ALEX Salmond launched his bid for a second term in office yesterday, by declaring Scotland can be powered entirely by renewable energy in just nine years, provoking claims from one industry leader that he was living in "cloud cuckoo land".
The First Minister said Scotland could, by 2020, produce twice the electricity it required for domestic use, adding that he would pave the way for an explosion in new wind, wave, hydro and tidal schemes that would alone be enough to meet the country's needs.
The coming boom, he said, would also lead to the creation of 130,000 jobs in the low-carbon sector, leaving Scotland able to sell vast reserves of surplus electricity to the rest of the UK.
But his ambitious pledge met with scepticism from within Scotland's business community, which warned it was both "unrealistic and undesirable" to rely so heavily on new technology, and that the billions of pounds of investment required was not available.
The SNP's figures for onshore wind suggest a doubling of the number of turbines.
However, an undaunted Mr Salmond claimed the figures could even "underestimate" what was achievable over the coming decade, as he used his manifesto launch to argue he had the "vision" and "experience" necessary for a second term in office.
In a manifesto that relied heavily on achievements from his party's first term, Mr Salmond warned of "tough times" ahead for Scotland's public sector, but vowed to continue the council tax freeze for the full five years of the next parliament, and to ring-fence the NHS from cuts. An SNP government would also re-table its plans for an independence referendum, although Mr Salmond refused to specify when the vote would take place.
The First Minister also revealed plans to provide an extra 100 million a year to universities to help plug the funding gap with their English counterparts, a higher sum than the 38m pledged by Labour last week.
But it was the headline-grabbing pledge to source all of Scotland's electricity needs from renewables by the end of this decade that was drawing controversy last night. Under the plans, Mr Salmond envisages wave and tidal power, which now produce 2.35 megawatts of power, would produce 800 MW by 2020. He also said he expected Scotland to be producing 12,000 MW of wind power by 2020, up from 2,575 MW at present.
If achieved, his target could transform Scotland's landscape. Of the 12,000 MW of wind power he envisages, 7,000 MW would come from onshore. A conservative estimate suggests this would require a total of 2,800 onshore wind turbines, double the 1,400 currently installed.
Mr Salmond said a further 5,000 MW would come from sea-based wind. Currently, there are only 62 operational offshore turbines, producing 190MW.
• Six key elements in SNP's manifesto
• Number of police forces may be cut to just three
• Eddie Barnes: The SNP invite you into their beautiful manifesto launch (The Steamie blog)
Mr Salmond's aides stressed the 100 per cent target would not mean non-renewable power stations would close. Rather, the First Minister said a combination of renewables and non-renewables would ensure Scotland produced twice the amount of electricity it required, which would be readily bought up by the rest of the UK.
However, with the SNP government having ruled out any new nuclear power stations north of the Border, there were warnings that, even if the pledge was viable, the rush to renewables could leave Scotland's energy needs overly exposed to one source.
CBI Scotland director Ian MacMillan said: "We do need more power generation from renewables, but to have 100 per cent of Scotland's electricity generated by renewables by 2020 is not only unrealistic, it is also undesirable.
"What is needed is Scottish electricity to be generated from a range of different sources in order to ensure security, consistency of supply and delivering to customers at a price that is affordable. Wave and tidal energy hold a great deal of promise, but they have not been proven on scale commercially or financially. And wind power is being provided at a substantial subsidy paid for by the taxpayer."
Peter Hughes, chief executive of trade body Scottish Engineering, said the failure to commission new nuclear stations would leave Scotland's exposed to an unreliable power source.
He said: "It is utter nonsense. When will marine energy make a sizeable contribution to the national grid? It will be 20 years time, and nuclear power will be decommissioned by then. Fossil fuel power stations will be decommissioned by then, so where is the electricity going to come from? At the end of the day, wind farms are back-up baseload. It's daft. To say this is cloud cuckoo land."
Meanwhile, energy specialists said there were doubts over whether banks and private capital could leverage in the billions of pounds required to set up the new wind farms, especially with banks keeping purse strings so tight.
Paul Brewer, a partner and energy specialist at PricewaterhouseCoopers, said: "The difference between the achieving the existing 80 per cent target and a 100 per cent target would have to come from a substantial acceleration in offshore wind development. But there are still a number of constraints on that happening, not the least of which is finance for that investment."
• Leader of the Scottish Greens Patrick Harvey will be taking part in a live webchat on scotsman.com on Monday, April 18 at 12pm.
• All the latest news, comment and analysis
• Visit The Steamie, our Scottish politics blog
• Election update: a daily briefing of the main stories from the campaign trail
• Follow our election coverage on Twitter and FacebookHowever, Niall Stuart, chief executive of industry body Scottish Renewables, said: "We welcome the SNP's ambition and the party's continued commitment to maximise the level of investment in renewable energy here in Scotland. This kind of pledge gives investors certainty and will help to attract more developers and manufacturers to Scotland.
"It's ambitious but can be achieved with the right market framework, investment in grid infrastructure and skills, and the right balance in the planning system."