WHENEVER I see the words “jobs joy” in a headline, I skip the first six paragraphs in order to search for the nitty-gritty. Does the project exist or is it proposed? Therein sits a crucial world of difference.
It is a scepticism born of having seen it all before. For example, I can recall the assorted “jobs joy” headlines in Easter Ross of the 1970s. On one famous occasion, the developer hired earth-moving equipment for a day to have a photograph taken. Neither the jobs nor the joy ever materialised.
Back then, it was all about oil refineries, platform yards and petrochemical works. Now it tends to be renewable energy which gives rise to the “jobs joy” headlines. Development by press release is not what it used to be – these days, nobody would feel the need to hire the equipment.
I’m not sure how many tens of thousands of jobs renewables are supposed to be bringing us, depending on which report you read last. All I can say is that they are exceptionally slow in coming. Some of them surely will – with so much subsidy around, that is both guaranteed and welcome. But please let’s deal in hard facts and realism.
Like much of what passes for debate in Scotland, this one has been reduced to a pastiche. Anyone who questions the assertions being made, risks being branded an anti-renewables faintheart, talking Scotland down. Well, I tick none of these boxes. I continue to believe that renewables represent a major economic opportunity. But I am weary of unsubstantiated claims and announcements with no follow-ups.
The truth is that huge questions still surround all the renewable technologies other than onshore wind and hydro. Every project needs an economic rationale that will satisfy investors. It needs proven technological feasibility. And it needs the means of transporting product to market at affordable cost.
Until these criteria, and possibly a few more, are satisfied, then a project does not exist. There is no “jobs joy”. And instead of hyping every self-serving announcement, we should explain on each occasion the barriers which need to be met in order to turn a press release into anything more substantial. That might concentrate minds.
A series of ministerial answers at Holyrood illustrated the point rather well. Asked for a breakdown of what offshore technologies are expected to deliver by 2020, the Scottish Energy Minster, Fergus Ewing, replied that they had “not set targets for individual technologies as part of our renewable electricity target for 2020”.
Ewing’s reply continued: “However, we do expect offshore renewables to play a major role in meeting that target and are making every effort to deliver the support and infrastructure which these technologies will need to develop and flourish”. Loosely translated, this means: “We’re hoping, but basically, er, we haven’t a clue”.
Another reply referred to “lease awards and agreements . . . which amount to over 11.5GW (gigawatts) of wave, tidal stream and offshore capacity in waters around Scotland”.
Ewing added that they would “support the capacity of as much development as possible by 2020” which is again suitably vague and guarantees absolutely nothing.
However, he was rather more specific in another reply. They are aiming for 52MW (megawatts) of “deployed capacity” by 2017 from wave and tidal. That is not a lot. So unless there is some massive leap forward in wave and tidal between 2017 and 2020, the overwhelming burden is going to fall on offshore wind – the economics of which are still dubious.
This is before we get on to issues of grid capacity and transmission charges which may, or may not, be on the verge of resolution. Nobody should make assumptions on that score since the need to address these questions has been around for a decade without answers being produced that will underwrite the potential for offshore generation.
The next few months should bring two vital documents in addressing these issues – Ofgem’s response to the transmission charging consultation and the UK Government’s final version of energy market reforms. Between them, they could go a long way towards determining what might realistically happen – economically, if not technologically.
And whether the Scottish Government admits it or not, the constitutional uncertainty which now exists is another major factor in the mix.
The whole edifice of a Scottish renewables industry is built on the assumption of access to a British market. If there is to be no British state, then there can be no certainty of that market.
In another of his replies, Ewing rather self-consciously insisted that the cost of renewables subsidy is “spread across the UK – deliberately and advisedly so since this is how the renewables obligation operates and will continue to do so”.
How on earth can a politician who is committed to breaking up the UK, sooner rather than later, make such an assertion in a parliamentary reply?
If Ewing gets his political way, Scotland will be leaving the UK at almost exactly the same time we are asking English consumers to subsidise the vast quantities of renewable energy that are anticipated to come onstream between 2017 and 2020. I am not clear why anyone would invest in that formula.
Far from trying to pull us apart, this is exactly the time when the UK and Scottish Governments need to have a shared approach towards the outstanding issues which will make or break our renewables potential.
But how can there be a common front when we do not even know which state we will be in? It’s just one more caveat that the press releases should contain.