Scotland must seize the day on renewable energy generation

With the Glasgow climate change summit booked in, now is the time to accelerate our renewable capability, writes David Lee.

The Cop26 climate change summit in Glasgow can shine a light on Scottish innovation in the clean energy sector.
The Cop26 climate change summit in Glasgow can shine a light on Scottish innovation in the clean energy sector.

The arrival of climate change super-summit Cop26 in Glasgow this November will present a huge opportunity for Scotland to display its clean and green credentials to the world.

It will also highlight the race against time to meet hugely challenging targets to tackle the mounting crisis, especially around renewable energy generation.

Clare Foster, a partner and Head of Clean Energy at law firm Shepherd and Wedderburn, believes Scotland must seize the day.

She says: “Cop26 can shine a light on Scottish innovation in the clean energy sector and how, in the last 25 years, what has been achieved has gone far beyond anyone’s expectations. Scotland has taken advantage of its landscape and climate to position itself as a centre of excellence. With heads of state and other senior decision-makers coming to Glasgow for Cop26, we can show what is possible – but we must understand that, currently, we are barely scratching the surface of what is needed.

“There are daunting statistics in the Committee on Climate Change [CCC] ‘Net Zero’ report, including numbers articulating the need for a huge increase in renewable energy generation in a relatively short period. In onshore wind, the UK currently has over 13GW of installed capacity and it’s estimated that will need to rise to 35GW by 2035. However, 4GW of onshore wind installed capacity will reach ‘end of life’ by 2030, rising to 8GW by 2040.

“Aside from the increase in demand, if those existing wind farms are decommissioned instead of repowered, that leaves a big gap. Re-powering sites built years ago has to be part of the solution. You could extract far more power out of the same physical footprint because technology has improved so much and new turbines can generate much more power than those originally installed.”

The removal of Contracts for Difference (CfD) support by David Cameron’s Conservative administration saw new onshore wind development in Scotland slump. However, in March this year, the UK Government signalled that it plans to remove the block on onshore wind’s ability to compete in the CfD scheme – a sign, Foster thinks, that among other things, public attitudes are driving policy.

“The public perception of renewable energy has changed, driven by heightened awareness of the climate emergency – led by Greta Thunberg and groups such as Extinction Rebellion – and seeing daily headlines about the global impact that climate change has had, such as the Australian wildfires,” she says. “People were naive about the climate impact of previous generations – using fossil fuels to create energy and massive energy consumption following industrialisation. Such naivety has been replaced by genuine concern that things must change.”

Decarbonising various sectors poses a number of challenges, not only from a technical perspective. “The CCC’s comments regarding electrification of heat and transport give rise to one of the biggest challenges as that means energy demand goes through the roof,” says Foster.

“Decarbonising heat is in the ‘difficult’ box compared to other clean energy solutions. We are seeing policy and legislation introduced, such as phasing out domestic gas boilers, but it is not easy to decarbonise the whole built environment – a ‘one size fits all’ solution isn’t the answer – you cannot demolish then build eco-buildings in somewhere like Edinburgh’s New Town, a Unesco World Heritage Site. There are many other issues to consider.

“There are also big societal shifts required around how we heat our homes, how we get around, and our diet, all at an early stage. How do you accelerate that change? Recent changes in behaviour around the plastic bag charge and the smoking ban have shown it is possible to effect behavioural change quickly.

“However, for decarbonisation, legislation alone is not the answer and we need to drive behavioural change by getting buy-in from all parts of society. Everyone must – and must want to – take responsibility. That is a big challenge.”

So how can onshore and offshore wind play a part in providing the paradigm shift needed in electricity generation?

“Costs for both have come down significantly in a short period,” says Foster. “There’s a huge opportunity in onshore wind because it is the lowest-cost clean energy generation technology. The UK Government announcement in March regarding onshore wind support is hugely significant, sending a clear message that government is serious about helping achieve the CCC targets. That will drive confidence.

“We do not have the detail yet but the announcement – after a four-year hiatus – is a really positive development for the sector and hopefully will pave the way for much more onshore wind deployment.”

What about offshore wind, which Foster describes as “a huge success story for Scotland and the UK”? At 9.8GW, Britain currently has the largest operating offshore wind capacity in the world.

“If you look at the CCC report, it translates into around 75GW of offshore wind capacity by 2050 – more than a seven-fold increase in 30 years,” says Foster. “In the shorter term, the Offshore Wind Sector Deal – which sets out the partnership agreed between government and the sector – refers to deployment of 30GW by 2030 to generate one-third of the UK’s power needs. That’s an enormous deployment challenge in terms of scale, given the timeframe.”

In 2019, the UK accounted for almost half of newly-installed offshore wind capacity in Europe – 1.7 GW out of 3.6GW – but can it make the next great leap forwards?

“You can get a lot of bang for your buck with offshore wind,” explains Foster. “The technology is proven and there’s a track record of stable government support. There has been a massive fall in construction costs, and we have a pipeline of projects with a developed supply chain. Liquidity is not a problem; there is plenty of capital out there. Offshore wind is reliable, deployable and investable at scale. So many of the usual challenges have already been addressed.

“The big challenges are time and finding the right solutions for development in areas that have far deeper waters – this is where floating wind technology could help. Shepherd and Wedderburn has worked on all three floating wind turbine projects in the Scottish market and I believe more floating turbines should be part of the solution.”

Foster says that as well as time, grid resilience and capacity are also significant concerns. “The grid needs to be upgraded – there has been little investment for decades. If we are to achieve the targets, the grid as it currently exists simply could not cope with the quantities of power that need to be distributed. But looking at the history of the sector I am hopeful that solutions will be found for this challenge too – we created the grid in the 1920s, with 100,000 workers laying 4,000 miles of cable in five years, ahead of schedule and on budget, with the first pylon constructed in 1928 at Bonnyfield, north Edinburgh,” says Foster.

“The fact that this was achieved nearly 100 years ago should inspire us and give us the confidence to think that, in the 21st century, of course we can do it.

Foster concludes: “We have the capability, the innovation and the determination – and the climate emergency provides the imperative to make it happen.”

To find out more, visit https://shepwedd.com/.