The winds of change

| 11th October 2013

Opinions of the Shetlanders are divided when it comes to harnessing the power of 'their' wind

From Shetland, Thembi Mutch reports on how the close knit community of the island are responding to the possibility of a huge wind farm (currently going through judicial review) changing their landscape forever.....
The situation in Shetland is complicated, not least because the turbines will be built on peat

There’s a new wind blowing across Europe. Windpower is predominantly located in Germany, Denmark and Spain, and a recent European Union report predicted wind will power Europe’s demands several times over before 2020.

In September 2013 the ‘Montreal Protocol’ committed G20 countries to reducing the ‘super Greenhouse Gases’- hydrofluorocarbons produced primarily from fossil fuels, and as part of this, alternatives to coal, natural gas and oil must be found, as a matter of urgency

However even here dissent prevails - the recent International Energy Outlook Report predicted that globally, we will remain 80% dependant on fossil fuels until 2040, (with China and Asia increasing their consumptions considerably) and the results are cataclysmic.

Another report indicated that the British, like their European neighbours, significantly approve of windfarms within 2km of their homes, if the largest stakeholders are the community.

On Shetland, the  wind farm has been stalled again, and the arguments playing out reflect in microcosm the concerns and debates that in some degree affect all communities considering windpower. This beautiful creative island- an archipelago in the North sea, 110 miles north of Scotland, 225 miles West of Norway is famous for its extraordinary wildlife, thrilling archaeology, dextrous musicians, honest funny artists and craftspeople that thrive in these extreme, moody windy islands.

Shetland  is heavily dependent on oil, and prior to the arrival of the Sullem Voe terminal in 1975, (run  by Total,) and the BP rig, Shetland relied on herring, whaling, the occasional (insignificant) bit of smuggling (knitted sweaters for hooch) and crofting. Villagers used the omniscient peat for heating, mortality rates were high, suicides amongst older men disproportionately high, and life was unromantically tough. 

Indeed, as Mary Fraser, a Shetlander and a craftsperson who continues many of the island’s trademark skills- knitting, crofting, weaving and embroidery- says “My granny brought up eight bairns in one room, left each summer to work the herring. She went down the coast, as far as Yarmouth, she was just a young lass. Herring work was really sociable, but it was a hard life. No doubt”.

Since the arrival of oil and natural gas around Shetland in the seventies (all, poignantly, offshore), roads, schools, leisure centres have sprung up. Children get some of the best educations in Europe, free music lessons until a few years ago, and the fabulous Shetland Museum, archives and Mareel Arts Centre (both indirectly and partially funded by oil revenue) exist because of oil. The island, in short, is in hock to oil.

The enormous global subsidies of $300 billion (UNEP figures) annually to the oil industry tend to get overlooked(1). As David Thomson, of Viking Energy says “This is basically the land of milk and honey, we have a disproportionately high level of expenditure, nationally, and internationally”. Brian Smith, of the Shetland Museum and Archives agrees “After real poverty in my lifetime, we’ve become used to an extremely high standard on Shetland in the last fifty years: we’re generous people, we want to keep up with the modern developments, but we do expect the best”. 

Recently however, following the intervention of the National Audit Commission in Shetland’s financial management, and proposed governmental cuts, there’s need to find new revenues as public expenditures are under threat. On Shetland, the general view- that fossil fuel is over- is taboo, and is not an accepted truth.

The question then, is has there been a ‘Brave New World’ type propaganda exercise at work, or are the reservations around windpower justified? Similarly, the UK Conservative parties’ rejection of subsidies for wind power, mirror the debates going on in Europe- particularly Germany- about how much, and at what point, windpower must be subsidised.

Mary, like many on the island, is ambivalent about the proposed windpower scheme, run by Viking Energy (which is a Shetland company 45% owned by islanders), and Scottish Energy:  “I’m all for renewable energy, but I do think the scheme for Shetland is far too big. We’ve always had boom and gloom here. Well I suppose I’m not awful sure how many wind turbines there’ll be and how they’ll harness it and export it. I cannae see it working, we need an interconnecting cable…to transfer the wind energy into the grid onto the mainland. The risk factors are big- the cost of the turbines and infrastructure. Then there’s the amount of peat you’ve got to shift”.

With a proposed 103 turbines, at a maximum span of 145 metres bottom to wing tip, the windfarm will cover 10 x 8km of land, on the north of Shetland. This has approved planning permission, and a consultation process that has taken six years so far, but there are many issues awaiting a judicial reveiew, which is still in process. However, despite many hours of campaigns, talks in schools,efforts to publicise the facts of the windfarm, and a community fund that will deliver 1.8 million pounds for use in Shetland, there’s still a fair amount of smoke and mirrors.

It’s hard to gauge the real feelings of Shetlanders about the windfarm, many recount it is a ‘deeply controversial’ issue, but that in part is due to the demographics of Shetland: with a population of 22,700, many people are related through several routes, and everyone knows each other.

Some Shetlanders are a bit bored by the personal nature of the attacks and fights around windpower, some feel that the costs of the project (which have now risen to £800 million(2)) and the costs of the cable that transports the stored kinetic wind power from Shetland to the mainland, mean it won’t happen soon. Others are simply misinformed- about the size of the farm, or the health problems associated with windpower. Some of the most vociferous criticisms, which talk about the noise and ‘infrasound’ of windpower, come from Australia, and have no scientific basis whatsoever. In fact they originate from the Landscape Guardians and Waubra Foundation which are Rupert Murdoch and fossil-fuel funded  propaganda machine(3).

