Renewable energy can deliver the goods

The growth of onshore wind farms helped renewables generate the equivalent of 40 per cent of Scotland's annual demand for electricity last year
The growth of onshore wind farms helped renewables generate the equivalent of 40 per cent of Scotland's annual demand for electricity last year
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Investment in Scotland is already paying off, says Niall Stuart, and the biggest opportunities still lie ahead of us

Despite the daily headlines on energy, climate change and the growth of wind power, few Scots appreciate the scale of the transformation under way in our energy sector.

Wave and tidal energy also have the potential to make a massive impact

Wave and tidal energy also have the potential to make a massive impact

In just five years we have doubled the output of renewable power, and made a massive dent in the country’s carbon emissions as a result.

In 2007, renewables generated the equivalent of 20 per cent of Scotland’s annual demand for electricity, almost wholly due to the output of hydro schemes built in the early and mid-20th century.

By 2012, largely as a result of the growth of onshore wind, renewables accounted for 40 per cent of the total demand for power from every home and business across the country. With increased capacity being added every month, we are firmly on track to generate more than half the country’s electricity needs in 2015.

But, of course, renewable energy is not an end in itself – it is a means of cutting climate change emissions, firstly from our power sector, then from heating our homes and businesses, and finally transport.

Again, the numbers tell their own story. Between 2006 and 2011, carbon emissions from Scotland’s power sector fell by more than a third, with further steep falls expected in 2012 and 2013 as a result of the closure of Cockenzie power station and a cut in capacity at Peterhead.

Figures published by Westminster energy minister, Conservative MP Michael Fallon, show Scotland’s renewable energy sector displaced more than 10 million tonnes of CO2 in 2012, the equivalent of 99 per cent of the carbon emissions from every car, lorry and bus journey over a year.

Significant part of the economy

The recent updated report on climate change reinforced the urgency of cutting fossil fuels, but government also “gets” the sector’s economic potential. The growth in the industry means it is now a significant part of the economy, as well as the energy mix. Investment in the sector topped £1.5 billion last year, and the jobs of more than 11,000 people in Scotland now depend directly on renewable energy development.

And despite the decline in power from “traditional” generators, exports of electricity from Scotland continue to rise, with a quarter of all electricity produced being exported to other parts of the UK.

You could argue that the SNP government’s ambitions for renewables – supported by every other party in the Scottish Parliament other than the Conservatives – are as much about economic development as energy. If the UK requires 30 per cent of its electricity to come from renewables by 2020, then let’s have as much economic benefit and as many jobs as possible from that development here in Scotland.

Champion of wave and tidal energy

I don’t hear anyone ask why we make and sell more whisky or produce more oil than we as a country need so we can have all these jobs in Scotland – why should the increasingly important and marketable commodity of renewable electricity be different? As the UK and Europe shift away from fossil fuels, the demand for and the value of clean power will only increase.

Perhaps the biggest and most exciting challenges and opportunities for Scotland are yet to come. Work is under way to build on our 40 years of offshore oil and gas production with the development of a number of major wind farms around our coastline. We are also the undisputed champion of wave and tidal energy development, with more wave and tidal stream devices installed in Orkney and the Pentland Firth than anywhere else in the world. Development of these technologies cannot be taken for granted, but they have the potential to take our industry, its economic impact and carbon savings to a whole new scale. Scottish businesses are already working across the world, sharing and developing lessons learned here, just as our oil and gas sector has done so successfully, with more opportunities in Europe, North America and Asia as governments there ramp up their plans for offshore renewables.

The growth of biomass has the potential to breathe new economic life into empty land across the country. And we haven’t even begun to change the way we heat our homes and businesses – responsible for more than half the country’s carbon emissions. Our northern European neighbours take district heating systems for granted yet we can’t seem to get them past the drawing board.

We have to turn up the heat in both those areas as we head towards our 2020 objectives, and make a serious dent in fuel poverty as a result.

So, job done? Absolutely not, but the numbers tell their own story: renewables are delivering exactly what they were designed to – lower carbon emissions, increased investment and new jobs across Scotland.

• Niall Stuart is chief executive of Scottish Renewables

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