Vaila Mae sixareen fishing boat under sail in Shetland

In July 1881 a fleet of Sixareen boats were working the haaf fishing grounds 30 or more miles West of Shetland in the vast North Atlantic. Each craft twenty foot long, hand built from wood, with a crew of seven men fishing for Cod and Ling. This valuable catch was taken on lines of hooks, sometimes several miles long. Their position at sea, carefully chosen, was above a depth of around 96 fathoms of water (576 feet), at the very point where the continental shelf drops away. An area rich in sea life. A place to harvest the common wealth of the sea.

The crew of the boats had rowed out from beaches such as those at Uyea, working nine hours at the oars to reach the grounds. For over half this distance they were entirely without sight of land, guided only by a single compass bearing. On that fateful day a storm arose quite suddenly. Ten of the boats were swamped, with all hands lost, while others managed to hoist their square sails and run for the coast beyond the horizon.[1][1]

What is striking about this story is how it reveals that the crews had a remarkable sensitivity to the nature of the sea and the seabed – although the latter was, in these days before echo sounding, entirely invisible to them. They had a way of thinking and feeling the sea, built up from generations of experience. These were the days at the very beginning of the Herring Boom of the 1870s that industrialised methods of fishing, and transformed the economy of Shetland. A radical transition, driven by fossil fuels, in the shape of the coal-fired steam capstans that enabled boats twice the size of the Sixareens, but with the same number of crew, to haul aboard legendary netfulls of Herring. The technology had changed. The way of harvesting the common wealth had changed. And human sensibility of the sea, the way of thinking and feeling it, underwent a radical transition.

 

The Swan – a Zulu class Herring fishing boat.

By the end of the First World War, the Herring Boom had itself come and gone. But Shetland – like many fishing villages, towns and cities along the North Sea coast – would never be the same again.

The route taken by the Sixareens in 1881 passed over seabed that today is crossed by the West of Shetland Oil Pipeline. Despite its name, this steel pipe transports gas from the West of Shetland fields to the plant at the Sullom Voe Terminal in Shetland. (We explored the history of this oil province, and the fields of Foinaven and Claire Ridge, in our book Crude Britannia.[2])

[3]

Sullom Voe Oil & Gas Terminal in Shetland

Sullom Voe is the epicentre of Shetland’s Oil Boom from the early 1970s to the present, for the terminal was built to receive crude from several North Sea fields and enable the loading of tankers that distributed it around the world. The gas from West of Shetland that now arrives at Sullom Voe is exported through further pipelines – the SIRGE and the FUKA[2][4] – to the terminal of St Fergus, north of Aberdeen, and thence into the National Grid to fuel power stations and cookers in homes across the UK mainland. Both these gas pipelines, vital to Shetland’s economy, are owned by NSMP which is a private company, largely owned by the Kuwaiti sovereign wealth fund.

The Oil Boom that came in the 1970s is now going. And Shetland has been transformed by it.

West of Shetland oil & gas fields and the pipelines running to Sullom Voe

 

It had been intended that the West of Shetland Oil Pipeline would ship gas from the Cambo field to Sullom Voe. But last December the company developing that field, Siccar Point, announced it would ‘pause the project’. It is possible that Cambo will never be developed (as we explored in a previous blog.). This defeat of Cambo, will not only be about the cessation of one oil & gas field in a particular sector of the North Sea, but may mark the beginning of a shift away from all oil & gas extraction in the UK. This shift is heralded by the arrival of new energy systems, and possibly a Wind Boom.

Shetland’s energy story continues to unfold. Ten miles south-east of the Sullom Voe terminal, on the higher hills of the Mainland island of Shetland, Viking Energy is building a vast onshore wind farm. Even on a day of snowstorms that blank out the middle distance, access roads slicing across the moorland are painfully visible. Silver scars on the buff and greens of East Kame and Mid Kame, of Scar Quilse and Whaa Field. These slopes and streams are carpeted with a rich layer of stories and memories, hopes and desires, but they are treated by the construction company as void space, as terra nullus. Just as the sea, also rich in stories and memories, was seen as void space by those that planned and built the West of Shetland oil & gas systems.

Map of the layout of the Viking Energy wind farm at the heart of Shetland Mainland

After years of public debate and local dissent Viking started constructing the scheme in 2020 in the midst of Lockdown. It is set to be completed by 2024, when 103 wind turbines will have been erected. Each will stand 155 meters high and will thus be visible across most of Shetland’s Mainland. Viking estimate that the turbines will power 475,000 homes[3][5]. The scheme was originally part-financed by the Shetland Charitable Trust[4][6].

