hardware and organisation of the transport infrastructure.

To my way of thinking, all of these things are different aspects of the same conundrum – which is, ‘how is Shetland going to insulate itself from what’s going on all around it, in order to survive on its own terms in the future?’

Let’s take a look first at the question of the possible impact of
Scotland’s independence lobby achieving a large enough ‘Yes’ vote this coming September to secure political separation from Britain.

In spite of the impeccable logic of Stuart Hill’s views on udal law, and on the probable illegality of the piece of financial chicanery nearly 400 years ago that ceded political control of Shetland to Scotland, our fortunes are still tied in with Scotland’s and will continue to be so whichever way the country votes.

How the referendum vote itself will go depends jointly on what the private sector wealth-generating mechanism of Scotland decides is desirable; on whether major public sector employers (such as the Royal Navy on the Clyde, and HMRC in Edinburgh) can remain and continue to function satisfactorily in an independent Scotland; and on whether the Scots see Alex Salmond as being either the saviour of Scotland, or simply another little blowhard here-today, gone-tomorrow political chancer who’s looking for his 15 minutes of fame.

However it turns out, Shetland will be at the mercy of a situation it can’t control, and in fact can’t even affect to any appreciable extent.

Next, let’s consider the energy strategies that are on offer in Shetland, and see what THEY imply in terms of the possibility of energy independence.

As I see it, the major problem with harvesting electrical energy from wind turbine arrays is that of intermittent input – and the consequent unavoidable dependence on some other form of ‘spinning resource’ to fill in the energy-supply gaps on days when Shetland is assailed by ‘the wrong kind of wind’.

The fatal flaw in the Viking Energy project, and in the proposed Unst-Yell wind farms, is that neither of them feature even the slightest hint of the use of ‘energy buffering’ – where incoming electrical energy is stored in industrial-sized batteries whenever it’s not required for immediate use, and is ‘chopped’ back into AC and put out onto the distribution grid when demand for it rises.

(For the technically-minded: such a system works in exactly the same way as a UPS – ‘Uninterruptible Power Supply’ – unit that’s used to support desktop PCs or servers. The UPS’s internal battery is charged constantly by power incoming from the mains; the unit’s output power is derived from the battery by means of a chopper-inverter and is supplied as 230 V AC to the PC; and there’s no direct connection at all between the 230 V AC mains input and the identical-looking but locally-generated 230V AC output. This is also exactly the same thing – on a rather smaller scale – as the power arrangement for a laptop: its battery is charged constantly when the mains is available, and an internal chopper-inverter circuit powered by the battery supplies the juice to run the laptop. If the mains drops out for any reason, the laptop simply sails on on battery power either until the mains input is restored, or until the battery runs flat and shuts down the laptop.)

The problem with a non-buffered wind turbine setup is its unreasonable reliance on a fossil-fuelled or nuclear-powered generating station which, in the case of something hanging on the end of a sub-sea interconnector cable, could well be more than 100 miles away.

The wind turbine setup is then utterly dependent on the continuing integrity of a generating station AND the sub-sea interconnector cable. In Shetland’s case, in the absence of an interconnector to the mainland, the local grid would still have to rely for continuity of supply on a generating station which is run very wastefully, in terms of how much heat it discards in the holy name of ‘doing business’. We need to look at that aspect of ‘energy security’ next …

Lerwick’s diesel-powered Gremista power station probably ran at an overall efficiency of around 33 per cent when it was brand new. The present state of its exhaust gases – which would cause an immediate MOT failure on the grounds of dirty emissions if it were a car – suggests that its efficiency is now down to around 25 per cent (due to the whole thing being worn-out after decades of good service).

What this means is that, for every 50 MW of electricity generated, 200 MW of heat energy is developed and dissipated by the generators: but only 50 MW of it is translated into usable electricity that can be put on the grid.

The remaining 150 MW of developed heat is unloaded, not into the district heating system right next door, which in my opinion is where it should go; but instead, into the atmosphere above the power station, and into the wildlife jacuzzi/hot tub situated between the auto spares shop and Shetland Catch.

Bearing in mind that 150 MW dumped for an hour is 150,000 UNITS OF HEAT ENERGY, however it’s developed and whatever it’s used for; and that an average dwelling in Lerwick would probably consume around 70-80 units of heat A DAY in order to remain reasonably comfortable; that’s an awful lot of heat to dump into an unofficial alligator, seal or dolphin farm such as Lerwick Bay.

The same critique would have to apply to SSE’s proposed new generator round at Rova Head, of course – except that its 120 MW of peak electrical output will argue the development of 360 MW of heat energy at maximum generating output, and the consequent dumping of up to 240 MW of it into the local environment (when in fact, in my opinion, ALL of it should be channelled into the incinerator pipework, for collection and distribution at SHEAP).

