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Energy transition offers lifeline to declining coastal communities

Wind turbines on the Causeymire in Caithness
Wind turbines on the Causeymire in Caithness

The harsh reality facing many coastal communities up and down the UK today gives a sad irony to the iconic music hall song “I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside”.

A report released by the Social Market Foundation last year laid bare the issues of low pay, bad health and poor educational outcomes that dog many seaside communities.

Entitled “Falling off a cliff?”, the study showed that coastal economic growth was less than half the level enjoyed by those inland between 2010 and 2017 and warned that, without central government attention, these regions faced a bleak future.

Dr Tavis Potts, director at Aberdeen University’s Centre for Energy Transition, is one of Scotland’s leading academics on coastal communities.

He said: “Seaside populations are at a confluence of a whole range of forces – there’s been a lot of structural decline and this isn’t uniform. You have towns that were historically dominated by fishing, such as in the north-east of Scotland, while some regions, such as Orkney and Shetland, have made a wholesale conversion to aquaculture.

“There’s been systemic decline across a number of areas, including their economies, infrastructure and access to services and they are also suffering from aging populations.”

One area that academics and industry experts have highlighted as having significant potential to help regenerate the UK’s struggling coastline is renewables and the energy transition.

The Scottish Government’s energy strategy, published in 2017, has set a target for half of the country’s energy needs to be supplied by renewables by 2030.

And with Holyrood also needing to hit net zero carbon emissions by 2045, it’s clear the green energy sector is on course to grow dramatically.

Potts said: “There’s a growing realisation that investment in coastal communities is needed and renewable energy and the energy transition will play a role in that. It’s not the only thing that will save these communities but it will be a part of the economic revival.

“Both public and private investment is required because there are basic aspects of infrastructure that need to be brought in. Things like decent roads, internet speeds that are comparable with the rest of the country, access to public services – things you need in order to make a region have a reasonable standards of living. That goes hand in hand with the private investment around things such as renewable energy.”

Morag Watson, Scottish Renewables

A number of examples of ways in which both large and small-scale renewable developments have aided coastal communities already exist.

Morag Watson, director of policy at Scottish Renewables, thinks there are two ways of analysing the benefits.

She said: “Firstly, there’s economic impact, which includes employment, money spent in the area, the impact on the supply chain. Onshore wind, which has now been on the go for 20 years in Scotland, has had a huge impact in this regard. The Lovat Hotel in Fort Augustus used to see a dip in business over winter – now 40% of its off-season business is thanks to SSE and its sub-contractors who’re working on renewable energy projects in the area

“The other way to look at is to explore community benefits and payments that are made by the industry. Around £20 million a year goes towards the coffers of local communities through voluntary benefit payments, usually from windfarm generators. The locals in Carsphairn were able to buy their local shop with the help of wind farm money, meaning it stayed open when it might otherwise have closed.”

Renewables developments can also provide isolated, rural communities that often aren’t hooked up to the grid with a reliable source of energy, easing fuel poverty in these regions.

Watson added: “Until last year Fair Isle didn’t have an electricity supply. Now they do because of wind – they’ve bought their own turbines and put them up.

“The Isle of Gigha now has four turbines that’s given the community an income, as well as power. Scotland’s doing things that nobody else in the world is doing purely because of necessity.”

But one of the main issues is ensuring that coastal communities enjoy the economic and social benefits the energy transition could bring.

As Potts pointed out, we’re yet to see “wholesale changes” in benefits for coastal regions and there’s already a lot of frustration that renewables jobs in manufacturing are going overseas.

Watson said: “At a UK level, most of the technology that community renewable energy schemes use is smaller than five megawatts and the support for that was lost when the Feed-in Tariff closed.

“It is now very hard to see how small hydropower or wind projects could proceed, and that’s something which should concern us all. Governments have failed to recognise the additional benefits of renewable energy beyond just electricity.”

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