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Viewpoint / Welcome to Turbineland

Hillswick based journalist and broadcaster Tom Morton has been supporting the Viking Energy wind farm as a community project for many years. Now, with local control of the project and community benefit lost, he has changed sides.

Wind farm in Shetland
Wind turbines. Photo: Shetland News

“It’s only the wind
They say it’s getting worse
The trouble that it brings
Haunts us like a curse…”

Only the Wind. Pet Shop Boys, 1990

January 1978, and for me, this was Shetland: poured off the old St Clair in the howling darkness of a grim winter’s morning. Roads thick with mud, a continuous clamour of heavy vehicles, arc lights splattering incandescent sleet, matching the sputter of welding torch spray. Everywhere a frenetic urgency. It was confusing and scary and exciting.

Tom Morton.

There was no security at the half-finished Sullom Voe Terminal. You could literally drive onto the tanker jetties (I did, in a hired Mini). Money was being thrown around in colossal quantities. A cost-plus contract. An at-any-cost contract.

Did anyone care about the damage to the environment, the filling in of Orka Voe with so much unidentified garbage, including trucks, cars, waste fuel and buses that nothing can ever be built, grown or grazed there? A few. But money talked, shouted, screamed and only the Esso Bernicia oil spill later in 1978 concentrated minds on the potential for wholesale destruction. There were jobs. There was profit. There were ‘disturbance payments’ which would benefit Shetland for decades to come. And they have.

Now it’s 2019. Forty-one years on, and the oil we have paid such a price for has led us to the verge of climate catastrophe. It’s running out. We need alternative energy, clean methods of providing power. We’ve added to the disembowelling of Shetland’s carbon storage system by allowing Total to build its huge gas plant next to (but not on the poisonous swamp of) the landfilled Orka Voe, disturbing millions of tonnes of peat. There were few objections, because hey! Money, jobs. That old litany, sounding less and less convincing.  Then the jobs began to disappear, and the money grew tighter. Pricier.

Amends had to be made, carbon reclaimed. The government came up with a regime which would reward power companies and entrepreneurs for generating electricity in ‘alternative ways’. Shetland’s windiness seemed ripe for exploitation, and what’s more this time it wouldn’t be in the hands of multinational or local greed. Shetland’s very own charitable trust would, in partnership with SSE, ensure that half of the profits were ploughed back into the community.

This time, instead of mere disturbance payments, we’d have the golden geese all to ourselves. Well, half of them. The ones that hadn’t been chopped up by rotating blades.

The breathless promises of a decade ago, the ones that convinced some of us that Shetland’s economic future could be secured by allowing the construction of at least one giant windfarm, seem tawdry and embarrassing now.

The colossal investments of the Shetland Charitable Trust are set to provide the likes of Northmaven Community Council with a princely £7,000 extra a year, out of the two million or so a small band of retired gentlemen will distribute in compensation per annum. A few people; one company and its shareholders will – may – get rich. Money for a few. Jobs for a few.

But the vast blanket peat which will be torn up, the birds killed, the wildlife destroyed, the environment ruined – will that be worth it? The compounds  built, the ruinous construction traffic for years on the Lang Kames? What will we get out of it all, other than a few pounds for community hall playgroup equipment and some mountain bike tracks?

Ah, but think of the carbon payback. Think of the fossil fuels not extracted, the ozone layer thickened! Except the amount of carbon released by excavating peat for wind farms in Shetland is likely to take years before it’s compensated by twirling windyheavies. Truth is, nobody knows. It could be three years. It could be 21. But there will be peat slides, there will be wholesale ruination of the landscape. And there has already been, under the guise of ‘ground investigations’, apparently uncontrolled and unmonitored excavation, removal of water from lochs and what appears to be a complete indifference to the feelings of local residents.

Some will say, if only Sustainable Shetland hadn’t delayed this development with its endless moaning, Viking would be up and running, the charitable trust would still be involved, Shetland would be facing a rosy future with…jobs. And money.

But those of us who initially supported the project in its community-benefitting guise are having to deal with a bitter realisation: there will be hardly any jobs. The money will not provide any real benefit to Shetland. The environmental cost will be enormous. Worldwide climate change is likely to be unaffected.

How can Viking be stopped? It can’t. We have relinquished control. We seem to have no option, those of us who live here, and who relish the wildness and wilderness that makes Shetland so precious. We’ll have to get used to Turbineland, to showing tourists where the red throated divers used to breed. Until they and the tourists disappear completely.

This is my Shetland:

The flare of seapinks along the banks. A bonxie’s whirring swoop, eddies of its passing in your hair. Ravens playing. A wren outsinging Pavarotti. The tug of mackerel on a loose line, trout on a patient fly. The sky and bog of the Kames, all emptiness and space. Great gliding, spectral whooper swans formation landing on Sandwater. A glimpse of red-throated divers. Orcas cruising for skin divers and seals. Otters slithering sleek and furtive. Wind, unmoderated, unharnessed. Solitude. Peace. A place of welcome and escape. Of healing and solace.

That used to be Shetland. Welcome to Turbineland.