By Rohese Devereux Taylor Senior Digital Reporter
It was the huge island windfarm that promised to pump millions into the
local economy but after more than a decade the project has divided the
community as hundreds call for it to be scrapped.
As reported in yesterday’s The Herald, more than 800 Shetlanders have
banded together in a bid to stop the proposed windfarm, which could be the
UK’s third biggest if approved, to be built across the archipelago, voicing
concerns over the islands’ fragile bio-diversity and plans to desecrate
If given the go-ahead, Viking Wind Farm could span 129 sq km of the islands
leaving many islanders living close to or within the wingspan of the 103,
A partnership between Scottish and Southern Energy and the council-owned
Viking Energy Shetland, signed in 2005, the windfarm is to largely be built
on peatlands, raising fears over carbon release.
The installation of the turbines and the infrastructure required to support
them can fatally damage the peat through extraction, drainage and drying.
Scottish peatlands are vital in climate change mitigation, acting as a sink
for greenhouse gases, supporting biodiversity and regulating water quality
While peatlands cover only 3% of the world’s land area they contain nearly
30% of all carbon stored on land.
Campaigners and experts warn that damage to the peatlands could be
irreversible with degraded peat losing the ability to absorb carbon and
potentially releasing thousands of tonnes back into the atmosphere.
Renewable energy sources, such as wind, are seen to be inexhaustible,
creating energy that can be harnessed for heating, electricity and transport.
Scotland’s wind turbines produced enough electricity between January and
June 2019 to power almost double the amount of homes – around 4.5 million –
it already does, according to WWF Scotland.
New research has revealed that onshore windfarms in Europe have the
capacity to generate 100 times the energy currently produced. By building a
further 11 million turbines, the entire world could be powered until 20150.
With Scotland’s current greenhouse gas emissions target set to meet
net-zero in 2045, windfarms are said to be a key tool in reaching the goal.
But if the building and maintenance of these windfarms and their de- or
recommission 25 years later destroys one of our greatest natural assets in
the flight against climate breakdown, as well as others, what are their
Richard Lindsay, head of environmental and conservation research the
University of East London said: “There is a delicious irony in the fact
that we build wind farms to reduce our carbon emissions. But some of the
best places to build wind farms are peatlands, which are our biggest carbon
“Just 30cm of peat over a hectare holds the same amount of carbon as the
same area of tropical rainforest. They have been capturing and storing
carbon for up to 8000 years so when you damage them, you release this
long-term carbon store.”
Peat is lost when the foundations for the turbines are dug out but it is
the building of the roads that are the biggest risk to the peatlands, said
Mr Lindsay, as they cut across their natural water functions, causing them
to dry out.
Mr Lindsay said: “As soon as you stop peat being water logged it will begin
releasing carbon dioxide. Long term, we actually don’t know what the effect
is going to be.”
Other concerns, particularly in Shetland, include peat slides which occur
after the peat has been destabilised through disturbance. In 2002, in
Galway, around 2km of peat slid off the hillside and travelled for 20km
down the river system narrowly missing buildings.
Both SSE and Scottish Power build ‘floating roads’ at their sites to
minimise damage to the peat, but this may have little to no benefit.
Mr Lindsay said: “Actually, they are just slowly sinking roads.What they
need to be doing is constantly building the road surface up again. The
windfarm industry is not been very forthcoming on the extent of that issue.”
In terms of what is being done by energy companies to offset damage to the
peat, the future remains unclear. Mr Lindsay said: “Maybe they’re restoring
some very damaged peatland but what are the long term effects of what
they’re doing on the windfarm? Nobody can answer that question because
we’re looking at potential carbon release over decades. There are a whole
series of issues that have never really been investigated.”
And it’s not just an issue in Scotland. On the ridges of Northern Spain’s
Cantabrian Mountains windfarms have been constructed on blanket bog,
bisecting almost every one.
But there could be an alternative: building onshore windfarms on
agricultural land that is currently not being used to its full potential.
In America and Europe, some windfarms are built on leased farmland,
allowing farming, crops and grazing, to continue around them.
Mr Lindsay said: “There is incredible reluctance to turn agricultural land
into multi-use but there is huge potential there.”
Scottish government planning policy now requires the use of a carbon
payback calculator, developed by The James Hutton Institute and Aberdeen
University, that assesses the carbon impact of windfarm developments by
comparing the carbon costs of the developments with the carbon savings made.
David Miller, Knowledge Exchange Coordinator for The James Hutton Institute
who helped develop the calculator, told the Herald on Sunday: “The starting
point was to rely on modelling of the carbon costs … after a few years
you could begin to refine the models to say the carbon payback would take a
certain number of years, originally calculated to be one estimate and then
subsequently recalculated today.”
Calculations can vary from seven to 33 years which far exceeds the 25-year
life span of turbines, influencing the carbon calculations when considering
the impact of re-turbining or reinstatement of the site.
Mr Miller said: “This is something still being worked on in Scotland
because we recognise that protecting our peatland is a core element of
Scotland’s contribution to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.”
Onshore wind is playing its part meeting Scotland’s climate targets, said
Mr Miller, but more questions need to be asked.
He said: “After 25 years, as each of the developments come up for
reconsideration, are there any which might have been put in the wrong place
and might not be renewed because other sources [of energy] are becoming
“We have an opportunity in the second half of the next decade for
reconsidering whether some of the earlier developments are as efficient for
production as originally intended. Hypothetically, it might turn out [that
windfarms] are not as negatively impacting to landscapes as feared or there
might be other areas where the impacts are greater than has been expected
but it does mean that the story is not finished.”
Nothing comes without a cost, said Mr Miller, especially not our energy
He said: “Energy isn’t created, it’s just transferred. So it’s hard to
imagine that genuinely, there is environmental and cost free energy. It’s
not just the magnitude but where and the nature of the trade-off. That
explains why we’re felling trees instead of planting them as we did 30
years ago because of the understanding of the significance of the peatlands
for carbon storage.”