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Letters / Viking: the horse has bolted

An open letter from SNP candidate Danus Skene

Dear Dave Hammond, you asked in these columns a couple of days ago what is my position on the Viking windfarm?

Time indeed, Mr Hammond, to answer the question in public, while being under no illusion that my views will satisfy all who may care to read them. So please be a little patient with me, and let me break a long story down into its pieces…

1. Do I support the principle of generating electricity from “renewable” sources, including windfarms and marine technologies? Should government, as a general policy, be committed to supporting such developments? “Yes, and yes.”

My basic view on this is environmentalist. We simply cannot continue to meet increasing global demand for electricity by burning carbon fuels: the planet cannot take it.

It is the case at this point in time that electricity can be produced more cheaply by power stations than from renewable sources. That will not always be the case, as renewable technologies improve and as carbon fuels inevitably become scarcer and dearer. 

With climate change considerations in mind, responsible government must push from here on to expand the renewable sector. The SNP Scottish government is committed to supporting research and development in the renewable field and to using public resources to promote green power generation. I am happy to be associated with that general policy.

2. Do I support the specific Viking windfarm proposal? “Yes, but…”

I suppose that there are those who would oppose any form of wind power developments.

Orkney’s developments have been small scale, privately or community owned. Even though some are very prominent, and the spread of the smallest units reminds me of nothing so much as the earliest days of forests of H-shaped TV aerials, the scale of Orkney developments has not raised divisive controversy on the Shetland pattern or scale.

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The Viking problem is its scale, and the scale of the project is driven by the distance to mainland Scotland and the consequent cost of an interconnector.

I do not personally have a problem with the appearance of wind turbines, and I am not comfortable with language such as the “industrialisation of the landscape” – all our landscape is the product of human intervention. But I accept that for many Viking is too much in relation to the Shetland landscape. I would much have much preferred a smaller project myself.

3. But that is not where we are now. 

Viking has development permission for a large project of 103 windmills. Will I now join or support any attempt to stop this development happening? “No, I won’t.”

The recent Supreme Court decision was the end of the legal process stemming from the Viking planning application. The court rulings have the effect of certifying that a legal decision has been made in a country governed by the rule of law. I do however have a lot of sympathy for everyone who feels with passion that the process was not exactly transparent and satisfactory.

I cannot see that anything is achieved by having referenda or inquiries now that the horse has bolted, but, looking ahead, the saga of the Viking application is an example of why I am appealing for a “new politics” in Shetland.

Councillors should be elected on programmes to which they can be held to account. Big decisions such as this should proactively seek to engage local communities, civic organisations and the general public in the process. Have a referendum if opinion suggests that it is needed.

If the council’s planning decision had been taken in a more open and participative manner, then whatever the Viking decision had been I think the community as a whole would have accepted it. Time, money, and above all temper would have been saved.

4. The next key decision is about the interconnector. If elected, would I support the process of getting it built? “Yes.”

The process now is that SSE put a “needs case” to Ofgem in order to get permission to conclude a contract to get the interconnector built. Having reached this point, it surely makes sense for any representative of Shetland, of whatever party, to do what they can to facilitate that process.

The interconnector will have a capacity of 600 MW, including the 400 MW that Viking will generate. That leaves “headroom” for 200 MW more, and defines the scope of what further development there could possibly be.

There are only limited windfarm geographical possibilities in the context of the landscape and environmental criteria that were researched for the Viking project. I would personally be keen to see headroom kept for marine renewables whose effective deployment should be possible within the next ten years.

A point about the National Grid. The grid as we know it was constructed to deliver electricity from central power stations out to the edges of Britain. The decision to do this originally was an act of political will. We need another such act of will now to reconfigure the National Grid to transmit green energy from the peripheries to the centre.

As it is, the interconnector decision is being left to the commercial calculations of an electricity company (SSE). While the coalition UK government has been content to leave such a huge infrastructure issue to market forces, the SNP would like to see government initiative on this, investing in the future economy, investing in green energy.

As it is, attainment of the Scottish government’s green energy targets is being frustrated by national infrastructure limitations that are still under the UK government’s control.

I regard it as a failing of the coalition, and of Mr Carmichael in particular, not to have made moves towards a new vision of electricity generation and transmission.

And there is the particular nonsense of charging places like our islands an additional transmission charge, making our lives more expensive, fostering fuel poverty, and disadvantaging our green energy resources. (Maybe a privatised Royal Mail will charge more for our letters…)

5. If elected, will I protect the public interest so that benefit does indeed derive for the community from Viking? “I will/would do everything possible.”

The first thing is to be very vigilant about ensuring that all conditions attached to Viking’s position are scrupulously met. I would expect those who have opposed the project root and branch to be particularly helpful in this. (I would like to be right in my optimistic view that getting the project “done right” has an effect in pulling a bitterly divided community together again).

The Supreme Court having made its ruling, a Shetland representative’s role focuses now on two things. Getting the Viking project done right, and ensuring long term public benefit.

Having helped to make Shetland’s investment through the Shetland Charitable Trust as safe and effective as possible by getting the project under way and earning, I would like to do everything I could to open up participation in the decision-making of how the benefit of the investment passes to the community.

That takes us into the whole area of the role, accountability and management of the charitable trust, and its relations to the council and other bodies in Shetland. That is a discussion for another time and place, but it is very much part of my agenda to encourage more openness, participation and accountability in the way Shetland makes its decisions.

Danus Skene

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