Brian Wilson: Renewables a powerful force for good

There are golden opportunities for Scotland, if we would only look at the bigger picture, writes Brian Wilson

The renewables industry can help those parts of the world that still lack electricity. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

Amid the endless arguments about wind farms, it is tempting to forget the higher rationale that lies behind the movement towards renewable energy – nationally and, more importantly, globally.

Wherever one stands on the spectrum of climate change belief, there is surely a consensus that things cannot go on as before with such overwhelming dependence on finite, polluting fossil fuels. Thereafter the question is one of degree, not principle.

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The forces driving renewable energy do not respect borders and an international conference, like the one I am taking part in this week, comes in handy as a device for restoring that wider sense of perspective. The world needs renewable energy and is moving towards it, however uneven the pace of change.

Too often in our own debate, the transition to renewables is presented as a threat rather than an opportunity. Our domestic danger is that an industry that offers a rare combination of environmental, social and employment benefits becomes bogged down in a war of exaggerated claims and assertions, while time and opportunity pass us by. Lest you think this can’t happen, in part at least it already has.

Scotland has been pursuing a renewables agenda for about 15 years and it is pretty depressing that, for all the controversy that surrounds the siting of wind farms in Scotland, the more significant fact is that hardly any of what emerges on our landscapes has actually been made here. It is an industry built overwhelmingly on imports.

It need not have been so. But our planning system is so unwieldy and deference to big companies such as ScottishPower and SSE so complete, that they were allowed to get away with the plea that “uncertainty” did not permit the necessary investments in manufacturing. Even now, there is no strategic framework for projects, grid connections – and jobs. There are also two huge areas of current uncertainty: the energy market reforms gestating in Whitehall, which seem to become more complicated by the day, and the independence referendum. The entire Scottish renewables industry is predicated on there being a market in the rest of the UK. It is juvenile to pretend that political separation would not jeopardise that single market, which was created for the specific purpose of encouraging Scottish renewables within the UK.

I hope that these uncertainties will fade way and that the gap between rhetoric and outcomes will become less conspicuous. But, in the meantime, what about that higher rationale and how can we contribute to it while also gaining benefit for our own economy? This is where the global view is crucial.

The starting point must be that the renewables imperative should not be looked at solely or mainly from a jaded First World perspective. For us, decisions about how to generate and pay for our electricity are relatively marginal. We have plenty of options and the challenges are about how to balance them.

That is not the case for one-fifth of the world’s people who do not have access to electricity – thereby depriving them of the means to learn, to work, to irrigate land or develop their resources, far less enjoy what most of us regard as basic human comforts.

Most of these people will be waiting indefinitely for the extension of national grids to reach them. But renewable technologies and local distribution systems are perfectly capable of transforming their lives. Few avenues of investment would secure more direct hits upon the causes of world poverty.

That should not be a difficult concept for us to grasp. It is well within living memory that, even in the throes of the Second World War, the British government decided on an investment programme in hydro-electricity in order to bring power to the remotest Highland villages, which had previously lived by Tilly lamp. Much of the world is still in that position.

Then there is the question of affordability. When the world price of oil goes up, those countries that produce the stuff enjoy short-term gains. But for developing countries that rely on imports, the effects on their meagre budgets are catastrophic. In order to keep the lights on, other essential imports – such as food – must be cut back on.

Many poor countries in areas like the Caribbean were lulled into oil dependency when the commodity was cheap and now find it very difficult to escape. They have ancient plant, which needs replacement and failing grid systems. They also have unexploited resources of their own – the sun, the wind, the energy crops. It should not be beyond the wit of man to resolve that enigma.

But meanwhile, most of the new power plants in the next ten years will be built in countries of rapid economic growth. Unless renewable energy presents itself as a viable option, they will go for what is cheap and available – which often means coal. The race to achieve that economic competitiveness is desperately urgent, but can be won.

The Chinese, for example, point out that their investment in renewables has exceeded that in new coal plants each year since 2009. Many countries want to go down the renewables route, but need help to do so. Feed-in tariffs, the subsidy mechanism used in more than 80 countries, only work if there are consumers who can afford to fund them.

There is an alphabet soup of international agencies addressing these challenges. This week, I was interested to see the UK government sending the climate change minister, Greg Barker, to Berlin to sign up for a new German project. Although it was not exactly front-page news, we are now among ten founder members of the Renewables Club – “a political initiative of pioneering countries that are united by an important goal; a worldwide transformation of energy systems”.

And therein lies the global opportunity for our universities, our technology companies, our crop scientists, our engineers, our smart-grid designers, our oil and gas specialists whose knowledge base can be adapted to renewables. Some are already alert to the possibilities and many more are capable of participating. “A worldwide transformation of energy systems” offers huge opportunities to which our strengths are well-suited. Look outwards and renewable energy is about a lot more than “my targets are bigger than your targets” or arguing with Donald Trump.

What happens at home is important, but it is a tiny part of a much, much bigger picture. The renewables revolution is global, our capabilities are highly relevant and we should set our sights and ambitions accordingly.