MINISTERS have approved plans for a giant wind farm on Shetland which has divided opinion in the islands for almost a decade.
It is claimed Viking Energy's wind farm on the Shetland mainland will generate an estimated £566 million of capital expenditure and tens of millions of pounds in annual income for the island.
However, many islanders believe their landscape will be blighted and precious oil cash reserves will be wasted on a project whose benefits have been grossly over-estimated and costs underplayed. They believe at the very least there should have been a public inquiry.
With Shetland's winds giving an anticipated 50% efficiency the 370-megawatt wind farm could be the most productive in the world, able to power in excess of 175,000 homes – more than 16 times the number of households on Shetland. As well as around 140 jobs during the five years of construction, around 34 operational jobs will be created.
Energy Minister Fergus Ewing said: "This wind farm will bring enormous benefits to the people of Shetland, generating more than £30m in annual income for the entire Shetland community. Around £20m of that will go directly to the Shetland Charitable Trust.
In response to environmental concerns, Mr Ewing said: "The development includes an extensive habitat management plan covering around 12,800 acres, which will restore peatland and offer benefits to a whole range of species and habitats."
It is expected the wind farm will ensure the construction of a subsea interconnector allowing Shetland to export electricity to the mainland and opening up further opportunities for the islands to benefit from other renewables, including community schemes and wave and tidal power.
However, Viking Energy Ltd, the company born of a partnership between Shetland Islands Council and Scottish & Southern Energy, only got the green light to build 103 of the 127 turbines it sought. Consent for 24 turbines was withheld because of the impact they would have on Scatsta Airport's instrument flight procedures.
Opinion has been deeply divided about the development, with a poll by the Shetland Times in December 2010 recording 36% in favour, 33% opposed and 31% undecided.
Division was still obvious yesterday as Councillor Bill Manson, chairman of Viking Energy Partnership, welcomed the news. He said: "This is not just about the Viking wind farm and the massive benefits it can bring to Shetland. The associated grid connection will unlock future renewable projects including marine energy and help us generate a whole new sustainable industry in Shetland."
However, Billy Fox, chairman of Sustainable Shetland, the local opposition campaign, said approv- al had been a grave mistake. He said: "This application has been railroaded through in a joint partnership between the Scottish Government and the developer. It's completely inappropriate for Shetland, and there's no way it shouldn't at the very least have gone to a public inquiry."
Mr Fox pointed out statutory consultee Scottish Natural Heritage was upholding its objection, and predicted "renewable carpetbaggers" would try to turn Shetland into "one giant wind farm for the folk of the central belt of Scotland".
The local Windfarm Supporters' Group, however, had a different perspective. A spokesman said: "This opens a whole new era, there should be exciting times ahead with a new renewable energy industry for Shetland that has enormous potential."
However, Stuart Brooks, chief executive of the wild land charity the John Muir Trust, said: "I'm extremely disappointed the application has been approved by the Scottish Government. We felt a public inquiry was necessary to fully examine the application."
While RSPB Scotland recognised the lengths Viking had gone to minimise the impact, it said the developers and Scottish ministers should have gone much further. "It is disappointing they have decided to risk the Shetland environment with such a large-scale proposal in their heartland," a spokesman said.