How the Viking wind farm could rewrite energy on the Shetland Islands   

Thousands of years have passed since the first people started life on the Shetland Islands. For much of that time, residents have enjoyed a level of self-sufficiency, but plans for a new wind farm and subsea cable could soon link the islands to Great Britain forever. Matt Farmer learns more.

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.

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.

/ At one point, Burradale generated the most energy per unit of installed capacity in the world. /

The Viking wind farm: Shetland’s wind of change

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.

/ At one point, Burradale generated the most energy per unit of installed capacity in the world. /

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 plants and birds live in peat bogs. When the plans gained consent in April 2012, the developers quickly faced a court challenge over their wildlife impact assessments.

The legal question of environmen-talism

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.”

Initially judged to have not followed laws on bird protection, SSE have since won an appeal in the case. Image: John Game/Flickr

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.”

/ In many people’s eyes, onshore wind has returned to its role as the cheapest form of generation currently available. /

A comeback for onshore wind? How the SSE 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. Government subsidies for onshore wind farms were cut, and onshore wind producers could not bid for electricity price guarantees.

/ In many people’s eyes, onshore wind has returned to its role as the cheapest form of generation currently available. /

With the Viking development held up in court battles until 2015, it was effectively shelved as the new legislation choked planning. In the year the legislation was passed, 405 onshore wind farms reached completion, according to figures from 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.

The existing Lerwick Power Station, which has traditionally fuelled the island with fossil fuels, now faces the end of its operational life. Image: David Lewis/Flickr

The developers now have everything in place, and SSE is seeking contractors. It has set up an independent environmental group to put its conservation plans into place and to 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 they were left out of the planning process.

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

/ When Viking is not generating, the islanders will rely on the cable for consistent power supply. /

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.

/ When Viking is not generating, the islanders will rely on the cable for consistent power supply. /

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.

/ It seems reasonable to expect that a substantial workforce will be shipped in. /

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 an innovative and 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.”

/ It seems reasonable to expect that a substantial workforce will be shipped in. /

Not all locals oppose the plans, but Hay says that when plans were announced, the Energy Consents Unit received 2,772 objections and 1,109 letters in support.

The wind farm debate often features in the letters pages of the local newspaper. One letter to the Shetland Times 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.”

Debate continues over the benefits the wind farm will bring to the island. Image: Damian Entwistle/Flickr

Playing catch-up in the US

“In Europe, offshore wind has been there for a number of years, but I think in the United States we're a little bit behind that,” said Karustis.

Should it be successful, Halo’s approach could lead to a surge in US onshore wind, which has historically lagged behind other regions in terms of wind installation and production. Since 2016, according to the International Energy Agency, the US has installed just 22.6GW of new onshore wind capacity, compared to 30.7GW in the EU, and 50.3GW in China, struggles that Karustis hopes to address.

Last December, the Chinese Government approved a number of new offshore wind projects, totalling 13GW of production and costing around $13.3bn, as the country continues to invest in utility-scale power. Karustis hopes projects like Halo’s distributed turbine can contribute to a more balanced wind sector in the US, with both large- and small-scale operations expanding renewable power.

“The large-scale wind turbines wouldn't be phased out, it's kind of an ‘all of the above’ thing,” he said. “The large wind farms play a very important role for us in reducing the carbon footprint globally, and hopefully the micro wind market is going to augment that by producing energy where energy is being used. It's a good two-pronged approach.”

This two-pronged approach also includes other renewable power sources, including solar and utility-scale wind; Halo is not trying to replace all clean energy with its turbines, but offer another option for people eager to engage in renewable power, who may have been historically sidelined due to the high costs of building utility-scale facilities or the unsuitable geographical characteristics of the places they live.

“When you look at that market we're very excited because just as megawatt-scale wind is a large market, I think distributed wind can be as big of a market or bigger over time,” said Karustis.

“When you have incentives and improvements in the technology, the costs go down, so you can be more competitive and compete, and that's certainly the case with megawatt-scale wind,” he continued. “Just 15/20 years ago, it wasn't competitive with natural gas [and] coal, but it is now. So those government policies have helped and they've driven the technology improvements, so it's all bundled together.”

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 project’s environmental impact. Regardless, oil faces an uncertain future, so Shetland is preparing to go green.