Thirty years ago, Donnie and Evelyn Morrison built their home in the quiet Weisdale Valley of the Shetland Islands, on the same site where Donnie’s grandfather lived in the early 1900s.
The original house on the site dated back to the 1750s, and had fallen into disrepair since his grandfather’s death. Donnie set about restoring it, finishing the outer walls in a rough render, a bright white to contrast to the valley’s green hills and stormy skies.
The couple raised their four children in the peaceful valley. But now, as the Morrisons reach their twilight years, they’ll soon share that landscape with 103 wind turbines, each 155 metres tall, surrounding their home on three sides.
“[ I ] never expected in my wildest dreams that this was going to happen,” said Donnie, a builder and native Shetlander who lives on Mainland, Shetland’s biggest island.
The Viking Wind Farm (VWF) will be one of the U.K.’s largest onshore wind farms, and is being built by SSE Renewables, a company that develops renewable energy projects across the U.K. and Ireland. Construction started in September 2020, essentially turning the valley into a building site until its completion in 2024.
“This morning, I was wide awake at half past five, and I lost count of all the cars and vehicles that were going up the hill ... all the lights flashing,” said Evelyn. “It’s just unbelievable that this is going on. It’s just horrible, really.”
Donnie said in years gone by, he could stand outside and tell the season by the type of birdsong in the valley. Nesting birds returned each February, their “chirps and cheeps” growing louder as spring swelled into summer, he said, before sliding back into the “utter silence” of winter.
“Now, you stand out at night, you hear generators … you cannot see the northern lights now, because there’s floodlights,” he told CBC Radio’s The Current.
Listen to the radio documentary Winds of Change from CBC Radio’s The Current.
Supporters of the wind farm say it will bring jobs and money to the local community, while also helping the U.K.’s plans to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 (Scotland’s target is 2045). A high-voltage cable is also being laid from Shetland to the Scottish mainland, which will export wind power from the islands to the U.K.’s national power grid for the first time.
But the project has also faced years of opposition from environmental groups and residents who fear its enormous size will blight Shetland’s landscape. They say the environmental disruption of building it may ultimately outweigh the benefits.
Donnie agrees that “the world has to do something about the environment.” But he asks why the people of Shetland must host such a big facility, when their carbon footprint is “very, very, very small.” He thinks the farm amounts to the “industrialization of what was a pristine environment.”
“What nature has taken 10,000 years to create has taken about four or five years to utterly destroy,” he said.
Large-scale renewable energy projects around the world have faced opposition over their imposing presence in areas of natural beauty. In 2019, California’s San Bernardino County banned solar wind farms from the vast rural deserts north of Los Angeles, and plans for a wind farm in Australia were rejected over its visual impact on the landscape, with one local opponent calling the proposal “scenic vandalism.”
Evelyn believes the Viking Wind Farm will reduce the value of the home they worked so hard to build.
“Nobody’s going to want to live on a wind farm,” she said.
Roughly 23,000 people live on just 16 of the hundred islands that make up Shetland, clustered 170 kilometres northeast of Scotland, where the Atlantic meets the North Sea.
Traditionally, Shetlanders made their living fishing and farming, but the discovery of North Sea oil in the 1970s brought an economic boom. A deal to extract the oil and process it at a plant in the north of Mainland poured hundreds of millions into the Shetland Charitable Trust, which has so far dispensed over £320 million on social and welfare programs, such as cutting-edge sports facilities and heritage projects.
But in March, the U.K. announced plans to bring the North Sea oil and gas industry to net zero by 2050. Canada has made a similar pledge to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, promising a just transition for oil and gas workers facing a disruption to their livelihoods.
Days before the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, the Scottish government also published plans to more than double onshore wind capacity by 2030.
Speaking last month after COP26, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the transition away from oil and gas must be made “properly and carefully,” but that there is “no doubt in my mind that we need to do that as quickly as possible.”
Supporters say the Viking Wind Farm will be a key step in that transition.
“Ultimately, oil and gas will slowly phase down, and there is a pressing need to transition the economy [in Shetland] away from that dependence,” said Aaron Priest, stakeholder manager for VWF. He described the wind resource on Shetland as “second to none,” a statement backed up by the Met Office’s classification of the islands as the windiest place in the U.K.
The turbines to harness that power will be spread across 10,000 hectares in the centre of Mainland, with a 75-km road network connecting them over their agreed 25-year lifespan. SSE Renewables estimates the farm could generate electricity for more than 475,000 homes annually — enough for a population 45 times larger than Shetland, according to population data collected in 2020.
The new undersea cable will export that additional power to Scotland and beyond, to “help in the U.K.‘s push to net zero and decarbonization,” Priest said.
In a statement to The Current, Steven Coutts, political leader of the Shetland Islands Council, said that Shetland played “a central role” in Scotland’s oil and gas industry and that “we are ready to do the same again as we make the necessary transition to net-zero and renewable energy production.”
Coutts’ statement asserted that “environmental protection has always been of utmost importance to us as a Council,” but did not directly respond to questions about local opposition to the project.
