Iain Gray: Scottish wind policy needs more direction

Onshore wind is still the main player when it comes to renewables. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Onshore wind is still the main player when it comes to renewables. Picture: Ian Rutherford

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SNP renewables targets may be unrealistic but that doesn’t mean the opposition should become anti-wind, writes Iain Gray

Last week could be a turning point for Scotland’s energy policy, if we are not careful. Donald Trump blew into Holyrood and blew out again, but more important visitors to the parliament were CATS (Communities Against Turbines Scotland), who oppose onshore wind and are not going to conveniently leave for America.

Whatever polling might say, MSPs representing rural Scotland know that this issue is polarising the country, and that opposition to wind farms and individual turbines is growing, hardening and organising.

There is a temptation for opposition politicians to jump on the anti-wind bandwagon. Some Tories are already there. Labour should resist the temptation. But the Scottish Government has to understand that refusing to face up to weaknesses in its energy strategy is endangering public support. SNP energy policy is a mess and the party needs to admit it. Someone once told me he had gently questioned the practicality of SNP renewables targets. Alex Salmond simply looked him in the eye and said, “Believe”. Salmond’s problem is that he cannot deliver by belief alone. He needs the markets and the technology too.

Look at Doosan’s decision to pull out of Scottish offshore wind farm plans, because of market conditions. That investment was supposed to provide 1,700 jobs. The SNP points to the Gamesa firm’s promise to manufacture offshore wind components in Leith, but on the same day Mr Salmond announced that, his ministers overturned a local decision against a Gamesa wind farm in Glen Luce. Coincidence perhaps, but an illustration that onshore, not offshore wind is still the main game in town. If opposition to onshore wind becomes irresistible, our renewable industry is in trouble.

It is not just the renewables market either. Scottish ministers have agreed to a gas-fired power station to replace the Cockenzie coal plant in my constituency. But owners Iberdrola have not confirmed the investment, and locally rumours are rife that it may not go ahead. He does not shout about it, but Mr Salmond needs this electricity baseload generation to back up renewable aspirations. If thermal and nuclear stations close and are not replaced, we will face shortages, renewables or not.

SNP plans also need carbon capture and storage and marine power technology. But CCS has yet to get beyond prototype and even the biggest marine projects generate a fraction of the output of a traditional power station, with no sign of real scaleability this side of 2020.

Last year the very engineers working in the renewables industry told the Scottish Government that its 2020 target of producing the equivalent of all of Scotland’s electricity by renewables was not practically possible. When I asked one of them about the Scottish Government’s plan to reach that, he said: “If a student gave that to me, it would get a D”.

The independence referendum is adding to uncertainty. Generators like Scottish and Southern Energy, and investors like Citigroup have blamed the referendum for delaying investment. More damaging is analysis which says a separate Scotland would not be able to subsidise renewable generation without massive price increases for consumers.

Even if we accept the SNP line that English consumers would want to buy Scottish onshore wind, would they really buy offshore generated power at three times that price? England currently has far more offshore wind generation in place than Scotland, so surely they would expand that, and subsidise their own industry? Losing access to UK scale funding for green investment and carbon capture would surely slow technological developments too.

The SNP is right to support renewables, because of climate change, dwindling alternatives, and the jobs potential. But, wedded to separation, dogmatically opposed to nuclear generation, and dazzled by corporate power, it is undermining its own vision and ignoring the interests of communities and consumers.

There is political space here for a positive, credible, common sense energy policy and Labour should fill it quickly. Scotland has massive offshore and marine potential. But the reality is that we need onshore wind for now. You cannot address public concern by shouting it down. Labour should support wind, but argue for a far more strategic approach, identifying areas for development and areas where capacity has been reached. That has to be done locally and nationally.

We should argue strongly for community-owned developments, and community turbines in commercial wind farms to maximise local benefits and counter the view that only rich landowners and multinationals can profit at consumers’ expense. State-owned land should be used for these projects, not leased off to big companies to exploit, as the SNP has done with the Forestry Commission land.

Labour should demand real support for solar panels on public buildings and social housing. This is renewable generation which cuts electricity bills and provides money for local services. This way people can see a direct return from renewables, yet the Scottish Government has done little to encourage it. Labour in local councils should make this a priority.

We should also return to the argument for a single powerful government agency to drive energy policy forward. The Scottish Energy Advisory Board is a powerful group, with a first class chair in Professor Jim MacDonald. It should be driving the work of a powerful and comprehensive “Energy Scotland,” bringing investment and techological expertise to bear on delivery. Above all, government must listen to board members like Ian Marchant, of SSE, or Professor Alex Kemp, of Aberdeen University, when they deliver messages which do not suit the SNP.

Labour should continue to support low-carbon electricity from nuclear power and we should shout from the rooftops that there is no better example of the benefits of shared risk and opportunity than a UK-wide energy market driving a successful Scottish energy sector.

Before it won power the SNP took any opportunity to speak about its vision for renewables, working hard to establish credibility. That is a lesson Labour should learn. We need to get out there now and positively articulate a credible, balanced and practical plan to provide the energy Scotland needs, and the benefits we want. The business and engineering sectors are desperate for someone to do that, and so are the public.

• Iain Gray is Labour MSP for East Lothian

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