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Letters / Open letter to Sustainable Shetland

Dear Frank (Hay) and colleagues,

Thank you for your open letter, and please forgive the delay in replying. My position on the Viking Energy project is as follows: I support it.

Why? Shetland is one of the most fossil-fuel dependent communities on earth; this is one of the reasons it is so expensive to live here; that, as well as the wider considerations of slowing the rate of climate change (and thus of rising sea-level), is a very good reason to be in favour of renewable energy.

Although I have been a long-term supporter of onshore wind power, my support has not been and is not uncritical or automatic.

I have seen badly designed wind farms in other parts of the world. Some of them are deplorable and it is hard to understand why or how they got planning permission. I have also seen well-designed wind farms.

After doing research and considering the issues, I concluded that the original Viking proposal was too big. That is why I voted for the council to lodge a formal objection to the planning application under Section 36 of the Electricity Act, in order to trigger a public inquiry where all the issues could be debated. I was outvoted on that occasion.

The application was then scrutinised in detail by Scottish civil servants before the Scottish minister made the decision to reduce the size of the project by about a third. That is probably what a public inquiry would have recommended anyway.

The minister also imposed strict and detailed conditions to ensure that concerns raised by objectors would be mitigated as far as practicable.

As an objector, I thought this was a reasonable outcome and accepted it. You did not.

You and your members then wasted a great deal of your own and the public’s money by pursuing the issue through the courts. While our learned friends were deliberating, and in due and lengthy course rejecting, all the arguments you put before them, the public interest of Shetland was being damaged, in that the council and the charitable trust were foregoing income that they might have earned if the project had gone ahead when it was granted planning permission. That income can never be recouped.

To object and to spin out the objection to the bitter end was your right, of course, but, having lost, you seem to think you can spin it out even further and find some other way to frustrate and block the wind farm, either by protesting against the necessary cable to the Scottish mainland or by opposing other renewable energy developments that could be expected to use the same cable to export clean energy from Shetland.

I cannot understand what purpose would be now served by a council debate on Viking.

The issue has been decided by an open, democratic vote in the council (the one that decided not to oppose the planning application); the application has been determined by an elected minister of a democratically elected Scottish government; and it has been endorsed by the highest courts in Scotland and the UK. What, exactly, do you not understand about that?

It is indeed a pity that some councillors refuse to say whether they support the project or not (and all credit to Cllrs. Billy Fox and Theo Smith for making their views so plain in public). It may be regrettable that some appear not to have an opinion one way or the other, but there really is no further role for the council in this particular planning application.

Perhaps some councillors refrained from comment because they are on the planning committee and might be asked at some time in the future to vote on issues related to the wind farm if presented with evidence that the developer were in breach of the planning conditions.

Here there might be a future role for your organisation, I suggest: if your members believed they had detected any breach of planning conditions, it would of course be open to them as individuals or collectively to make formal objection.

I understand your concern that there might be overdevelopment of wind farms in Shetland but I think you are mistaken in seeing Viking as a precedent. As you will recall, the area chosen by the Viking developers was selected precisely because it was not covered by large-scale conservation designations. I would expect any other large wind farm in Shetland to run into serious and possibly valid environmental objections, because the remaining areas that might be developed for wind farms with minimal adverse environmental effects are in fact relatively small.

That is why I hope as much as possible of the spare capacity in the cable can be taken up by tidal power, for example.

If the whole of Shetland were to become a giant wind farm, as some of your more imaginative members have prophesied, then I would be as alarmed as you and in a mood to demonstrate against the First Minister if she made a state visit to Shetland (you will remember, I am sure, our youthful involvement in the incident at Channerwick Brig).

You are also mistaken, I suggest, in saying that the council has accepted the Viking project “as being the only way forward for Shetland’s renewable energy development”. This misrepresents the council’s position, as you would discover if you troubled to check the publicly available papers on council policy.

Viking is part of a wider picture but it is certainly council policy to support a connection between Shetland and the National Grid. Leaving aside the earning potential for local public organisations from such a cable, I cannot see this policy changing any time soon, if ever, simply because of the technical limitations on small, stand-alone electricity grids.

An interesting example of such a grid is the island of Kodiak, in Alaska, where they make much use of wind power but still rely on fossil fuel backup – as Shetland probably always will to some extent, even when there is a cable to the mainland.

Many of the various “alternative renewable energy strategies and measures” you describe in your “vision” document already have been or are being looked at by the local renewable energy forum and by the Scottish government and industry associations.

Some of these ideas are at present non-starters, because of technical problems yet to be overcome; others are extremely promising and hopefully will be developed as soon as possible.

The council, I am sure, will wish to assist schemes that look feasible, for example by agreeing memoranda of understandings with potential developers, as was done with the proposed Vattenfall wave power project, now unhappily postponed, if not abandoned.

If and when planning applications for such schemes come forward, I trust the council will carry out its duties as planning authority or statutory consultee and, if objections seem valid, I hope councillors will vote against such projects or use their powers to trigger public inquiries if necessary. That will be the time for debate in the council chamber.

Meanwhile, it is of course open to any councillor to ask at any time for a debate on the future of council policy on renewable energy in general, even though Viking is now settled. No member has yet done so.

The procedure for initiating a debate is straightforward – a simple notice of motion will suffice.

If you believe you have like-minded councillors who might set this ball rolling, why not ask them?

With best wishes,

Councillor Jonathan Wills