The farm was first proposed in 2005, and approved by the Scottish government in 2012. It was originally a joint venture between SSE Renewables and Shetland Islands Council, before the council withdrew over concerns around conflict of interest. SSE Renewables became the sole operator in 2019, though the community retains an interest on the management board, and will receive financial benefit from earlier investments.
Construction only started in September 2020, after opposition from environmental groups and a protracted legal battle that went all the way to the U.K. Supreme Court. That bid to stop it failed.
Laurie Goodlad, a writer and local tour guide, said one objection is that the farm is just “too big for Shetland — there’s going to be no part of Shetland that it’s not visible.”
She notes that there is already a smaller wind farm north of Lerwick, Mainland’s biggest town, where five 43-metre turbines have been in operation for 20 years, without similar opposition.
She also worries being connected to the national grid will just mean future projects “coming in to strip more resources from Shetland, with little care for what the islanders want or need.”
“What we don’t want to be doing is carrying the energy burden for the whole of the U.K.,” she said.
Speaking to The Current on the street in Lerwick, local man Lee Jameson said he’s “probably in favour of the wind farms, but more so as I think it might provide more employment in Shetland.”
“You can get maybe more young folk moving back to Shetland,” he said.
He added that aspect might be more important as oil and gas jobs become “something we’re trying to move away from.”
But Goodlad argued the farm is only expected to create 35 permanent jobs once complete — and those might be highly specialized, requiring workers to be brought in from elsewhere. She also pointed out that to build the turbines, SSE Renewables must dig up peat bog, a fossil fuel, which would release carbon into the atmosphere in the process.
As part of its efforts to reach net zero, the Scottish government has pledged £250 million over 10 years to restore peatland across the country.
“It’s a joke,” said Goodlad. “The Scottish government is investing so much money into this peatland restoration. Yet they’ll just turn on a complete blind eye to the fact that it’s getting destroyed in Shetland.”
Priest said SSE Renewables has committed to a plan that will restore the peat, going beyond the 96-hectare footprint to treat 260 hectares in total. He acknowledged that the project has proven controversial, and the transition to net zero “isn’t without its ups and downs.”
But he stands by the work his company is doing.
“I’m a Shetlander born and bred,” he said. “I’m very proud of this project.”
Goodlad suggested there may also be a cultural aspect to the opposition to the wind farm.
She explained that Shetland was settled by Norse invaders in the ninth century, but later annexed by Scotland in 1472. (Norway is only 60 kilometres farther from the islands than Scotland.)
“Scotland, in a lot of ways, oppressed everyday Shetlanders,” she said, by driving many from their land to make way for new farms, and forbidding them from speaking their own language, a version of Old Norse.
Perhaps in resistance, the Scandinavian influence persisted. Norse laws were observed into the 17th century, their Nordic language was spoken into the 19th and even today, the pre-Scottish history is visible in place names like Skeld, Unst and Isbister. There’s even an annual festival called Up Helly Aa, where locals dress as vikings and burn a galley in the harbour.
“I always joke with visitors and I always tell them that they’ll not get any haggis, kilts and bagpipes here, because it’s just not part of the culture,” Goodlad said. “We’re very much part of Scotland, but we’re set apart, too.”
That complicated history has led to some tension with the Scottish mainland, or what locals call “the central belt,” referring to the most heavily populated area, from Edinburgh to Glasgow.
“Maybe we could give more, if we got more in return, but we are just seen as a distant backwater,” she said. “Nobody in the central belt of Scotland wants to see a wind farm on their doorstep, so [they’ll] just put it in Shetland.”
Goodlad said she was once asked whether Shetland owed this wind farm to the world, to make up for decades of pulling oil out of the ocean — a question she found “ridiculous.”
“We do understand that Shetland has benefitted hugely from the oil industry,” she said. But that oil has benefitted all of the U.K., she argued, while Shetland has paid a hidden cost.
“Our cultural heritage and that traditional way of life was lost when the oil industry came here, because with it came money, and people moving into the island,” she said.
“In many ways, Shetland has already paid the price for energy,” she said. “We’ve already made that sacrifice. So why are we being asked to make another sacrifice all over again?”
Donnie and Evelyn Morrison said they’ve watched how that oil money was spent over the decades, on things like water slides and large swimming pools where the floor can be mechanically adjusted to different depths.
“They spent so much money ridiculously .. they went completely mad,” Evelyn said.
SSE Renewables has set up a community benefit fund, from which the islands stand to receive £2.2m annually. Donnie fears history could repeat itself with this money, which he calls “a disgusting bribe.”
He said the energy industry has put more money in people’s pockets and brought better facilities to the islands, but it has also eroded the sense of community he grew up around.
“[It’s] enormous progress, but not the kind of progress I would have liked to have seen for Shetland,” he said.
“I feel very angry, but I suppose very sad as well, at what Shetland has become.”
Written by: Padraig Moran | Copy Editor: Andre Mayer | Digital Producer: Padraig Moran and Althea Manasan | Graphics: Ben Shannon | Radio documentary: Produced by Samira Mohyeddin, edited by Elizabeth Hoath