By Mike MacKenzie
In a surprisingly short time after the roll out of RET to the Hebridean and Clyde routes it has been announced that it is now going to be delivered, albeit in a route adjusted form, to the Northern Isles. The timing is interesting. It is obviously not an election bribe, but as indicated some years ago, it has been delivered at the point when it became contractually possible.
It is being done, not because of political or any other form of self-interest, but because it is the right thing to do, by a Government which aims to provide good government for all of Scotland, regardless of how these different parts of Scotland may vote. It is being done too in the knowledge that little extra taxation will flow into government coffers as a result of this significant improvement to transport. There may be a slight argument, with some tax now devolved to Scotland , that there may be a marginal increase in income tax generation resulting from an uplift to island economies, but that is unlikely to come anywhere near to offsetting the cost of providing lower prices for ferry passengers.
It is worth contrasting this with the case for providing interconnectors to these same islands which is wholly within the gift of the UK Government. The case has long been made for upgrading the interconnectors to the Western Isles, to Orkney and for providing one to Shetland. The Baringa report jointly sponsored by both the Scottish and the UK Government in 2013 estimated that 5% of UK electricity could be generated in these three island areas by 2030 and in the longer term as much as 20% if suitable interconnectors were to be provided.
The current situation is one of grid lock. Wind turbines on Orkney, for example, are ‘constrained’ and may be shut down at times when electricity supply exceeds demand. There is no capacity in the current cable to allow surplus electricity to be exported to the mainland. This can leave owners of generating equipment, including small businesses and community organisations, unable to generate the profit needed to meet their financial commitments. In a community that for several years has generated more than 100% of its own energy and is at the leading edge in wave and tidal energy research, this is deeply and sadly ironic
A further irony which irritates those who campaign against wind turbines is that the wind turbines which you see here and there on Orkney seem to have done nothing to diminish tourism appeal or the quality of life of residents. It is the UK’s top cruise ship destination and is continually in the top three in UK quality of life studies.
The opportunities that providing interconnectors would open up are very significant not just in economic terms but also socially. These island areas for instance suffer greatly from fuel poverty. There is a yet another supremely sad irony that people should suffer fuel poverty in areas with such abundant and easily harnessed energy resources
The UK Government has to date ignored all of the cast iron arguments in favour of providing interconnectors for Scotland’s Islands. The regime they impose insists that significant contributions are made by developers to the cost of providing these interconnectors. This has led to the proposed Viking wind farm on Shetland having to be at such a scale that it has been locally controversial. Many objectors say that they could live with a wind farm that wasn’t quite as large. The developers might be sympathetic but they are stuck with a development that has to be large enough to make the necessary contribution to the costs of the enabling infrastructure.
If other forms of infrastructure were subject to such limitations precious little would be built. HS2 for instance would not have a metre of track laid until £ billions worth of season tickets were sold!
And yet I am cynically optimistic. During the recent election campaign Alistair Carmichael, after years of silence on this issue, suddenly converted to the cause of providing interconnectors. What a pity he didn’t do something about this when he held the office of Secretary of State for Scotland. That may have been his Tom Johnson opportunity but such statesman-like behavior was obviously beyond him. The Tories too in the election campaign suddenly began to promise island interconnectors. With no electoral hopes in the islands the answer for this sudden conversion must lie elsewhere.
Having made for many years, along with their Labour predecessors, a ‘Brexit’ of energy policy which leaves us perilously close to the lights going out, and having compounded this with their expensive commitment to hapless solutions like the proposed Hinkley nuclear project, they may have suddenly realised they might need more electricity from Scotland after all.
The current European interconnectors which daily top up our energy need are continuously at capacity; just short of melting. But I do wonder if the Europeans will be willing to share their precious energy resources with the UK after Brexit and if so at what price. Even in the small minds of Tory Ministers little light bulbs must be popping on and signalling this problem.
This is an opinion piece by Mike MaKenzie. if you would like to contribute your viewpoints, photographs, letters or stories to the Orkney News then send us an e:mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or use our contact page.