The Shetland Islands lie 170km from Great Britain, the mainland of the UK. From the Scottish capital of Edinburgh, direct flights to the islands’ only airport cost at least £210 and take 90 minutes. Overnight ferries leave from Aberdeen, the country’s oil and gas hub, once a day.

When the boat docks at the islands’ largest town of Lerwick, you will find another community heavily influenced by fossil fuel extraction. The Shetland Islands lie at the physical centre of much of the UK’s offshore oil and gas extraction industry. As a result, using fossil fuels for power generation there has always made logical sense.

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Gas turbines at a shipping petrochemical terminal compliment the main diesel-fuelled power station in Lerwick. Commissioned in 1953, this power station is now looking at the end of its life, and residents need a new solution. While some would assume renewables to be the next step, plans have faced steady opposition.

The wind of change reaches Shetland

Shetland offers a huge opportunity to wind developers, as Shetland’s existing Burradale wind farm proves. Sited onshore on the largest island, Mainland, the five turbines generate 3.68MW with an average capacity factor of 52%. This measure of generating potential sits well above the UK average of 28%. At one point, Burradale generated the most energy per unit of installed capacity in the world.

British utility company SSE saw the opportunity and proposed a wind farm on the islands. In 2007, this merged with a proposal by the local council, forming the first plans for a 150-turbine wind farm. After an approval process and a change of plans, the Viking wind farm gained consent as a 103-turbine project making it the UK’s biggest onshore wind farm.

This reduction in the proposed number of turbines came partly from the planned location across the islands’ peat bogs. Peat bogs store significant amounts of carbon emissions, even more intensely than forests. Building works would disturb and release the trapped CO₂, and while the Viking managers say they will take measures to mitigate this, it has damaged the environmental credentials of the project in some eyes.

Apart from this, many rare species of plant and bird live in peat bogs. When the plans gained consent in April 2012, the developers quickly faced a court challenge over their wildlife impact assessments.

“Their enthusiasm may come back to bite them”

In 2013, an Edinburgh judge ruled that the developers did not follow EU law on bird protection. Appeals took this to the UK’s highest court, where judges then ruled in favour of SSE in 2015. The plaintiffs, Sustainable Shetland, were not pleased by the result.

The group raised £200,000 to contest the plans in court, and remains a vocal opponent of the wind farm. Chairman Frank Hay recently said: “SSE‘s enthusiasm for the Viking wind farm may yet come back to bite them; as deep peat moorland and extreme weather conditions, especially during winter, may well make construction of the Viking wind farm a daunting prospect.”

The existing Lerwick Power Station, in a bank of fog. Credit: Mike Pennington under CC-BY-SA-2.0 license.

A spokesperson for SSE said: “Much of the Viking wind farm is located on heavily eroding and degraded peat, and is therefore a net emitter of stored carbon. Viking’s Habitat Management Plan has been approved by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, Scottish Natural Heritage, and the Shetland Islands Council.

“An independent expert advisory group, Shetland Windfarm Environmental Advisory Group, will oversee the comprehensive programme of conservation measures, which include extensive peat restoration over 260 hectares of significantly damaged and eroded habitat.

“Viking Energy [the name of the partnership between SSE and the Islands’ Council] is a responsible developer and will seek to ensure that its own people and contractors operate the construction site to the highest health and safety and environmental standards, with strict adherence to consent conditions. The company also intends to be a responsible neighbour and to serve as an integral part of the Shetland community.”

A comeback for onshore wind? How the SSE’s Viking Wind Farm progressed

Beyond this outcome, the wind farm still faced challenges. In 2014, the UK government made onshore wind development virtually impossible by empowering its opponents. The government cut subsidies for onshore wind farms, and onshore wind producers could not bid for electricity price guarantees.

Court battles held up the Viking development until 2015, effectively shelving it when new legislation choked planning. In the year the legislation passed, 405 onshore wind farms reached completion, according to trade group Renewable UK. This number fell to 23 in 2019, and all but one of these obtained funding before the legislation took effect.