The Shetland Charitable Trust has its roots in Shetland’s oil. It is the product of a deal that Shetlanders won after a hard struggle with a set of oil corporations, led by BP, which effectively established a ‘sovereign wealth fund’ for the islands. It was a victory for local democracy unique in the UK, echoing the sovereign wealth fund established in Norway, and it has underpinned nearly fifty years of welfare spending in Shetland. Set up in 1976[5][7] it receives income from every barrel of oil (and its gas equivalent) that is shipped through Sullom Voe. And it spawned the legend that the islands’ have the highest number of swimming pools per head of population in the UK. The gas from Foinaven and Claire Ridge fields – among an array of others – underpins the income of Sullom Voe and its contribution to the Charitable Trust. Halting the development of Cambo might, in due course, impact on the income of the Trust. This is part of the burden of Transition that needs to be confronted and carried.

The strategy of the Trust is to invest in a combined heat & power scheme – Shetland Heat Energy and Power Ltd – and SCT Renewables Limited, which had a part share in the Viking Energy wind farm. This looks on the surface, to be a fine example of a Divest/ Invest strategy, a model of taking funds generated from fossil fuels revenues and investing them in renewable energy systems, and doing so by establishing companies under local democratic control.

But all is not what it seems with Viking Energy. The ability of the scheme to generate a return on capital at a level desired by its main investor Scottish & Southern Energy plc – SSE – apparently requires it to have a larger market into which to sell its kilowatts than that provided by the 23,000 inhabitants of Shetland. So after a prolonged battle SSEN – the transmission subsidiary of SSE – is laying two High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) cables 160 miles from Shetland to the UK mainland. From a converter station by the wind turbines at Kergord, the cable will run down Weisdale Voe and across the seabed deep beneath the Atlantic currents to Noss Head Switching Station near Wick in Caithness[7][8]. By laying this cable SSEN effectively opens up the whole of Shetland to be utilised as an onshore wind farm and further schemes beyond Viking Energy are being delineated. Among these is the tidal power system currently being researched at Bluemull Sound by Nova innovation.

There are questions raised over the reliability of long distance HVDC cables and thus the building of onshore schemes among many island communities offshore from Scotland.[8][9] However the cable, like the gas & oil pipelines and steam capstans before it, is a piece of technology that looks set to transform Shetland.

 

Graphic of SSEN high voltage cable from Shetland to Caithness and beyond

The scale of the Viking Energy scheme, designed not to provide power just for Shetland but for export (like the Herring and oil & gas), effectively forced the Charitable Trust to withdraw. The budget of the project would have absorbed simply too high a proportion of the Trust’s capital. It had already invested £10 million. Thus in May 2019[9][10] participation in the project by a local body, at a level that would have enabled a significant degree of democratic influence, ceased.

This shift came in the midst of intense opposition to the scheme growing on the islands, particularly from the Sustainable Shetland group founded in 2008. The following year 3,600 Shetlanders signed a petition calling for the project to be scrapped[10][11]. Planning consent given by Scottish Energy Minister, Fergus Ewing, in April 2012 was challenged in the courts, though unsuccessfully. Many residents felt that not only was the wind farm set to be a massive intrusion on the landscape[11][12], but with the electricity being exported by cable to the UK, Shetland would effectively be turned into a colony of an energy corporation. In a tragic twist of fate, a scheme that was initially an expression of local democratically controlled renewables, had been turned into a means for SSE plc to generate return on capital.

Protest action at Kergord, Shetland in opposition to Viking Energy wind farm – August 2020

The debate around large-scale renewables is fraught. Opposition to wind farms and extensive solar arrays is often driven by climate sceptics and those opposed to renewable energy per se. And the debate can play into the hands of those that declare that we need to maintain UK oil & gas production as we are unable to depend upon wind and solar for our energy security. But as the example of Shetland illustrates, we would do well to listen carefully to the critics and to establish such schemes in the best possible manner. For projects such as Viking Energy will exist for at least a generation and their effects will be felt for far longer as they frame the way in which we address the massive challenge of facing the climate crisis.

It seems that the challenges of wind farms lie not only in the technology, but who owns that technology, controls it and profits from it, and the sensibility that surrounds its application. Viking Energy’s scheme is under the ownership of SSE and – although Shetland will receive an estimated £2.2 million per year revenue from it[12][13] – the corporation stands to generate the greatest profit. Furthermore, the HVDC cable is entirely in the hands of SSE, and this is set to become the main artery of Shetland islands’ energy future.

SSE approaches the scheme in manner akin to an oil & gas corporation. This is ‘oil thinking’ made manifest. It is no surprise that the chair of SSE since July 2020 has been John Manzoni, formally head of BP Refining & Marketing and then CEO of Talisman oil[13][14]. Additionally, this is a corporation that has already demonstrated its resistance to public control. SSE put itself into a Swiss-based holding company prior to General Election in 2019, anticipating the threat of nationalisation under a Labour government.[14][15]

Deeply involved in the debate around Viking Energy is Roxane Permar, an artist and a long-term friend of Platform, who lives ten miles south of the wind farm. In her project ‘Landscape in Pain[15][16]’ she asks:

‘How can we achieve sustainability in our lives, and leverage renewable energies, without causing harm?’

