Scotland Fights to Keep Its Renewable Energy Dream Alive

Scotland was so bullish about becoming Europe’s wind energy hub its politicians fell out with a brash real-estate developer and reality TV star called Donald Trump.

Five years on, Trump’s ambitions have taken him to the White House. But instead of the 950 offshore turbines Scotland envisioned by the end of 2017, it has only 63 because of legal battles, geographical challenges and caps on government aid.

The swooshing blades out at sea were a pivotal part of the nationalist-led Scottish government’s goal to get 100 percent of the nation’s electricity from renewable sources by 2020. It was supposed to be a growth area in what would be Europe’s newest state, along with turning Scotland into the Saudi Arabia of marine energy. 

Despite four offshore wind projects getting the go-ahead this week, more targets have been missed than met and U.K. subsidies have been cut. With Scottish independence back in the political mix ahead of the June 8 election and the economy in pain, the plans are under scrutiny again.

“People overestimated the likely scale of deployment,” said Niall Stuart, chief executive of the Glasgow-based trade association Scottish Renewables. The whole of the U.K. was over-confident about the prospects for offshore wind, he said. “Clearly it’s nothing like the most optimistic scenario.”

In 2011, when the Scottish National Party won a landslide election victory, the government predicted the offshore industry could create as many as 28,377 jobs and be worth as much as 7.1 billion pounds ($9.1 billion) by 2020. Less than a tenth of those jobs have materialized so far with just about 500 people working in Scottish offshore wind, according to the Office for National Statistics.

So far none of the turbines are disrupting the maritime view from Trump’s golf course on the northeast coast. The government fought three times successfully in court when Trump complained the sight of the machines would spoil his resort. The 11-turbine offshore wind farm, called Aberdeen Bay, is still going ahead, being built by Swedish company Vattenfall AB, just more slowly.

Scottish judges paved the way for as much as 10 billion pounds to be invested in offshore wind power this week by overturning an original ruling that said the turbines would kill too many birds. The first application for planning consent was in 2012.

Marine energy also hasn’t been working out as planned. The goal to harness 25 percent of Europe’s tidal power and 10 percent of its wave power from Scottish waters became more of a research and development activity than industrial strategy. Two of the most promising wave converter companies went bust.

“I don’t think there are clear elements in place between the people who want to build the clean energy projects and the government’s vision,” said Tok Aisake, 40, a Fijian-born national working on the Vattenfall wind farm project.

It may be just a case of over-lofty ambition in a country run by politicians championing Scotland’s potential to go it alone. Offshore wind is definitely a growth industry: worldwide, production costs have been falling and output has more than doubled over the past five years, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

While navigating the ocean’s geography and geology has also proved trickier, there’s been more success in the mountains and glens. Onshore wind and hydropower projects helped Scotland beef up its renewables supply from about 10 percent in 2001 to just shy of 60 percent in 2015, according to the government.

With the collapse of North Sea oil dragging the Scottish economy toward recession, the push to diversify into renewable energy has heightened resonance, not least politically.

“We need offshore, not onshore wind in a puddle”

In 2014, Scottish voters chose to remain in the U.K. by 55 percent to 45 percent, with many spooked by the economic consequences of independence. Britain’s decision to leave the European Union has made plans to hold another referendum the focal point in Scotland of the U.K. election campaign. Polls at the moment show a vote would produce roughly the same result.

The Scottish minister in charge of renewable energy didn’t respond to requests for a comment. Alex Salmond, Scotland’s former first minister who oversaw the original renewable energy target, said delays to offshore wind may be a good thing, though. They allow Scotland to take advantage of newer technology, like floating platforms, designed specifically for deep waters, he said.

“We need offshore, not onshore wind in a puddle,” Salmond, who quit in 2014 to be replaced by Nicola Sturgeon as Scottish National Party leader, said in an interview in London before the latest election campaign got going. “We need genuine offshore technology if it’s to be as competitive as onshore wind is now.”

Vattenfall, for example, will use suction bucket technology borrowed from the oil and gas industry to plant its giant 8.4 megawatt turbines. Twenty miles north of Trump’s golf course, Statoil ASA is building the world’s first floating offshore wind farm, called Hywind, off the coast of Peterhead.

Scotland is currently the only country to offer support for floating wind, though that aid is due to come to an end next year. Last month, Kincardine Offshore Wind Farm Ltd. said it would create as many as 200 jobs at Kishorn dry dock in the Highlands to build another floating wind farm out at sea. Investment in the 2 billion-krone ($230 million) Statoil project was spurred by higher subsidies offered to floating offshore wind technology.

“We would love to do more in Scotland,” said Stephen Bull, a senior vice president at Statoil. “The tricky part of it is from a policy dimension.”

The U.K. government already ended new subsidies for onshore wind. New wind farms can’t get built and existing wind farms may not be replaced when they come to the end of their lives, says Paul Cooley, director of generation at SSE Plc, a British electricity company based in Perth, Scotland.

There are also elements out of the control of ministers and executives. Despite its unrivaled wind speeds, Scotland has struggled to match its English neighbor in realizing its offshore potential. Scotland’s deep waters and craggy underwater rocks push up costs, while its rich marine wildlife delayed or even blocked planning permission for some projects.

“If it comes to a cost of energy competition then they’ve lost,” said David Matthews, manager of renewables marine strategy at ship broker Clarkson Plc. “It’s simple economics.”

Even so, the Scottish government is once again seeking to increase its goals, consulting on plans to get half of all energy–including heat and transport as well as electricity–from renewable sources by 2050. That would be up from 15 percent in 2014.

Ministers would be better off focusing on the practicalities of scaling up renewable heat or electricity storage than “bragging” about targets that ultimately are unrealistic, said Ian Arbon, professor at the University of Glasgow’s School of Engineering.

“It’s okay nowadays for politicians to make extravagant claims,” said Arbon, who is also a fellow at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers. “And not be held responsible for their fulfilment.”


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