With COP26 in Glasgow two months away, one might think Scottish political eyes would be turning towards the issues it will discuss, even if that means parking some other preoccupations for the time being. Not so.
Having welcomed the Greens into the Scottish government, Nicola Sturgeon promptly announced that this arrangement created an “undeniable mandate” for a second independence referendum.
The merits of that argument are not a suitable subject for an energy column – beyond the fact that anyone misguided enough to believe the agreement might actually be motivated by environmental objectives was surely disabused by Ms Sturgeon’s own interpretation.
At heart, the agreement is an effort to greenwash the same old story and to make her numbers in Holyrood impregnable. In the meantime, we must learn to live with the novelty of Green ministers for whom nobody voted. Whether anyone will even spot the difference remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, serious decisions have to be taken over the next few months that will have long-term implications about how the Scottish energy sector will develop. The licences for floating offshore wind and the terms on which they are granted; the breakdown of support allocated to various technologies in the upcoming Contract for Difference round, and so on.
How to support marine energy? What to do about hydrogen? A common feature of all these questions is that they involve both the Scottish and UK Governments – and that means the necessity at this time for collaborative working on the nitty-gritty of these policies in order to advance Scottish interests and priorities.
Is that work going on? There is not a lot of evidence that it is. Advocates of the various technologies are left to press their case separately with Scottish and UK Governments but the opportunity never exists to speak to both in the same room, or even on the same zoom call.
Yet, if optimum outcomes are to be achieved, there has to be co-ordination of policy-making. It is the job not only of private interests or trade bodies but also of the Scottish Government to make sure that Ministers in Whitehall who will be making the relevant decisions are not unsighted on matters that are important to Scotland.
Marine energy is a very good example of why this co-ordination is essential. Wave and tidal technologies are on the cusp of delivery after decades of gestation. They have the potential to make a major contribution to overall targets for renewable energy by 2030 and beyond. But delivery of that outcome will depend very largely on how the CfD “pot” is structured.
It was encouraging that the Energy Minister, Ann-Marie Trevelyan, visited Orkney recently to see for herself the work going on at EMEC which is still the world’s pre-eminent testing centre for wave and tidal devices. This is still a sector in which the UK leads the world and the export potential is huge – if the necessary support is available at this crucial stage.
Scottish and UK Governments should have a shared strategy on this matter and the priorities which emerge through the CfD round will be critical. Nobody should be interested in reactive recrimination if the outcome is disappointing. Instead, work together now to make sure that does not happen.
The same applies to offshore wind. It is all very well to talk about the Scotwind round and the vast sums of money that will be paid for licences. These projects are years away and we need stepping stones to get there, while building a ports infrastructure and the domestic supply chain. This should be a co-ordinated strategy rather than a patchwork of isolated actions.
Surely there must be shared objectives to invest in critical infrastructure that will make it possible for large-scale renewables work to come to Scotland, as well as to other parts of the UK. Would a joint agreement on how the new structural funds could support that outcome not make complete common sense instead of stupid arguments about ‘power grabs’ because the UK Government won’t just hand the money over to Edinburgh?
Why not a plan, signed up to by both Scottish and UK Governments, which sets out the roadmap for offshore wind, including supply chain obligations, to which both are committed and accountable? Does the possibility of such an approach even enter the heads of Ministers in either administration? Or is every one of these issues treated as a pawn in a different game?
Last month, the UK Government produced a Hydrogen Strategy and, at the same time, a consultation on how to create an equivalent of offshore wind CfDs, to bridge the cost gap between hydrogen and fossil fuels in the hope that the same dramatic fall in costs will ensue. There is also a £240 million Net Zero Hydrogen Fund.
Do we really need a separate Scottish hydrogen strategy, as opposed to plugging into the UK version and making sure our interests are fully represented? Maybe so but the least we should expect is close alignment while the CfD-type support will apply to Scotland as much as any other part of the UK.
Putting two Greens into the Scottish Government is unlikely to make much difference to anything. But the principle of working together is a good one. It would be infinitely more profitable for Scotland if the next co-operation agreement was between the two governments.