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Energy / ‘There is a bigger picture’ – Viking’s Aaron Priest moves on to next project

Aaron Priest is the newly appointed stakeholder manager for the Arven floating wind farm project.

AFTER working at the forefront of the often controversial Viking Energy wind farm project for about 20 years, local man Aaron Priest has moved on to do a similar job for offshore wind developer Ocean Winds.

The company with headquarter in Madrid, in conjunction with Mainstream Renewable Power, has signed a lease for the Arven floating offshore wind farm – four times the size of the Viking development – 20 kilometres east of Bressay.

Reflecting at his two decades with Viking, Priest said that despite the huge controversy around the project, its many setbacks, delays and reincarnations, he has always remained convinced of its benefits for the isles.

And he revealed for the first time that the 443MW wind farm in the Central Mainland was ready to go ahead with a 45 per cent community stake through the Shetland Charitable Trust (SCT) in 2015, but could not due to the ongoing legal challenge.

When main shareholder SSE Renewables finally decided in 2019 it wanted to proceed with the project, the charitable trust was unable to join as no price guarantee through a Contracts for Difference (CfD) was in place to make it a cast iron investment for the charity.

Priest said that not having secured a community stake in the project was for him, like so many others in the isles, a source of deep disappointment.

“I don’t think anybody would argue that people weren’t entitled to challenge the consent for Viking (…),” he said, “but all actions have consequences.

“The main consequence of the various challenges meant that the Shetland part in the project is different from what was envisaged at the start.

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“For everybody involved in the project, and more widely across Shetland, it’s a source of disappointment that the community wasn’t able to continue as a full equity partner in the project.

“That’s largely down to the protracted nature of the project and the various delays along the way; [however] the community has still a financial stake in the project [about £10 million] and will get a good financial return on that.

All illustration of what the Viking wind farm may look like from Voe, presented in the developer’s Windylights publication in 2008.
A slightly different perspective, also taken from Voe, in June this year. Photo: Shetland News

“That return will become apparent once it hits the books of SCT – it is not what was envisaged when we first started out but that is just how things played out over time.

“Ultimately, the project is at a stage where it is nearly complete, and as we have said many times; when it is completed, it will be the most productive onshore wind farm in the UK (…) and will be the flagship onshore wind farm project.”

Priest, who back in 2003 was working as a principal development officer with the SIC, became involved in the project at a very early stage.

He said Viking was an attempt to pre-empt what was going on behind the scenes with several large investors scoping the islands to build very large wind farms, and to put the council in the driving seat to achieve community ownership, and with it control of and benefits from it.

Priest was seconded to the developing project and, as it went through many different phases over the years, became the one person who has been there from the outset and who knew it inside out.

“Had Viking not gone ahead,” he is convinced, “a similar project would have been developed by somebody else. There is no doubt about it.”

And, reflecting on how the world has changed over the last 20 years with climate change mitigation and net-zero now the driving forces in energy generation, he added: “I suppose we were ahead of our time. Something that could have been seen as a strategic threat to a community that relies on oil and gas is now a tremendous opportunity for Shetland.”

He acknowledged that Viking remains controversial and has had to face many challenges over the years, but is pragmatic about his own role in it.

“There are people who have been opposed to the project. I would say 99 per cent are perfectly polite, and we can have a discussion and a debate,” he said.

Priest addressing the council meeting that gave the backing to the Viking Energy project in December 2010. Photo: Shetland News

“With a background in economic development, what drives me every day is creating economic opportunities for Shetland and Shetlanders, for creating jobs and maintaining the prosperity that we all enjoy – so there is a bigger picture for sure.”

With that said, he has now moved on to the next large scale project that not long ago could also have been described as very much ahead of its time.

“Floating offshore wind is a huge potential opportunity for the local supply chain, for Lerwick port, and depending how the technology develops, the possibility creating green hydrogen, ammonia, and repurposing Sullom Voe Terminal,” he said.

“Not everything is guaranteed, but the opportunities are there, and I am really keen to be part of that.”

As such, relationships with local companies, including the fishing industry, are already established, with Arven set open a local office before the end of the year.

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