Image of Kergord Valley by the Viking Energy wind farm created by Roxane Permar as part of Landscape in Pain

In doing so she draws attention to the way in which such schemes are conceived, the sensibility that surrounds them. The manner in which all oil & gas in the UK North Sea has been extracted was deeply affected by the sensibility of how it was approached from its earliest days – as a source of private wealth not a common wealth, to be extracted at the highest profit with a low level of worker rights and ecological protection.

 

The tale of Viking Energy is sad and instructive, and an example of the teething problems of the new energy paradigm. It illustrates that the technological shift to zero carbon will not by itself make for a Just Transition, rather this requires a shift in the structures of ownership. A shift in the structures of thinking and feeling around energy, and wind itself.

The Wind Boom is underway, not just in Shetland but across the UK. (It is perfectly illustrated by the Crown Estate’s unveiling of its ScotWind licensing decisions.) It will transform so much, but the manner in which it is undertaken can still be formed. It must be approached with both a socially just and ecological sensibility. A new way of thinking and feeling, beyond ‘oil thinking’, that helps us share the common wealth of wind.

 

ScotWind offshore wind licensing areas auctioned January 2022

As Dr Alex Armitage, a paediatrician at Shetland’s hospital in Lerwick who campaigned against Cambo, recently stated “To reach net zero we must have a complete transformation of our society now.”[16][17]

This means demanding democratically owned renewable energy for all. As a basic human right.

 

Thanks to Roxane Permar, Gaby Jeliazkov, Jane Trowell and Terry Macalister.

 

[1][18] Story from Charles Sandison – The Sixareen and her Racing Descendants – Shetland Times press – Lerwick – 1994

[2][19] These are two of the key gas pipelines in the UK North Sea – FUKA (Frigg UK Association) and SIRGE (Shetland Island Regional Gas Export System) – both owned by North Sea Midstream Partners which is itself owned by the Kuwait sovereign wealth fund.

[3][20] https://www.vikingenergy.co.uk/the-project

[4][21] https://www.shetlandcharitabletrust.co.uk/[22]

[5][23] Originally it was titled – The Shetland Islands Council Charitable Trust

[7][24] See: https://www.ssen-transmission.co.uk/news-views/articles/2021/7/shetland-hvdc-link-project-onshore-cable-installation-gets-underway/

[8][25] See the study by Mark Hodgson – https://cliscep.com/2021/08/30/20000-volts-under-the-sea/#sdendnote3sym

[9][26] https://www.shetnews.co.uk/2019/05/30/sse-to-fund-viking-project-from-now-on/

[10][27] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2009/jul/28/shetland-windfarm-protest-rspb[28]

[11][29] See: https://www.shetnews.co.uk/2020/08/07/jolly-summer-picnic-held-in-protest-against-viking-energy-wind-farm/

[12][30] https://www.shetnews.co.uk/2019/05/30/sse-to-fund-viking-project-from-now-on/

[13][31] See Crude Britannia – p 337

[14][32] https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-britain-election-sse-idUKKBN1XZ10P

[15][33] https://www.landscapeinpain.uk/about

[16][34] https://www.shetlandtimes.co.uk/2021/11/06/protesting-doctors-call-on-government-to-change-course-on-cambo

 

 

 

 

 

Endnotes:
  1. [1]: #_ftn1
  2. Crude Britannia.: https://www.waterstones.com/book/crude-britannia/james-marriott/terry-macalister/9780745341095
  3. [Image]: https://platformlondon.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/sullom-voe.webp
  4. [2]: #_ftn2
  5. [3]: #_ftn3
  6. [4]: #_ftn4
  7. [5]: #_ftn5
  8. [7]: #_ftn7
  9. [8]: #_ftn8
  10. [9]: #_ftn9
  11. [10]: #_ftn10
  12. [11]: #_ftn11
  13. [12]: #_ftn12
  14. [13]: #_ftn13
  15. [14]: #_ftn14
  16. [15]: #_ftn15
  17. [16]: #_ftn16
  18. [1]: #_ftnref1
  19. [2]: #_ftnref2
  20. [3]: #_ftnref3
  21. [4]: #_ftnref4
  22. https://www.shetlandcharitabletrust.co.uk/: https://www.shetlandcharitabletrust.co.uk/
  23. [5]: #_ftnref5
  24. [7]: #_ftnref7
  25. [8]: #_ftnref8
  26. [9]: #_ftnref9
  27. [10]: #_ftnref10
  28. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2009/jul/28/shetland-windfarm-protest-rspb: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2009/jul/28/shetland-windfarm-protest-rspb
  29. [11]: #_ftnref11
  30. [12]: #_ftnref12
  31. [13]: #_ftnref13
  32. [14]: #_ftnref14
  33. [15]: #_ftnref15
  34. [16]: #_ftnref16