First Minister Alex Salmond last night promised a massive economic boost for the north within a generation, as plans for a major marine energy development in the Pentland Firth were unveiled.
In an exclusive interview with the Press and Journal, the SNP leader claimed the energy-producing potential of the 17-mile stretch of water between Caithness and Orkney could bring cheaper energy and new jobs to the entire region.
The Crown Estate is expected to announce today that it is opening up the seabed for leasing to developers – a move believed to be the first of its kind in the UK.
ScottishPower Renewables will also confirm it expects to submit an application to construct up to 20 tidal turbines in the firth, in addition to a second development in the Sound of Islay and another off the coast of Northern Ireland. They could be up and running within three years.
Mr Salmond claimed the Pentland Firth is capable of producing a gigawatt of power – “equivalent to a major power station”.
He described the firth as the “Saudi Arabia of marine power”, and revealed plans to ensure those living in the north of Scotland benefit from a “boundless stock of cheap energy”.
He said: “The potential of the Pentland Firth is quite staggering. Well known for centuries amongst mariners as a rough and foreboding sea, I believe that its awesome power will soon come to be seen across the world as the centrepiece of global efforts to take green energy from the waves and tides.
“The Crown Estate will play a crucial part in enabling developers to take the next step and turn tested, reliable technology into the next wave of generating stations, pumping out electricity for homes and business.
“A strong marine renewables sector will drive further investment, cut emissions and give us a new contribution to sustainable economic growth.”
Mr Salmond added: “If we are to become the energy powerhouse of Europe, we have got to make sure that the charging system benefits the areas that produce the power. The further you transport it, the more you pay for it.
“If we succeed in doing that it will have a huge impact on jobs. It will be the situation where the advantage will be with the north of Scotland.”
ScottishPower’s tide turbines are expected to be weighted to the seabed. The structures stand 100ft tall on three legs and can work as deep as 330ft below sea level with the ability to turn to harness tide movements.
Their 65ft blades would turn at least 32ft below the surface to avoid shipping, but trawlers would be banned.
The move follows a series of announcements on Scotland’s renewables industry, including the granting of planning consent for a Clyde windfarm, and a biomass plant at Markinch in Fife.
Scotland is estimated to have the potential to generate 40 gigawatts of power – 10 times its energy consumption – leading to claims it could be “the powerhouse of Europe”.
Mr Salmond compared the £1billion private investment in the industry in recent weeks to that in the oil and gas sector.
He said: “These are extremely difficult economic times. One of the great bright steps in Scotland is the enormous investment going into renewable energy.
“The North Sea and gas industry in a good year will announce £4billion of investment. This year already there has been a quarter of that announced in renewables. It’s really serious money and that means jobs.”
The MSP for Gordon also suggested that much of the energy pumped from the firth would be transported to other parts of the UK and Europe under the sea, rather than over the mainland.
That could provide reassurance to those who have campaigned against the upgrade of a power line between Beauly, near Inverness, and Denny in Stirlingshire.
ScottishPower Renewables director Keith Anderson said: “The rapid technological advancement of tidal power has enabled us to progress plans for this substantial project which has potential to deliver significant environmental and economic benefits.”