Scotland is sometimes described as the Saudi Arabia of renewables. Its resources in wind, wave, tidal, hydro and biomass are enormous – and its determination to convert those natural advantages into hard-edged economic success stories is correspondingly impressive.
Scottish politicians have always been more ambitious about renewable energy than their Whitehall counterparts. Wind power is about to become the biggest single source of electricity in Scotland – bigger than either coal or hydro. Last year, Alex Salmond’s Government decided to ramp up the ambition level: indeed, its 2020 Routemap for Renewable Energy is now the most ambitious renewable energy strategy in the EU.
The target is to generate the equivalent of all Scotland’s electricity consumption from renewable energy sources by 2020, the lion’s share of which will come from offshore wind. There are ambitious targets for renewable heat and transport fuels – and a very distinctive emphasis on community energy schemes – scheduled to provide up to 500 MW by 2020.
Understandably, this kind of policy framework has put a spring in the step of the renewable energy industries of Scotland. Delegates at the Renewables Scotland Conference were in a pretty upbeat mood – reinforced by new research showing that more than 10,000 people are already employed in the renewable energy industry in Scotland – a couple of hundred more than are employed in the whisky industry!
Prospects for the next decade are robust. In the last few months, a number of major private sector players have confirmed huge new investments in Scotland – including, most recently, Gamesa, one of the world’s largest wind energy companies. They are increasingly persuaded that the Scottish Government is serious about renewable energy, over the long-term, and impressed by the creativity with which limited funds are being deployed – including a new pot of around £100 million clawed back from the proceeds of the Climate Change Levy.
These plans include an ambitious vision for the development of the wave and tidal stream industries – and this is the bit that really excites me.
I’m a member of the Challenge Committee for something called the Saltire Prize, set up four years ago to encourage companies all over the world to bring their marine energy developments to Scotland – with £10 million as the prize for the wave or tidal stream companies that can best demonstrate real commercial viability by 2020.
We spent an afternoon on the 27th of March listening to presentations from the three companies that have officially entered for the Prize – Pelamis, Aquamarine and ScottishPower Renewables. Incredibly inspiring to see how the technical and financial barriers that still confront these industries are steadily being overcome.
Why is this so important? These marine technologies are now the sole remaining areas where the UK (assuming Scotland remains part of the UK!) can achieve real global leadership. We’re already undisputed global leaders in this area, with most of the devices showing real promise being deployed in Scotland. The European Marine Energy Centre in the Orkneys has no parallel anywhere in the world.
Two things hit me during the day. First, the clarity of purpose, and single-minded commitment to renewables in Scotland can be explained, in part, by its steadfast opposition to nuclear power. No new nuclear reactors will ever be built in Scotland. So there’s none of the usual “inclusive” rhetoric along the lines of: “we need everything: renewables, nuclear, cleaner fossil fuels, carbon capture and storage and so on”. Here, it’s all about renewables, energy efficiency, combined heat and power, with gas as the transition-hydrocarbon.
And it’s all do-able. North of the border, the pathetic pro-nuclear delusions of Whitehall politicians and those duped, increasingly sad environmentalists like George Monbiot become all the more stark. Indeed, the biggest threat to the future of renewables in Scotland are the machinations currently underway in Whitehall to “fix” the entire Electricity Market Reform process to favour nuclear over every other low-carbon option.
My second reflection was all about leadership. With their endless policy flip-flops, and consistently negative rhetoric about the role of renewables and the Green Economy as a whole, Cameron and Osborne have already caused immense damage to all those companies involved in this strategically critical sector. They seem to understand nothing about political risk, and clearly have no serious interest in promoting the role of the UK in tomorrow’s low-carbon economy.
The contrast with Alex Salmond’s style of leadership couldn’t be clearer. He wound up proceedings with a cracking speech at the Conference dinner. Well-informed, passionate, funny, proud of what’s happening in Scotland, utterly focussed on turning opportunity into jobs, skills, prosperity and increased energy security. It was a real tour de force – and made a big impact on delegates.
No wonder more and more companies are investing in Scotland – and despairing of the short-termism and vision-free vacuities of Whitehall.
Founder Director & Trustee of Forum for the Future