Worse than that – both of these generators rely on supplies of diesel fuel (which is expensive to use for electricity generation) whose price is subsidised by traiffs extorted from our cousins on the mainland.

If that state of affairs were to change suddenly, perhaps as a side-effect of Scottish Independence, we could suddenly find ourselves in serious difficulties very quickly – and there’d be no possibility of defence against it.

This fact alone makes the design of generating systems that would offer GENUINE energy independence a matter of the most extreme urgency. Ian Marchant blandly ignored the question of ‘where does all the waste heat go to?’ when he was preparing for Life After SSE a few years ago – but maybe the new person in charge would be able to shed some light on this matter?

We should look now at the transport infrastructure. The situation with the ferry fares on Bluemull Sound (in particular) is a shambles and a disgrace. The original ticketing method – which involved one type of ticket for local return travel between the north isles, and another type of ticket for return travel from the north isles to Toft and back, and with discounts for north isles’ residents who bought tickets in strips of ten – worked perfectly well, as far as I could see.

I thought at the time (when Saxa Vord finally closed for MOD business) that making travel ‘free’ on Bluemull Sound (and elsewhere) was a bad idea which would eventually cause trouble, and so it’s proved to be.

As far as replacing the ferries with fixed links is concerned, though, I see that idea as being a complete non-starter. The time to have attempted to do that would have been in the early 1980s, when the oil throughput money had started to flow in quantity.

Instead, and again as far as I can see from the evidence around me, the money was spent on partying, and on creating make-work jobs in the council and SIC’s social services. Now, since Shetland is in a tight financial corner after decades of also squandering its resources on other ‘projects’ such as Smyril Line, the Bressay bridge, the Anderson High, the various fish farm affairs that caused Shetland to be featured not once, but twice in Private Eye magazine (which in itself was a complete disgrace); and on keeping the schools open when post-RAF population numbers on the north isles and elsewhere had dwindled to the point of almost emptying them altogether, fixed transport links between the islands probably can’t be funded from within Shetland anymore as ‘there’s no money left, because we’ve spent it all’.

Another way of saying it is that (speaking to the future generations) ‘we had a jolly good time spending your oil-money inheritance – so you might want to consider the idea of moving away from Shetland, when the time comes for YOU to earn a living’.

I’ve decided to leave tourism on Shetland out of this reckoning. People either want to come up here as tourists, or they don’t … but they should NOT be actively discouraged from doing so by the unfair imposition of extra travel costs that no Shetlander has to face – because that, quite simply, would be an unprofessional way to treat them.

If they feel excited enough by Shetland’s history – which is really only about 1,000 years’ deep, and consists mainly of records of the activities of a number of bands of armed-robbing, red-bearded, murdering rapists on a spree from the Scandinavian countries, coming up here to butcher the Pictish people for a bit of fun – that’s fine. It would be churlish in the extreme to disabuse them of their notions, or to discourage them from making the journey.

As far as I can see, the only way out of the present situation will either be to leave the place to the sheep, or by means of hard and intelligently-planned application carried out steadily and in a well-organised manner over the coming decades.

It won’t happen by lucky Act of God, no matter what the past economic boost of Sullom Voe and the recent filip of Total’s current gas-plant operation might suggest; but instead, by assessing Shetland’s true strengths, and then playing to them for all we’re worth.

This will include: making sustained and serious efforts to grow as much as possible of the food that the islands require, rather than simply shipping it in; energy independence secured by the PROPER engineering of next-generation installations (existing engineers need not apply – because as we can see, they’ve already failed); and above all, electing an Executive that can make and rapidly implement honest, rational and economical decisions that can be readily understood by every single blue collar-type worker on Shetland.

Why blue-collar? Because those people – the practical ones, the ones who get their hands dirty for a living – are the only ones up here who really matter. And since most of them seem to be stuck in low-paid activities with very little way out, they are exactly the ones who need to be supported.

The white-collar fly-by-nights, the ones who come up here for a paid break, and who are slick enough to be able to bale-out and go elsewhere if the going gets too tough for them, simply don’t matter and never have – so there’s no point in providing extra support for THEM.

Above all, though, Shetland needs to get into a new mindset of completely realistic thinking – because, whether Alex Salmond gets his way or not in September, we need to be ready NOW in case (or before) things go any further wrong.

At the top of the ‘to-do’ list has to be an immediate and thorough legal investigation of Shetland’s true position in relation to Scotland, Britain, and of the Crown Estate’s right to take whatever it wants from us.

Shetland can’t secure its position or plan forward effectively until that matter at least has been settled once and for all. We simply can’t afford to be at the mercy of the political machinations of any more here-today, gone-tomorrow politicians, or the hapless plaything of any more semi-failed nation states such as the UK is rapidly becoming.

Philip Andrews