With a major space port initiative and new renewables projects in the pipeline, Shetland’s mood should be sky high, however the UK’s departure from the EU continues to cause concern in the seafood sector. By Anthony Harrington.

The pandemic has been difficult for everyone and Shetland is no exception. However, the Shetland Isles are really at a crossroads, and a tremendous amount of work is going on both at the Council and in the wider community, to work out how best to position the economy of the Isles going forward.

There are some real issues and some very positive developments, as John Smith, Director of Infrastructure at Shetland Council explains.

On the negative side, Smith points out that the fog of uncertainty over how things will resolve in the wake of Brexit continues to be pretty well impenetrable at present. This is being exacerbated by the fact that the demand by European restaurants for premium priced Shetland monkfish, scallops and lobsters has virtually fallen off a cliff, thanks to lockdowns in Europe.

On the plus side, there is quite a list of positives to report. The £7.6 million new Lerwick fish market, and the new Scalloway fish market both opened in the third quarter of 2020 and were extremely well received by both the fishing community and commercial buyers.

In Lerwick, for example, the four temperature-controlled chill bays, extending to some 1,600 metres, are helping to improve the quality of fish sold and will continue to help the fishing community to secure top prices for their catch when demand returns.  There is also a 400 square metre chilled transport corridor to improve dispatch.

In Scalloway, Smith notes: “The chilling sea food operation is broadening the range of buyers quite significantly. The market can be accessed online from anywhere in the world and the logistics support that ensures orders get to the clients has become more and more focused on short turnaround deliveries,” Smith says. This, of course, presupposes a world in which restaurants are open, which is not where we are in many European cities right now.

One of the big opportunities Shetland is looking at right now, Smith says, is the repurposing of Sullom Voe, which has had a long and distinguished history as a major North Sea oil and gas terminal. Now that the global emphasis is switching away from fossil fuels to renewables as part of the battle against Climate Change, Shetland Council is looking to a radically different future for Sullom Voe.

There are some seven different pipelines running into the terminal from various oil reservoirs in the North Sea, Smith points out.

This opens up the possibility of using these assets in a bold new way. Shetland Council has concluded that clean energy requirements, on both a local and regional scale, provide a huge opportunity for Shetland to develop an energy hub.

The idea is to harness the plentiful local natural wind and tidal energy resources coupled with the development and adoption of new technologies such as blue and green hydrogen generation and the management of carbon emissions.

Smith, points out that the council has reached out to ensure the support and help of a number of organisations to look at promoting the emergence of a hydrogen economy.

“The council and Highlands and Islands Enterprise are working closely together to promote a number of local hydrogen fuel and heating projects for government funding. The council also recently joined a study, co-funded by the Scottish Government, to determine the most economical solution for marine hydrogen transportation,” he says.

These efforts are being grouped under the name the Orion Project, an acronym for ‘Opportunity for Renewables Integration with Offshore Networks’.

Smith points out that it may well make sense to look at utilising the existing sub-sea pipeline infrastructure as a way of sequestering carbon in depleted oil reservoirs. The shipping of CO2 to the Sullom Voe pumping station could itself generate new business opportunities for the islands.

“Moving to clean energy will not be easy for all sectors. What, for instance, could we offer to a fishing boat that only pulls into port one day every two weeks, to replace diesel as an energy rich fuel. There are lots of questions still to be answered,” he says.

However, there are already some promising project involving hydrogen as a fuel source, involving both green and blue hydrogen. The latter is derived from natural gas, while the former is ‘cleaner’ since hydrogen is split from desalinated seawater using renewable energy.

Another very exciting project for the Shetland Isles, Smith points out, is the islands’ Space Port initiative. This initiative received a huge boost in January 2021, from two directions.

Ship to ship transfer of crude oil at the Sullom Voe terminalA CGI rendering of the future Lockheed Martin UK Pathfinder launch from Shetland Space Centre

First, major planning proposals were submitted to the Shetland Islands Council, on behalf of Shetland Space Centre by town planning consultants Farningham Planning Ltd.

The proposals take the form of three separate but related planning applications, including for the launch site at Lamba Ness.

These relate to the construction of three launch pads and associated infrastructure, incorporating a satellite tracking facility, hangarage and integration facilities, the creation of a range control centre at the former RAF Saxa Vord complex, use of the fuel storage facility at Ordale Airport at Baltasound, and significant improvements to the launch site’s approach roads.

The proposal is supported by a thorough and extremely comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment Report (EIAR) prepared by a team of experienced specialist environmental consultants.

The expectation is that the launch facility will eventually create around 140 jobs on Unst, and will be worth some £4.9 million to the island’s economy.

Second, Lockheed Martin has secured approval from the UK Government, to transfer its satellite launch operations to the Shetland Space Centre on Unst. The Space Centre has said that in addition to the 140 locally generated jobs, a further 210 jobs will be created across the wider Shetland region and a further 150 jobs will also be created through wider manufacturing and support services.

“All of this now looks like it is going to happen and that is very good news for the Shetland Islands,” Smith says.

To read the full Ports Review 2021, click here.