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Year of coasts and waters should be catalyst for debate over North Sea development

By Rob Gibson

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Oil rigs in the open North sea off the coast of England and Scotland
Oil rigs in the open North sea off the coast of England and Scotland

This year, 2020, is Scotland’s year of coasts and waters in which we showcase and celebrate our varied coastline, lochs, rivers and seas.

Let’s hope it doesn’t collide with the loss of species and habitat highlighted by a new report on ‘blue acceleration’. Published this month by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), it mines 50 years of data on shipping, drilling, aquaculture, submarine cable laying, cruise tourism and installation of offshore oil, gas and wind turbines to raise an alarming picture of future exploitation of our oceans.

In a European context, Scotland has close links across narrow seas to our neighbours with whom the EU has developed fishing controls and more recently environmental zones to protect marine life. We also share a continental shelf that has hosted oil and gas platforms for 50 years.

In the past 10 years the development of offshore wind and tidal power has been slotted into this complex network of marine development.

The recent Scottish Renewables Offshore Wind Conference held in Glasgow was sold out. Interest in new prospects for the rapidly reducing costs of bigger, more powerful turbines than on land has a worldwide appeal. The potential for local growth in the supply chain was also explored at length by keynote speakers all too aware of the disjointed future for Scottish clean power from the UK exit from the EU.

In an unprecedented newspaper advert produced by EDP Renewables, the company claims a 17 per cent disadvantage for northern projects entering a UK-wide Contract for Difference (CfD) auction. Dan Finch is managing director of EDPR UK, one of the partners in Moray East and Moray West offshore wind farms.

To access the national grid, ‘TNUoS’ has to be paid. That is Transmission Network Use of System charges that could penalise Moray Firth projects by an estimated £31 million per annum by 2025 compared to an East Anglia project at £1 access charge.

That is the stark reality of UK offshore clean power policy. That is the price of preferring smaller turbines in shallower waters nearer to the south-east England market to deep-water larger blades in the north of the UK.

Dan Finch’s work over the past 15 years in the offshore wind sector has overcome many technical hurdles. Yet he and other developers have been failed time and again by the penalties imposed by UK energy policy that could, as he says, price Scottish renewables generation out of the market.

Dan Finch.
Dan Finch.

Tackling the climate crisis means building the right infrastructure in the right places, he argues. So would all who wish to see the Western and Northern Isles hooked up to the so-called National Grid but experience the same frustrations from a London-centric power policy.

We see the great Caithness to Moray coast interconnector built but the huge extra capacity of its carrying power could be stunted by this very issue EDPR highlights.

Onshore and offshore renewables in Scotland seek environmental justice.

In a decade where we have to max up decarbonisation of all energy using sectors, I clocked a headline describing some wind developments in west Caithness as the tightening of a ring of steel.

It just shows that communities that own renewables don’t complain about new turbines, but those which receive minimal community payments make the biggest noise. Taking community ownership of at least one turbine in a commercial development can make a big difference. That requires negotiation and planning back-up to aid such a scenario. Fintry in the Campsie Fells north of Glasgow has such a scheme.

Perhaps the good folks of Reay in Caithness will be happier to read that the national Norwegian energy giant, Equinor, proclaims itself to be the ‘wind farm over the horizon’ which is one of the key suppliers of gas, oil and wind power to the UK.

It has partnered with SSE to build the world’s largest offshore wind farm at Dogger Bank in the southern North Sea. Yes, they have the permissions from the UK regulator, giving the push to have another giant scheme closer to London, while those at a distance get the scraps.

As I said earlier, the management of our ocean resources is a global concern. We read of plans to accelerate the global goldrush for minerals and metals on the ocean floor.

We know that our Marine Protected Areas on the European model are aware of these pressures because the North Sea is a labyrinth of oil and gas wells, working and spent, pipelines and cables. Our narrow seas carry cargo and passenger ships, supply boats and these require international day-to-day management. Even the decommissioning of oil and gas installations will test environmental and logistical skills to the limit.

We need blue carbon sequestration around Scotland as much as clean energy development. The 2020 celebration of the year of coasts and waters should open a huge debate on the balance to be struck. At the wonderful Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow that fills much of January, an early event was a day-long musical celebration by musicians who live on our islands and around our coasts.

The most outstanding commission was produced by harpist Ingrid Henderson who hails from Mallaig. Her new pieces featured stunning film shot around the coasts of the south of Skye.

The centrepiece was a beautiful animation by Cat Bruce of our abundant sea life, inspired by the Message in a Bottle theme. Do find that on YouTube. It offers a beautiful reminder of what we could lose if we fail to manage the pressures on our ocean hinterland. As the programme notes reminded us, six times the land area of Scotland is under water compared to our dry land.

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