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Letters / Opinion: Unanswered questions

James Mackenzie

On Thursday the UK and Scottish governments pledged to speed up work on connecting the Scottish islands to the national electricity grid, which will be the key to the development of the Viking Energy wind farm and other renewables projects in Shetland, Orkney and the western isles.

Their enthusiasm is based partly on last year’s Baringa report which highlighted the huge potential contribution the Scottish islands could make to the UK’s electricity supply. Here Sustainable Shetland vice chairman James Mackenzie warns of the consequences of allowing such developments to proceed.

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The 2013 Baringa/TNEI for the Department of Energy and Climate Change says:

Scottish Island renewable resource potential

Renewable resources from wind, wave and tidal on the Scottish islands of the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland are considerable, and renewable generation on the Scottish islands could make a significant contribution to Scotland’s and the UK’s 2020 renewables targets, as well as playing an important role in longer term decarbonisation objectives.

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Of a total practical resource potential in excess of 80 TWh/yr (around 20 per cent of current total GB electricity demand), our analysis suggests that with the appropriate policy support and regulatory environment an additional 4 TWh could be developed by 2020, and around 18.5 TWh by 2030 (representing approximately 1 per cent and 5 per cent of total GB electricity demand respectively).

Longer term there could be even greater potential, particularly if the costs of marine renewables fall as should be expected with successful demonstration and commercialisation of these technologies on the islands.

The Empowering Scotland’s Islands Communities prospectus, launched by Alex Salmond recently, and apparently signed up to by our council’s political leader, highlights this same contribution of five per cent by 2030.

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What this means, according to the report quoted above, in terms of onshore wind generation in Shetland, is 1600 MW.

In practice this means about four times as much capacity as the proposed Viking Windfarm, and an interconnector cable (or more than one?) capable of transmitting nearly three times as much as the 600MW one proposed for Viking.

It is hard, if not painful, to imagine the scale of converter station(s) and cabling that would be required, let alone turbines, roads and quarries.

No alternative vision of renewable energy or decarbonisation is offered to the islands. A Shetland interconnector is regarded as essential and the Viking Windfarm as a foregone conclusion*.

In respect of this, we note that the Our Islands Our Future introduction to the prospectus states:

Our remoteness means that connectivity of all kinds is fundamental to us, be it grid connections, postal services, digital communications, or crucially transport by sea or air, both internal to our Island Areas and external to the Scottish mainland.

It is worth pointing out, perhaps, that in Shetland we already have “fundamental” connectivity as far as these services are concerned, except in grid connections. Logically, therefore, a grid connection is not “fundamental” to Shetland! We presently do not have one, and that is that.

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As far as tourism is concerned, no mention is made of the islands’ considerable environmental achievements and potential. Although the environment is briefly described earlier in the document as “stunning”, wildlife tourism and Geopark status are, for example, neglected – in favour of food and drink consumption as a measure of economic benefit.

Only one ‘onshore’ natural resource is really considered: wind – and that for the most part for its perceived contribution to national renewable energy targets. Landscape and environment (in spite of the glossy photographs) in this scenario are of no relevance.

The importance of blanket bog, a valuable carbon sink that covers much of Shetland, is ignored.

Given the shape and topography of Shetland, where would all this assumed wind power be located?

How on earth could it be contained within any meaningful planning policy spatial framework?

What would be the effect on communities that almost by necessity would have to live surrounded by and in close proximity to turbines?

What would happen to the “stunning” environment?

And how does this vision square with the draft Scottish Independence Bill, which proposes that:

Every person is entitled to live in a healthy environment.

Accordingly, and in recognition of the importance of the environment to the people of Scotland, the Scottish Government and public authorities must, in carrying out their functions, seek to protect and enhance the quality of the environment.

In particular, they must seek to promote: the conservation of biodiversity, measures to tackle climate change.?

For Shetlanders, there are many contradictions and anomalies in these Scottish independence prognoses. We do not, however, expect the pro-UK factions to come up with anything different, because – in spite of the complaints that are made in the former document about the inability of the UK government to tackle the energy regulator Ofgem – as far as island renewable energy is concerned, both governments are singing from the same hymn sheet.

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And so much for “subsidiarity”, which is trumpeted as a principle of a new Scottish constitution. Both Shetland Islands Council and the Scottish government conveniently ignored the large, and undiminished, groundswell of opposition to the Viking Windfarm, both from individuals and environmental organisations*.

The UK government, in its Scottish islands renewable energy proposals, did the same.

We are left with unanswered – because they are inconvenient – questions about the nature of true democracy, accountability and transparency.

We hope that some of our elected representatives will take on board these genuine concerns – and have the courtesy to respond to them.

The economic cost (and to whom?) of realising these government ambitions is, of course, a whole other unanswered question…

*Nobody should be under any illusions about this opposition being undiminished, or about the certainty of the Viking Windfarm. The powers that be should not forget, that in 2012 Sustainable Shetland successfully bid for a Judicial Review of the Scottish Ministers’ decision to give planning consent to the windfarm. It was deemed to be in the public interest. This lengthy process has been at a cost to Sustainable Shetland’s members and supporters that has run well into six figures, and been paid – a remarkable achievement. At the time of writing, nearly two years later, the outcome of the review is still undecided – and even when it is, in the Scottish courts, there is still a possibility the case could go to the UK Supreme Court, or even the European Court of Justice.

James Mackenzie

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