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Viewpoint / A key test for Shetland’s political leadership

In this opinion piece Green councillor Alex Armitage challenges the council’s leadership in their approach to negotiations with the renewable energy industries and argues that a tougher stance is needed for Shetland to maximise the benefits

SHETLAND is running out of time to act in the long-term interests of our community. Our fantastic, accolade-winning public services are beginning to crack, and within a few years could start to crumble.

Across our community, councillors and service leaders are facing impossible decisions as costs rise and budgets tighten.

Shetland South councillor Alex Armitage.

The future of higher education at the Shetland College, rural schools, speech and language therapy services, care homes, leisure centres – many of the things that give us so much pride in our community – feel far less certain than they used to.

For over 50 years, Shetland’s public services have been supported to the tune of millions of pounds a year by commercial income associated with the oil and gas industry. With the decline of this industry, our ability to generate these commercial returns is dwindling. We have reserve funds to continue eating into, but within time these too will dry up, potentially leaving us with nowhere to go.

At precisely the same time as our community grapples with the grim future of austerity, a green energy revolution is underway and large energy companies are looking at Shetland with an eye for a profit – and the prospect of making a fortune.

Shetland is ideally suited to host a green hydrogen industry. Pioneered locally by Unst-based Pure Energy, green hydrogen is produced by passing an electric current through water. It can be used by itself as a fuel, or as a base ingredient for a host of other applications such as ammonia, methanol, diesel and kerosene.

In a future without oil and gas, we will see widespread changes to our society, with electric cars and buses used for transport and electric heat pumps used to heat better-insulated buildings.

However, electrification is not the whole answer; there are some “difficult to decarbonise” sectors, such as long-distance shipping, aviation and agricultural fertiliser production. These industries have used oil and gas shipped out of Shetland for half a century, and will similarly become the end-users of the hydrogen that is produced here in the future.

To illustrate the potential size of Shetland’s future green hydrogen economy, it’s worth reflecting on the ambitions of EnQuest, the current operator of the Sullom Voe oil terminal, who have publicly stated their plans to make one million tonnes of green hydrogen annually. This would require an amount of electric power equivalent to over 20 Viking Energy wind farms.

The renewable energy industry in and around Shetland will be highly profitable. The strength of the wind here means that turbines – which will produce the electric power used to generate hydrogen – have an average productivity rating of 52 per cent. Compare that to 28 per cent in England or 31 per cent in Scotland and you can see why every energy company now wants a piece of Shetland.

‘We must learn the lessons of the Viking Energy wind farm’ councillor Armitage says. Photo: Shetland News

Despite much of the control over planning and development sitting outwith Shetland, we have nevertheless been dealt a moderately strong hand. It is therefore critical that we now play every one of our cards right. If we do so, there is good reason to believe that this industry can be shaped to benefit our Shetland community, which, along with our traditional fishing industry, can adapt and thrive.

There is a real risk of bequeathing an austere future for our children, but Shetland’s renewables boom is our chance to maximise commercial income and secure our public services for the future.

A vision of our future exists in which we take control of the development of renewables, not only to have a stake in the profits of this industry, but to prevent overdevelopment. We must learn the lessons of the Viking Energy wind farm – where we failed to convert our stake in Shetland’s natural resources into a fair share of the financial benefits. This tragedy cannot be repeated.

To turn this vision into reality now is the time to be active, not passive. A common euphemism for good leadership is a “steady hand on the tiller” but this will do us no use if we are sailing on course for a future of austerity.

We urgently need to change tack: we must develop a clear political strategy to maximise commercial income to the Shetland community. We must demand that the Shetland community is paid a fair share of the value of Shetland’s natural resources.

This should be a minimum objective as we navigate our future with the renewable energy industry. We cannot have a laissez-faire approach to this vitally important issue.

The issue of renewable energy is important for everyone, but for Shetland, it’s about much more than that. This is about our local schools, our provision of support for children with additional and special needs, this is about our local care homes and properly funded social care, this is about the ability of school leavers to choose to stay in Shetland to work and study, this is about the very fabric of our community.

We Shetlanders must now speak out at this key moment in the history of our islands.

The growth of the renewable energy industry represents a key test for Shetland’s political leaders: will our future be sold to the corporations? Or will our politicians stand up and deliver a secure future for our community?


Is Councillor Armitage correct in his analysis? Is Shetland’s future being sold to the corporations or is the SIC doing a good job in trying to secure a fair deal for the isles?
Please feel free to share your views and debate the issue in the comments section below or submit a letter to letters@shetnews.co.uk

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