Chris Christie, 6th July 2009
I had promised myself that, this month, I was going to write something positive. Whether it’s the better weather, the fact that I’d finally got the brakes on my old sports car to work properly or my son passing his end-of-year exams with flying colours, I was feeling pretty good.
It also appeared that the credit crunch was at least easing a little and, most encouraging of all, Jenson Button was regularly on pole and winning most of his races. Hooray!
I was also becoming more encouraged by some of the noises coming out of the Scottish Government. While recognising that some of the targets they have set on emissions and renewables generation are going to be very difficult to achieve, the challenge these targets represent should act as a massive incentive to researchers, entrepreneurs and investors to get on and start building an indigenous renewables industry capable of servicing our energy needs and building an export market.
This is, of course, what is happening in the US, so why not here, especially given the Westminster Government’s promises on re-balancing the economy?
Yes, yes, I know, but as I said earlier, I was in a positive and, indeed, optimistic mood.
Sadly, my newfound enthusiasm for life didn’t last very long. It was given a knock first by claims that building a new park at Denburn, in the middle of Aberdeen, would turn the city into the “Houston of the East”.
At first, I thought this was a joke – not a real claim, but one which would attract some attention. Sadly, I was wrong. We were entering silly season time again.
However, what really got my goat was that it would seem that Scottish Enterprise is about to shoot itself not just in the foot, but through both legs, as far as our energy sector is concerned.
Having summarily screwed up the ITI initiative because the parent body, ITI Scotland, decided it knew best about everything and, instead of doing what it was supposed to be doing, played internal political games – badly – Scottish Enterprise has now decided to absorb all three ITIs into SE so they form part of its overall industry support group.
As far as I can tell, ITI Energy hasn’t actually kicked off a new project for perhaps as much as a year, and nobody I’ve talked to seems at all clear on what its strategy now is. That has now become even more complicated because a decision was also made to effectively merge the Scottish Enterprise Energy team with the ITI Energy team, and a major consequence of that has been that the two leaders of those organisations are apparently now out of a job – or at least the ones they had – and a new chap has been appointed to run the combined outfit.
Now, you’d think, given the importance of the energy sector to the future of Scotland, that Scottish Enterprise would have appointed someone with a reasonable knowledge of this critical sector, whereas in fact, they’ve appointed an internal candidate who used to run their digital media team.
He was described to me as a “high flier”, which always gives me cause for concern. Scottish Enterprise also says his appointment is “reflecting the growing importance of renewable and clean technology for Scotland’s energy sector”. Really?
My initial reaction was that if neither of the incumbents running either the Energy ITI or the SE Energy Group, and nobody else from either of those units was considered capable of doing this job, then applications should have been sought from outside Scottish Enterprise.
The reason is that the thing I would expect most from someone in this job is that they would provide the leadership needed to drive the energy sector in Scotland forward. I would hope that they would embark on what is tantamount to an energy crusade, founded on a solid knowledge of the sector and how it dovetails into literally everything else, one way and another. On its own, leadership is something a lot of people possess, but when it comes to the energy sector – which is complex, technically very broad-based and represents a huge slice of the Scottish gross domestic product – it is absolutely essential that whoever picks up this new role has a clear understanding of the market and, most important of all, the ability to articulate a solid technological vision and strategy.
We need that technological vision and strategy for many reasons, but mainly because Scotland is quite unique in its geography and the disposition of its population – and, of course, we can’t do everything, so we need to be able to identify those technologies that will be important to us not just from an economic standpoint, but a social one as well. It’s clear now from what we’re not doing in Scotland rather than what we are doing that there are still massive gaps in our renewables and wider energy repertoire.
I recently met a friend of mine who has set up a wood-pellet production unit and I asked him if he knew if anyone in Scotland was now building pellet boilers. The answer was that he didn’t and that the boilers he was dealing with came mainly from Austria.
But we’re also not in the solar industry, geothermal systems or new-generation biofuels, so we could argue that, in fact, we’re already well behind in developing an industry in which we should be major players given the quality of our resources both natural and human. (Oh, and we’re not even where we should be with oil&gas supply-chain capabilities, frankly).
Timidity has a lot to do with it. Mention the idea of building things like electric cars, or even cars with small, super-efficient multi-fuel engines, and people look at you as if you’re mad. The Norwegians build electric cars, though.
Now, playing catch-up in sectors already occupied by other players may not actually be possible. Worth trying in some areas, certainly, but what we really need to do is concentrate on leapfrogging what’s going on elsewhere, or at least getting into areas which are still embryonic or even don’t exist yet.
So Scottish Enterprise really had better have done the right thing in appointing someone internal and without direct experience of the energy sector to this important job, because time isn’t on our side.
In the energy game, we need a lot less effort put into process and a lot more effort invested in real progress. We should be screaming for results now, and so should the Scottish Government. Frankly, if I were them, I’d be tearing my ruddy hair out.