The United Nations climate change conference which is to be held in Glasgow in November should be a source of inspiration and an opportunity for Scottish industry to showcase its Net Zero manufacturing supply chain.
Instead though one of the highlights is expected to be a hydrogen powered railway engine converted using a Canadian company’s fuel cell stack built into a drive train produced by a London headquartered systems engineering outfit advised by something called the Hydrogen Accelerator based at St Andrews University whose stated mission is “to facilitate the realisation of Scotland’s hydrogen future by bringing together, public bodies, industry, research organisations, and higher and further education institutions”.
In short this looks like a virtue signalling exercise funded by Scotland’s economic development agency with little or no actual Scottish industrial benefit and zero prospect of long-term high value manufacturing.
There is a similar story in Aberdeen. Despite claims by Opportunity North East that “action and ambition will put Aberdeen and the North East at the heart of tackling climate change as part of a future global industry worth trillions”, all that has been achieved so far is that Aberdeen City Council has boosted the sales of mainly Belgian and Northern Irish built hydrogen fuel cell buses not Scottish ones and Canadian electrolysers and H2 filling stations.
On top of this the Spanish owned company Scottish Power will undoubtedly be taking the opportunity to promote the hydrogen production project it’s undertaking in Scotland with BOC – owned by the German company Linde, and the Sheffield based electrolyser manufacturer ITM Power in which – coincidentally – Linde has a large shareholding and a joint venture with ITM in Germany.
Again, little or no Scottish industrial benefit and no manufacturing.
These are not of course the only examples. Look at the SGN project in Fife which will deliver 100% green hydrogen heating and cooking to about 300 houses by 2022 as a long-term trial. It’s a great project but none of the technology is being manufactured here.
We also know Scotland is struggling to build a viable offshore wind manufacturing supply chain against a background of primarily overseas companies developing multiple wind farms in Scottish waters. Yet, Scottish and UK Governments are funding projects such as harbour developments to provide turbine assembly and load out points which makes importing those turbines and their foundations even easier.
In any case, infrastructure projects like that are by their very nature short term whereas manufacturing the wind turbines themselves will go on for decades yet and, as that technology evolves, so the life of that industry will be extended as indeed it is with most high-tech manufacturing sectors. It has also spawned a wide supply chain.
On the plus side we have a highly capable tidal turbine manufacturer in Nova Innovation, another called Orbital Marine building a floating tidal turbine and a great little company making heat stores in Sunamp. Nova has already picked up sales in Wales and Canada, but all of these are so far working in niche or relatively limited markets not the mainstream renewables world of wind, solar and increasingly, hydrogen.
Strangely, Scotland is also still funding work on wave energy. I’d kill that stone dead and use the funds for something more likely to produce a result next week rather than sometime down the line maybe. Sorry!
I’m also mystified by projects such as SATE (Sustainable Aviation Test Environment) £3.7m project being planned to be run at Kirkwall Airport on Orkney. It’s claimed this project “will place the Highlands and Islands at the vanguard of the adoption of next-generation aircraft and spearhead the aviation industry’s response to climate change.”
It won’t of course because nobody in Scotland builds aircraft anymore nor is there a Scottish electric drive train builder. So, what do we get out of this other than saying “look at me I’m helping to save the planet” which it might except for the fact the big boys like Airbus are already developing real projects building real aircraft and creating real jobs and given the loss of jobs in the oil and gas industry we need those skilled, high value jobs here more than ever. I’d spend that £3.7m on something more substantial such as an electrolyser development project or a fuel cell drive train design exercise or something that offers the prospect of real long-term value adding worthwhile jobs.
I’ve been scratching my head as to why this is happening. So, I’ve been looking at some of Scotland’s peers including Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland all of which have highly active Net Zero technology industries.
They have one important thing in common which is that they all have a state owned or majority state-owned energy company driving major renewables projects and most of the time working with and helping develop their domestic supply chains in one way or another.
I don’t just have to think that the UK and particularly Scotland would have been better off had political ideology not effectively killed off the UK national oil and gas company Britoil after the Thatcher government brought in the Oil and Gas (Enterprise) Act 1982 the evidence this was a major strategic error is now clear.
Equinor (formerly Statoil) is now the UK’s largest energy supplier, but it is majority owned by the Norwegian state. One of the largest investors in UK offshore wind farms is the Danish majority state owned company Ørsted. The Swedish state-owned company Vattenfall owns the windfarm offshore Aberdeen. These and others are now all major international companies acting as ambassadors for their indigenous supply chains.
President Biden’s Climate Envoy John Kerry said on the President’s inauguration day that the USA has re-joined the Paris Climate Agreement and this “restores America’s credibility and commitment — setting a floor, not a ceiling, for our climate leadership. Working together, the world must and will raise ambition. It’s time to get to work – the road to Glasgow begins here.”
Perhaps Scotland could echo this and raise our own ambition starting at abandoning old, tired, failed economic and political ideologies and look at developing a Scottish National Energy Company to try to emulate the success of others.
Dick Winchester is on the Scottish Government’s energy advisory board