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Features / Oil tankers line Shetland’s horizon, but islanders face bitter fuel poverty

Oil tanker at Sullom Voe Terminal. Photo: John Bateson

HERE in Shetland, where the oil and gas flows, where tankers line the horizon, where hundreds of towering wind turbines will soon dominate the landscape, here in the ‘energy isles’, people can’t afford to heat their homes.

Shetland, the northernmost part of the UK, has long endured a perfect storm of poor housing, a wet, cold climate and very expensive fuel.

There’s a deep irony here: it’s possible, from certain locations, to see the high flare of burning gas at the Sullom Voe oil terminal – you can watch this spectacle as you shiver in your damp, cold house while the almost constant wind rattles the windows.

But the North Sea oil and gas years, which so radically changed Shetland, did not bring us mains gas. Round the back of my house, just like most others, a red gas canister is propped up against the wall.

Rates of fuel poverty have long been some of the worst in the country. So it was already a ‘crisis’ here; I don’t know what we call whatever comes next.

While elsewhere in the UK people are worrying about how to deal with energy bills topping £7,000 next year, Shetlanders face bills of £10,300. This means that, by April next year, to avoid fuel poverty – defined as spending 10 per cent of your income on fuel – you’d have to be earning £104,000. Almost no one earns that here.

According to Shetland Islands Council, 96 per cent of Shetlanders will be in fuel poverty next year. Worse still, the council thinks 40 per cent of households could be spending 40 per cent of their income on fuel by the spring.

Council leader Emma Macdonald recently asked the UK government to step in – not just to address the crunch right now, but to make sure that in the future the places where oil, gas and renewables are produced actually benefit in terms of energy costs.

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What a radical idea. You might think this would have been on the cards a while ago. Say, around 40 years ago, when the Sullom Voe Terminal was built to handle production from the North Sea oil fields.

Of course, Shetland did benefit from the terminal. A deal struck with the oil companies enabled the council to build a cash reserve – a Norway-style oil fund – and in exchange for hosting the industry, Shetlanders got their own mini welfare state.

Lovely roads, very good public services and, of course, the oft-mentioned swimming pools in small villages. Ideally, every part of the UK should have such a strong and well-resourced local council. We were undoubtedly lucky.

Energy costs, though, weren’t tackled. The Sullom Voe Terminal isn’t a refinery. The oil has to go south and come back – at huge expense.

The problem is compounded by our poor housing stock: old croft houses built of stone, followed in the oil era by prefabs and council flats, as the authority scrambled to house the surge in new arrivals.

Both heating and insulation in many houses are woefully inadequate, especially given the climate: horizontal rain and sleet, biting North Sea winds and gale-force Atlantic storms. Many households use heating oil, which isn’t even regulated by the price cap, and its cost has spiralled in recent years.

I spent a recent winter in an Airbnb cottage (the only rental property available – Shetland’s horrendous housing crisis only adds to the woes). I’d watch in horror as the £20 I’d just put in the electricity meter drained as soon as a single heater was turned on.

But mould and damp still spread, covering my clothes and duvet, even the windows. The landlady was annoyed. “You’re obviously not heating the house properly,” she complained.

As a teenager, I watched black mould growing across the walls faster than you could wash it off, prompting endless chest infections and coughs. We had a little stove – but what to burn? In a treeless place, those with access to peat banks are the lucky ones, especially now: this summer, it’s been noticeable how many freshly cut stacks of peat have appeared by the roadside.

Now, as oil production declines, another energy industry is benefiting from Shetland’s geography: SSE is building the Viking Energy wind farm, a vast project of 103 turbines, some of the tallest you can find. It’s due for completion in 2024.

Will this huge industrial development, with all the disruption, lorry traffic, housing shortages and environmental impact involved, bring the pay-off of cheaper electricity for Shetlanders? No.

Most of the electricity will go south, or out to power the oil rigs. There’s a community benefit fund, for local projects, but repeated calls for a local electricity tariff have led nowhere.

The real pay-off, the argument goes, is that the isles will be connected to the national grid for the first time. This means, in theory, a chance to grow tidal and hydrogen energy production, as well as to utilise offshore wind. The ambitious plan for all this will tackle fuel poverty, the council says. How, exactly, is still not clear. And this is all years in the future.

Right now, it’s already September. While mainland Scotland is currently bathing in sunshine, Shetland’s bad weather could arrive in a matter of weeks. If you want to see just how desperate fuel poverty is going to be this winter – look north.

This article was first published by openDemocracy on 6 September.

Last week, prime minister Liz Truss announced her energy crisis plan designed to limit annual energy plans to £2,500 for a typical UK household. Some of the details of her plan have been published here though critics have been quick to point out that higher earning households will save more than those on lower incomes. It is also unlikely to reduce the annual average energy bill for households in Shetland to £2,500.

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