Renewable energy in Scotland
Caution to the wind
How independence might threaten one of the SNP’s favourite industries
Twenty minutes from the centre of Glasgow, the tussocky expanse of Eaglesham Moor is popular with dog-walkers and cyclists. These days they enjoy some 90km (56 miles) of paths that have been built on the moor around Whitelee, Europe’s second-biggest onshore wind farm, by the operator, ScottishPower. The site’s appeal is twofold: it is close to a large number of electricity-consuming homes; and a barren moor makes a less controversial place to scatter 215 turbines than, say, a picturesque Highland mountainside. Whitelee’s success—it has expanded twice since starting operations in 2009—reflects the growth of Scotland’s renewable-energy industry as a whole.
In 2011, for the first time, renewables were the second-biggest source of electricity generated in Scotland, accounting for 27%, behind nuclear power but ahead of coal and gas; in England, renewables generated only 6% of the total. Stand, buffeted, on Eaglesham Moor and you get an inkling of why: around a quarter of all Europe’s wind energy crosses Scotland’s land mass and surrounding waters. Factor in its potential in tidal and wave energy, plus an expertise in North Sea oil and gas that can be transferred to greener industries, and the notion of Scotland as a “Saudi Arabia of renewables” does not seem too far-fetched.
The political climate helps, too. At Westminster, bickering within the coalition, especially over wind farms, has stymied progress over renewables. By contrast, the Scottish National Party (SNP), which runs Scotland’s devolved government, has spent years talking up the country’s renewable-energy prowess and British dependence on it. With some justification: Scotland exported 26% of the electricity it generated to the rest of Britain in 2011, and transfers to England are at a record high. The SNP touts energy as a central plank of an independent Scotland’s economy, should voters opt for separation in next year’s referendum.
Alex Salmond, the first minister, vows that Scotland will generate the equivalent of 100% of its electricity needs from renewable sources by 2020. That pledge might be tough to meet should oil and gas prices fall, making renewables look costlier; but his administration has at least backed his words with action. Within the devolved arrangements, planning decisions are Scotland’s main lever over energy policy. Since 2007, when Mr Salmond first took office, his ministers have approved many more applications for large wind farms (ie, those with a generating capacity of over 50MW) than the Westminster government has for England and Wales. Foreign firms have noticed this enthusiasm for the sector: Areva, Gamesa and Samsung have all said they will open factories making kit for offshore turbines in Scotland.
But external factors have helped, too. In particular, a European Union directive requires Britain to derive 15% of its energy demand from renewables by 2020. Generators of such energy get subsidies from a Westminster scheme funded by consumers throughout Britain. That is a major boon to Scotland’s renewables industry. It is also, potentially, the cause of its biggest worry—one among several.
Not everyone is as sanguine about wind farms as the ramblers on Eaglesham Moor. Elsewhere, the proliferating turbines are contentious. As in England, the two strands of environmentalism—the push for green energy and the desire to keep nature pristine—still conflict. Moreover, for most other sites, transmission costs are high. National Grid, which operates the British transmission system, charges electricity generators according to their location relative to demand; Scotland’s windiest spots tend to be remote. Meanwhile, as Professor Paul Younger of Glasgow University points out, Scotland still needs to plug an impending gap in its supply of “baseload” energy (power that is available day and night, regardless of the weather). Buying more gas is the likeliest solution.
But, despite the SNP’s enthusiasm for both, the biggest shadow over Scotland’s renewables industry is cast by independence. A separated Scotland would probably remain part of the same British energy market: all sides benefit from a system that allows the easy transmission of electricity from England’s power stations to Scotland when the winds are calm up north, and from Scotland’s wind farms to the south on days when they have excess capacity.
The worry is the impact that independence might have on how Britain applies that EU directive. At the moment, no one knows exactly what that will be; but Britain’s government might well prefer to invest in its own renewables industry rather than subsidising Scotland’s, or to buy cheap renewable energy from elsewhere in Europe. Scotland’s competitively priced onshore-wind power would probably find a buyer, but more expensive offshore, tidal and wave energy could be a harder sell.
Fergus Ewing, Scotland’s energy minister, suggests that England, which itself faces an energy shortfall, will need Scottish power regardless: “England will need Scottish energy to keep the lights on by 2015,” he says. But it would be ironic if independence were to undermine one of the SNP’s flagship industries.