How serious is either Scotland or the UK about developing our renewable energy potential? To listen to the endless rhetoric about “the Saudi Arabia of renewables” or to judge by the setting of ever more ambitious targets by Edinburgh and Whitehall for conveniently distant dates, the question might seem redundant.
Not a week goes by without some grand new announcement about ground-breaking technologies, potential (but usually undelivered) investments and all the economy-enchancing, carbon-reducing benefits that are going to flow from them.
Unfortunately, the link between rhetoric and reality is tenuous at best. Looking back over the past decade, what is most striking about the “renewables revolution” that I once proclaimed has been the failure of delivery rather than any very obvious triumphs.
And the only factor that occasionally stops carbon emissions rising is the decline of manufacturing industry rather than the generation of clean energy from the winds that blow, waves that crash or tides that flow so profusely around our land.
Sure, some onshore windfarms have been built, but that is about the stretch of it. After all the trumpet-blowing, Scotland still gets only 20% of its electricity from renewable sources – and more than half of that comes from hydro-electricity, which owes nothing to the present generation of politicians.
Now, the counter-argument to this heresy will be to quote all the exciting things that are going to happen. And I have no doubt some of them will. Given the vast amounts of consumer subsidy available, it is inevitable that the current rate of progress will eventually be improved on. But it remains frustrating for those of us who believed in the social and economic potential of renewable energy, as well as its contribution to our energy needs, that so much which could have been achieved is still languishing in limbo because of sheer failure of government in all its forms.
Nowhere is this more true than in the Western Isles, which is where I am sitting as I write. However, I am not merely being parochial by using this is as an example from which to extrapolate the more general argument. Because, in this instance, the Western Isles really do matter to the wider scenario, both Scottish and British. Take a look at any map on which the claims about “renewable energy potential” are based and you will find that an extraordinary proportion of the resource is located on, and, more particularly, off these Hebridean shores.
With vision and joined-up government, that blessing could, for once, have put these islands at the centre of a brave new world. But as even the dimmest official mind might have appreciated by the late-1990s, any such concept would be dependent on creating a grid connection with the mainland.
That was the very obvious sine qua non for anything of any significance being achieved in relation to renewable energy in these islands. And as we approach the second decade of the 21st century, the situation is exactly the same. For all practical purposes, nothing has happened.
Instead, we have a chicken and egg argument that could run for ever. One bit of government says that you can’t have a grid connection until there are enough consented projects. Other bits of government take care to ensure that there are no consented projects within any kind of sane timescale.
And, all the while, the dates for anything possibly happening keep getting pushed out. We are now leaving 2010, which seemed quite a long time away when these matters were first mooted. What about 2020? Or 2030?
Meanwhile, the population contracts as the ordinary working families on which any community depends move elsewhere in search of work – often offshore – and prosperity.
The latest episode in this fiasco came at a conference in Stornoway last month when a representative of National Grid announced that the cost of a subsea cable linking Lewis and the mainland is now put at almost £400million, with all of that sum being loaded on to the transmission charges for electricity generated in the islands. Hey, presto. Even the “capping” which was the best I managed to achieve almost a decade ago as energy minister no longer seems to be assumed.
And the “Island Differential Tariff” which would result is £75/kW on top of the highest level of mainland charging of £23k/W, giving a total of almost £100k/W – in other words, a guarantee that absolutely nothing will happen.
Now, I am sure the matter will not rest there. Western Isles Council has been advised by National Grid to lobby Ofgem and Government. So here we go again.
Another obstacle, another argument. Another decade?
And all of this around the place which is supposed to have the best renewable energy resources in Europe.
No wonder I ask the question – is anyone, anywhere in Government really serious about this? Or has it all been one big practical joke?