This changed again in March this year, when the UK government allowed wind developers to bid for price guarantees. In many people’s eyes, onshore wind has returned to its role as the cheapest form of generation currently available.

Will Shetland see the same rewards oil and gas brought to it?

SSE is now the sole developer of the project, and it made its final investment decision in June this year. It estimates the total cost at £580m. After years of stalled development, this investment will come as part of the ‘green recovery’ following Covid-19.

Sullom Voe Oil Terminal
The Sullom Voe oil and gas terminal on Shetland. Credit: Mike Pennington under CC-BY-2.0 license.

The developers now have everything in place, and SSE is seeking contractors. It has set up an independent environmental group to enact conservation plans and ease the fears of wildlife campaigners. UK planning law means SSE will have to contribute £2.2m per year to local causes, which may help offset the negative opinions of those who felt left out of the planning process.

All being well, SSE hopes to have the Shetland wind farm online by 2024.

The subsea link from Mainland to the mainland

The Viking wind project does not just cover the island’s power demand; its peak supply would give approximately eight times the consumption of the island. Because of this, there is another critical piece of infrastructure in the works.

The Viking development relies on simultaneous plans for an undersea cable connecting the Shetland Islands to Great Britain. This would be the first physical connection to the UK mainland in the islands’ long history.

The high-voltage DC cable could carry up to 600MW of power, while the islands’ average winter consumption is only 50MW. Meanwhile, the Viking wind farm’s nameplate capacity sits at 443MW with little on-site power storage.

This means that despite being more than enough for Shetland, the wind farm will rely on the cable to make use of its full generation potential. When Viking is not generating, the islanders will rely on the cable for consistent power supply.

Why some residents oppose the development

In July this year, UK power regulator Ofgem formally approved the construction of the undersea cable. SSE’s cable construction subsidiary SSEN Distribution said: “The company is currently reviewing options for a cost-effective backup solution to support security of supply to Shetland, and will submit analysis to Ofgem in the coming weeks for consideration, before formal submission in 2021.”

However, members of Sustainable Shetland are concerned over the reliability of the connector. Sustainable Shetland chairman Frank Hay explained: “There is a great deal of concern here about inter-connector reliability. We firmly believe that a self-contained energy solution for Shetland is more desirable than large scale wind farms where potential profit is rated more highly than the environment.”

Not all locals oppose the plans. However, Hay says that after plans SSE announced its plans, the Energy Consents Unit received 2772 objections and 1109 letters in support.

The wind farm debate often features in the letters pages of the local newspaper, the Shetland Times. One letter summed up some of the worries over how the company has worked with the people of Shetland. Resident Mike Bennett wrote: “You would need to ask the question of how many opportunities will be available. Construction jobs maybe, but it seems reasonable to expect that a substantial workforce will be shipped in.”

“How many opportunities will be available?

SSE responded: “It is expected that over 400 jobs will be created during construction, with multiple supply and sub-contract opportunities for local businesses. Principal contractor RJ McLeod is in advanced talks with the local supply chain and has already begun direct recruitment locally.

“Viking expects to create around 35 direct new jobs during the operational lifetime of the wind farm and is committed to the training of local people and apprentices and supporting local schools and colleges to encourage STEM careers.

“Viking Energy Wind Farm is committed to a community benefit fund of around £55.4m over the 25-year lifetime of the wind farm. A further £1.6m in additional community benefit will be paid during Viking’s construction phase – bringing total direct community benefit to around £57m, at today’s values, over the lifetime of the wind farm.”

Some Shetlanders remain wary of large energy investments, while others will hope that wind can bring the same benefits that oil and gas did. While some stand to gain jobs or planning benefit money, Sustainable Shetland will remain vigilant of the wind project’s environmental impact. Regardless, oil faces an uncertain future, so Shetland is preparing to go green.