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Viewpoint / Uncertain future as isles are turned into an industrialised landscape

Former chairman of campaign group Sustainable Shetland (SuS), Billy Fox, reflects on the rapid developments of recent weeks that have seen all the missing pieces of the Viking Energy wind farm jigsaw fall into place at an unprecedented speed.

Fox was chairman of SuS at a time most wind farm planning decisions were taken, and stepped down from the post in March 2011 to challenge then MSP Tavish Scott in the May election of that year.

SSE appears to have convinced Ofgem and National Grid that they are going to build the Viking Energy wind farm, but will they or can they…really?

Let’s take a look at what we actually have here. A 600 megawatt interconnecter cable which if fully loaded with wind turbines operating at an optimistic 50 per cent energy efficiency, would supply a meagre average of 300 megawatt of variable and unreliable power to the UK grid.

All this at a conservative estimate of £1.3 billion, that cannot be value for money in anybody’s book, it works out at just over £4.3 million per megawatt installation cost. Set that against an LNG power station and associated LNG terminal at a fraction of the cost and you have to be insane not to see which way to go.

The industrialisation of Shetland’s landscape by enormous wind turbines built on deep peat and blanket bog negates any carbon offset benefit. No amount of habitat management plans and economic manipulation can make this a green project. So what is making it economically viable if not green? How can SSE build this on a ‘merchant basis’ without a Contract for Difference subsidy?

It appears to be all about constraint payments these days. In Ofgem’s Cost Benefit Analysis on the cable they included a ‘do nothing’ option, standard stuff for this type of exercise. The amazing thing in this case however is that they posed a scenario where SSE could build the wind farm with no cable connection. This would mean, and I don’t really understand why, that National Grid as Electricity System Operator would have to dish out constraint payments for the life of the wind farm if no cable was built. Given this scenario Ofgem then said that to sanction and build the cable would mean a cost saving due to not having to dish out constraint payments. Now what possible sense does that make; it suggests to me that National Grid and Ofgem have lost control of our energy network.

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Ofgem is no longer acting in the interests of the UK consumer, which is their priority. But under their new CEO is pursuing a net carbon agenda with no consideration of cost to the consumer, nor for whether or not it is a truly green project. In this instance they are failing spectacularly on both counts.

National Grid ESO is responsible for maintaining a secure and balanced grid UK wide. They do this using a balancing mechanism referred to as the Balancing Services Use of System (BSUoS). This covers their operating costs and constraint payments. The annual cost of this in 2002, before the rapid expansion of renewable generation, was £367 million. The estimated annual cost for 2020/21 was £1.478 billion, but this was revised due to the decrease in demand caused by Covid-19; the estimate for 2020/21 is now £2 billion. This is a huge increase and is only set to get worse as the UK grid becomes more unstable.

The BSUoS charge is incurred initially by National Grid ESO but is then passed on to the electricity generators and suppliers and ultimately to the electricity consumer. No wonder more people are finding themselves in fuel poverty.

That is a look at the argument nationally but it is by no means exhaustive. I have not even touched on the physical and mental health aspects of living cheek by jowl with 508 feet high turbines!

Following on, what would the cable and associated wind farms mean for Shetland.

Firstly the damage to the environment would be unmitigated carnage turning the isles into an industrial landscape. Communities in close proximity from Aith, East Burrafirth, Voe, Whiteness, Weisdale and Nesting would be hugely affected.

Properties would be devalued, possibly unsellable except with considerable loss of equity. Folk with young families who have committed to their communities, built houses and taken on mortgages, would be financially trapped.

Property values across all of Shetland would most likely suffer as our economy declines, nobody wants to visit an industrial site on holiday, and nobody wants to live and work in one either.

The spectre of further wind farms also looms large with 180 to 200 metre high turbines being proposed elsewhere, even larger than Viking Energy’s 155 metre monstrosities.

Tourists would no longer visit, perhaps some speculative visitors to begin with to see where not to build a giant wind farm, but realistically who would pay our exorbitant travel costs to such despoiled isles. Far better to travel abroad for half the cost and guaranteed sunshine.

Anybody in the hospitality or tourist trade would need to get used to the idea that their livelihood is set to reduce significantly or even disappear altogether.

This nonsensical project has riven our communities apart already, a far cry from our current political leaders’ frequent references to looking after our communities.

On the front page of the Shetland Times of 19 June 2020, our convener and his political leader called it ‘very welcome’ at a time of difficulty for the Shetland economy and were “confident’ that if the council worked alongside SSE they could ‘create a positive economic and social future for Shetland”. Wishful thinking, with the way SSE is already bending the planning conditions I don’t think they are into working with communities.

Open up that same paper to page seven and the View from the Town Hall has our convener giving a statesmanlike address on the Covid-19 pandemic. Abhorring the phrase ‘new normal’ and stating “it will take time and no little courage as we set about repairing the economic and societal damage our community has suffered”. Where is the concern for community with the economic and societal damage of the cable and wind farms and Shetland’s ‘new normal’; which would be endured forever?

And so the ‘shadowed valley’ and the entire islands now face a very uncertain future. Shortly we could cease to be the ‘land of the Simmer Dim’ and become the ‘shadow flickered isles’, no amount of Shetland detectives and Island Medics would manage to sell that one.

Someday, if it is built, another book may be written, it would also probably have to be a novel as nobody would believe this actually happened. But the industrial legacy would remain in the landscape as a reminder, just like the cleared croft ruins of yesteryear.

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