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Blog - "How do you build a wind farm here?"

February 15th 2021

Finding herself back in Shetland after a break of 40 years, Julie Graham ponders her new life as Viking Wind Farm’s community engagement manager . . .

We all understand what it’s like to be ‘rural’ as we head out into the countryside to get some fresh air and distance ourselves from the consumerism that seems to set the pace of modern life. But how is ‘remote’ different and what is it like to live and work in far flung areas? And how on earth do you build a wind farm there?

When I spoke to people about moving back to Shetland I was met with blank stares and the questions “Where?” or “That’s in Scotland – isn’t it?” Thank goodness for Google Earth. When I showed them Shetland the responses generally were “Wow, really? Why?”

I fell in love with Shetland in the late ’70s and over the years have told people how I found living here. I would wax lyrical about the amazing scenery, the slower pace of life, the incredible wildlife and that the weather is always a topic for conversation - mainly that it has a mind all of its own, changing in the shortest period of time from sun to gales and horizontal rain. But this is just part of Shetland life.

I have spent my life moving. As a child I attended 14 schools, the last being Anderson High in Lerwick, so didn’t have the opportunity to put down roots as it was six weeks here, or if I was lucky, two years there. But as an adult I somehow always knew I would come back to Shetland and here I am.

When I saw the job with SSE advertised, I had two thoughts: the first that this was a chance to move back to Shetland doing what I’m passionate about – which is working with people and communities and, secondly, that I wouldn’t get it as I was just too old. Well, just weeks into the job I am living in Shetland with my partner, who is a Shetlander.

I have met some great people, despite only seeing half their faces due to the Covid situation, and I am adjusting to living remotely. Although whether I will ever get used to 14-hour ferry journeys in bad weather remains to be seen.

'There is little agreement when it comes to the wind farm'

I have found that the place hasn’t really changed all that much although you can now find Tesco in Lerwick. It’s nice to have local shops, which I have always championed, and, yes, some things cost a bit more, but investing in local is essential for Shetland to remain unique.

I am learning to knit Fair Isle and have access to good Shetland wool. I certainly like my sheep too, having been a shepherd with Black Face Suffolks in the early 1990s and would love a few Herdwicks of my own.

The scenery has reignited my love of photography and when things get back to ‘normal’ I will be getting involved in community activities. Work will also change. Instead of sitting at home or having the odd socially distanced meeting I will be out and about getting to know people, which is the best part of my job.

You might think a wind farm in such a remote environment would receive minimal attention – a small population, swathes of peat land and lots of wind, ideal! Unfortunately, there is little agreement when it comes to the wind farm.

In truth, there are significant differences of opinion, which I believe is to be expected. As we all know “the only constant in life is change” and how we handle those changes and challenges will be different for each of us; but the challenge of providing a better future in the form of cleaner energy is one which affects us all.

It is hard to be unmoved by a project of this size but there is a balance to be found as Shetland shares the responsibility for UK’s carbon reduction promise. The decision to build in Shetland has taken many years to get to the point of breaking ground and we are now in the early stages of construction and here is where the difference between rural and remote really start to take shape.

'We all have a responsibility to future generations'

With Shetland comprising traditionally of rural communities in remote settings this brings many challenges for the types of construction and the logistics required to build a wind farm. Will the eventual cable link to the mainland change the way remote is now viewed as Shetland becomes an integral part of a national network of green energy provision?

So how do you build a wind farm? Well it’s a complex process that requires the input of a huge number of specialists from start to finish. Firstly, the location must have plenty of wind (which we all agree Shetland certainly has) and where the turbines are positioned, they must make the most of it.

This may seem obvious but added to that it’s essential we are mindful of how this will impact the environment such as natural habitats, watercourses and archaeologically interesting areas, hence the need for even more experts. Then comes the logistics of accessing these locations.

Access tracks need building for the safe delivery of components, ground conditions need investigating such as peat depths and rock types so that roadways can handle specialist delivery vehicles. Then there’s getting the turbines to Shetland, yet another complicated task - from potentially difficult sea conditions to getting ships into Lerwick Harbour, not to mention careful planning to get out of Lerwick to site. All of this has taken years of planning and dedication from hundreds of people. Wind farms aren’t built because it’s easy or on a whim, they’re built because we need them.

So, you may ask is it worth it? That will be something up for discussion years after Viking is built and electricity is being produced. We all have a responsibility to future generations to leave the place in better shape than we found it and that means reducing carbon emissions, fully embracing green energies and accept that our landscape will need to look different to achieve that.

I have no doubt that climate change is a major challenge we face globally. Because of that it was an easy choice to actively play my part in working towards sustainable, effective resolutions that will hopefully benefit not just Shetland but our planet.