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Scotland can help offshore wind be a game changer – with the right backing

By Rob Gibson

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Windrad - Offshore
Windrad - Offshore

Offshore wind could join the ranks of shale gas and solar photovoltaics in terms of steep cost reductions. This was reported late last month by the International Energy Agency (IEA), the Paris-based oil watchdog.

These three sources of power certainly raise hopes of being ‘game changers’ but have very different appeal to consumers and voters.

For us in the Highlands and Islands, there is considerable hope of a new swathe of clean power jobs. There are also the competing views on renewables as we enter the run-up to the first December UK election since 1923.

Talking of policy pitches for December 12, the UK Tory government has followed Scotland’s example and set a moratorium on shale gas extraction in England. That follows reports of minor earthquakes in a licensed Lancashire shale gas site.

The pull-out of the developer may well be as temporary as the Tory decision. That’s because the business secretary Andrea Leadsom announced a moratorium until new technology reduces the risk of earthquakes in its extraction.

Here in Scotland, the Scottish Government has turned a moratorium on shale gas extraction into a ban. That’s because both licensing and planning powers are devolved and most people wherever they live hope that form of natural gas is never extracted in Scotland.

One complication, however, is the processing of north American shale gas at INEOS's Grangemouth plant.

The climate challenge is to wean ourselves off fossil fuels as quickly as possible. But oil and gas companies seek to prolong their use to keep up their profits.

Certainly, eight out of 10 UK homes rely on gas heating, so it is going to be a big challenge to move to electricity supplies and much more insulation as well as passive energy homes built for the future. Again, these require planning rules to be quickly developed so that gas can be phased out as soon as possible.

Action on firms still relying on hydrocarbon extraction for power uses needs to be tough.

That requires energy and planning policies that allow the rapid development of a smarter, more resilient national grid, renewables, battery storage technology, better heat pumps, new insulation materials and smart energy devices. Sam Laidlaw of Neptune Energy Group is among those who believes rapid development of a more resilient grid is needed. He also included biogas in the grid and cheaper nuclear.

I’ll discuss nuclear in a minute, but first, gas-fired heating has to be replaced more quickly than oil firms would like. That’s why air-source heat pumps and photovoltaic solar need to get priority.

Air conditioning/ Heat pump unit on the side of a home among the flowers..
Air conditioning/ Heat pump unit on the side of a home among the flowers..

We can see debates on that in the Scottish Parliament as Roseanna Cunningham, the cabinet secretary for climate change, indicated that even conservation areas would soon have new looser rules for fitting solar panels.

Research and development of solar needs both energy and planning policy green lights. Just how far a UK government would go depends on which party is elected to lead and how other parties seek a consensus on the way ahead. Hopefully we shall have clarity after December 12.

The exciting prospects for offshore and onshore wind are that their costs are approximately 50 or 60 per cent cheaper to deliver than nuclear power. The issues for their development are still unclear in the Home Counties. They couldn’t be clearer in Scotland. We can see a wide spread of wind installation already providing 70 per cent of Scotland’s domestic electricity needs with room for export through the grid to England.

The recent rounds of UK-decided Contracts for Difference (CfD) and associated strike price have benefited large offshore development in the North Sea more off the east coast of England than Scotland.

The potential for this technology worldwide is huge. The current level of offshore wind production in the world makes up just 0.3 per cent of global power supply, but by 2040 offshore wind could be the biggest producer of clean power in European terms.

The IEA estimates these farms will require expensive transmission lines and could be much more costly the further offshore they get. But floating wind towers and advances in energy storage will alter the potential positively.

Big changes in overall policy are needed and the production facilities already grouped in east and north-east England need to expand to Scotland.

We can see the struggle BiFab has had and the lay-off of workers at CS Wind, the South Korean-owned wind tower manufacturer near Campbeltown.

These components of Scottish energy production are at the mercy of stop-go energy policies reserved to UK control. The case for full energy powers in Scotland is a live election issue.

To slash greenhouse gas emissions a coherent policy is needed. I have written in a previous column about the electricity blackout in August in England. The privately-owned National Grid has yet to prove it can deliver power from diverse sources. This requires investment on a huge scale that is long overdue.

Meanwhile, the Moray West Offshore Wind Farm, the sister project to the Moray East project, was unsuccessful in the latest CfD auction. The 950MW development was expected to bring £90 million investment to the north-east region alongside hundreds of jobs. Moray West's director Dan Finch said the project had the potential to provide a £2 billion boost to Scotland’s economy.

The criteria adopted by Ofgem for giving schemes the go-ahead is not publicly available. Our huge potential for wind, wave and tidal energy around Scottish coasts needs transparency and decisions in line with European expectations of climate change abatement.

Today, we have too much evidence of dither and delay in the energy department on the Thames. Clarity and common sense are urgently needed.


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