Genuine and  focussed criticisms comes from Sustainable Shetland, a community group with over 800 members. These range from uncertainty about the validity of the science used to assess the  carbon footprints of the turbines, to the mechanics of storing wind energy.

Despite Shetland’s frankly stunning performance as a windy place, one of the problems facing all wind farms (including their successful neighbours in Germany and Denmark) is that storing wind, which is an inconsistent power, is an engineering challenge. It can not be transferred to cell batteries, as say solar can. Transporting windpower is also costly: however many critics tend to overlook that the oil and natural gas industry has had sustained (and often deeply hidden) investments, for over fifty years.  Front-loading all  these costs, as Shetland and others are doing now, invariably skews the picture.

The situation in Shetland is further complicated because the turbines, like others in Scotland, will be built on peat, and there is disagreement on the pristine quality of the peat, and what(4)  the implications for the carbon it stores might be. Similarly there are concerns about the depth of the foundations, the effects this will have on the hydrology, and the ecology.


James McKenzie, who is a management member of Sustainable Shetland  (and  an employee of the Shetland Amenity Trust (5) which indirectly is funded by oil revenues) feels that the disruption of peat in Shetland is a major problem. “The issues with peat are practical: a lot of the windfarm is on deep peat, the engineering solutions are far from satisfactory. Floating roads (geo-textiles) are being suggested for  over the bog. It’s been proven they sink and disturb the hydrology.This impacts on birds, some of them rare, whimbrel (small relative of the curlew) red throated divers, dunlin, merlin.”


RSPB Scotland, the country’s biggest wildlife conservation charity, also objected to the windfarm because of the potential harm to range of bird species and peatland. The  RSPB “Supports the development of renewable energy (including windfarms) to help combat the causes of climate change, which is threatening people and wildlife across the world. However, developments must be located to avoid harm to our most important wildlife and habitats”.


The RSPB recognises that each case must be taken on its own merits and are supportive of most renewable energy schemes.  However, they are currently opposing another major windfarm proposed by SSE, in Sutherland (in northern mainland Scotland) at Strathy South, because of the possibility of harm to range of bird species and disruption to peatland. 


There is no doubt that £150 million worth of construction is large, however it’s less than the current re-development of the oil plant at Sullom Voe. According to David Thompson the site for the wind turbines was chosen precisely because it is in an area that is not as environmentally sensitive as other parts of the islands.

Furthermore, the actual roads will take up only 1% of the area, and ‘floating roads’ are not being considered. He says the foundations for the turbines will only be around 8 metres, not 500 metres, as many people fear. Silke Reeploeg, a Shetland resident, co-ordinator of The Islands Studies module of the Highlands and Islands University, is originally from Germany. She says “The issue is whether this is working scenery, or just visual scenery. This has always been working land, crofting uses peat, and now we have to consider alternatives to fossil fuels, and accept it will take time to iron out some of the issues around community participation and benefits, it’s a dialogue, a compromise, a two way process.”

What is abundantly clear is that this project is not, at this stage, as embedded in the community as it needs to be, in order to succeed. Shetland citizens have an enviable record of tussling with major industry: robust participation models, a strong sense of its own history, and a highly engaged and smart citizenry. Despite the current blips, it’s inevitable that Shetland will work this one out. Similarly, there are massive economic issues from the costs of the island-mainland cable, to the  subsidies and current legislation about exporting and owning power,  that need to be sorted out.

Undoubtedly  all sides want the best for Shetland: David Thomson who is Shetland born and bred for many generations, passionately wants windpower to be economically viable, environmentally sensitive, and for the issues around the birds, and the costs, to be resolved. He does concede that the one area that is immovable in the windpower debate is the look of the turbines.

“There’s no way round that, they are big, and they don’t look great, there’s nothing we can do about that. But the more we can do, ourselves, with the communities’ involvements, the better. There’s no 100% guarantee that this project will happen. We can’t get ahead of ourselves. We’re proposing a project that we have planning permission for, but we’re a long way off.  Shetland is new money, oil is going to run out and this is skewing the debate…very small populations are actually polarised, people here are mostly nuanced. We wouldn’t propose this windpower scheme if it didn’t bring benefits….I live here. I like it here! I really do want to benefit this place. I want to see a transition away from Fossil Fuels as soon as possible.” 

Thembi Mutch is a freelance journalist.

With grateful thanks to Logan Air, FlyBe, Steve Mathieson, Robin Mouatt, Jenna Cianca, Mary and Les Andreas at Hayhool, Karen and family at Alda Lodge, and many others, without whom this article would not have been possible.

(1)$300 billion spent globally on fuel subsidies: The lion's share is being used to artificially lower or reduce the real price of fuels like oil, coal and gas or electricity generated from such fossil fuels. 

(2)Conversation with Director of Viking Energy David Thompson, Sept 5th 2013

(3)Anti-windfarm (Landscape Guardians, the Waubra Foundation)  lobbies in Australia linked to Big Fossil Interests promote ridiculous propaganda:… Murdoch’s faming concerns (Yass) very strong Murdoch-funded media against windfarms.

(4)There definitely still is carbon there, buit itys probably being released due to degradation. The issue is more about what can be done to reverse this degradation.

(5) they would also receive revenue from the windfarm if it ever starts operating

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