More rhetoric, more fancy names

The attraction to politicians of talking about energy policy is that it normally takes about five years before reality catches up with rhetoric – and by then, everyone has moved on.

There is a lot of this going on in Scotland just now, but it is by no means a Scottish prerogative. Indeed, it is barely five years since the Government of which I was a member was producing an energy policy based on the central premise that, by 2020, 70% of the UK’s electricity would be generated from gas, 90% of which would be imported.

I didn’t agree with that then any more than I do now. But the case against it could not have been proven for a convenient number of years to come – until President Vladimir Putin obligingly drew attention to the potential downside by momentarily cutting off gas supplies to the Ukraine.

The message was then up in lights – “Under certain circumstances, Russia may use its energy power for political purposes”.

That discovery accelerated a rapid shift in UK energy policy and now we are back in a sensible place, which is to rely on diversity of supply that will include clean coal, nuclear and renewables, as well as an inevitable increase in the role of gas. Whether the market alone will deliver that desirable set of outcomes is another question.

Scottish politicians are not under the same pressure to undergo reality checks – at least not yet. For the time being, what we are getting is a wish list of things that sound politically attractive in order to rationalise the dismissal of those that they don’t like.

Keep talking about Scotland as the “Saudi Arabia of renewables” and maybe nobody will notice the reality, which is that we have a lot more bluster than action.

We also seem to have a remarkable number of centres and institutes. Speaking at the same event in Aberdeen, Alex Salmond announced another one to be located in the city – the Scottish European Green Energy Centre, which will be “based at the new Energy Technologies Institute”.

Excuse me if I am missing something, but would one not expect an “energy technology institute” to be, by definition, a “green energy centre”?

According to the accompanying press release, the Scottish Government “intend” that this centre will become “an EU agency within five years”. That magic figure again.

Since not only Britain, but every other EU member state, is bristling with green energy “centres” and “institutes” that would love to become “EU agencies”, I would not put too many euros on this “intention” being fulfilled. But five years is a long time away. So who knows? Who’ll be checking in 2013?

What does seem to me distinctly unhelpful is that Scotland’s research and development effort in renewable and alternative technologies is being fragmented rather than pulled together in a rational, coherent way.

We already have the Energy Technology Institute and the Energy Technology Partnership. We have the Environmental Research Institute in Caithness and the Marine Centre of Excellence in Orkney. I could go on.

It is difficult to avoid the feeling that the vague announcement of a Scottish European Green Energy Centre in Aberdeen is another round in the battle over the Scottish ETP and its centre of gravity. With all due respect, however, that is yesterday’s battle.

What surely matters more is for Scottish institutions – and there already plenty of very good ones – to collaborate in order to ensure that we get the biggest possible share of the UK and EU research and development cakes.

On the same day that all of this was going on in Aberdeen, the chief executive of Scottish and Southern Energy, Ian Marchant, was raining on the rhetorical parade in Perth, where he told the Scottish Government that, the way things are going, Scotland has as much chance of becoming the “green energy capital of the world” as St Johnstone have of winning the Champions League.

That was a refreshing departure from the lip service that is normally paid to the grandiose political claims.

Quite simply, we need to talk less and do more. To a depressing extent, the same issues that were around when I was UK energy minister five years ago, or even Scottish industry minister a decade ago, are still around today.

On manufacturing, on planning, on infrastructure, what strikes me is less about what has happened and more about how little has actually been changed. Like all governments, Scotland’s moves at the pace of its slowest part.

To take one, quite literally, very small example, it strikes me as amazing – as Friends of the Earth pointed out last week – that the planning regulations still haven’t been changed to facilitate micro-generation in people’s own homes.

If we can’t get that kind of thing right within six or seven years then what is the credibility of empty bragging about being the Saudi Arabia of renewables or the driving force behind a global carbon revolution? The answer is not to set up another institute or centre. Neither is it to play another round of “my target’s bigger than your target”.

Scotland has many strengths in the energy sector and we should be building on what we already have – industrially and academically. The irony of always talking about “potential” rather than concentrating on what we are actually capable of doing is that it could end up weakening our capabilities rather than enhancing them.