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16 Sep 2019

Scottish Renewable Energy Festival – How Scots and tourists learned to love windfarms

As part of the Scottish Renewable Energy Festival, George Baxter, Director of Development at GreenPower, reflects on renewables in the time of a climate emergency which has also been published in The Herald.

This week sees the inaugural Scottish Renewable Energy Festival and following news that the the UN’s 26th climate change conference comes to Scotland in 2020 – it’s a good moment to reflect on progress.

The major economies of the world were largely built upon the exploitation of fossil fuels. Burn today, who cares about tomorrow. But just as reality crushed the flatearthers in the late 19th century, the harsh reality of a climate crisis dawned in the 20th century – and time for more serious action is now well overdue.

Scotland has made pretty decent progress though. Over the last century we have seen the development of Scottish hydro generation, with large scale and pumped storage systems (together with more recent smaller scale schemes), getting us off to a reasonable start.

The last 20 years have seen significant development of onshore and offshore wind farms and solar panels, generating significantly more power today than hydro. Much to the displeasure of those who don’t like the look of wind turbines, the sky has not fallen in on the tourism industry, and windfarms continue to be popular (or at least not a big issue for most people). Scotland can now boast over 74% of its net electricity needs being met from renewable sources and nearly 80% of Scots support onshore wind farms, that is more impressive than most reliable polls on most issues.

There are always those few contrarians to scientific consensus of course, some who have a personal distaste for wind turbines, or those who are ardent supporters of coal, nuclear, oil and gas for one reason or another. Age also seems to be a factor, with many more young people demanding greater urgency. To properly tackle climate change, we need to seriously up our game. Scotland currently scores two out of 10, because electricity accounts for only about 20% of our energy and emissions. Heating homes and fuelling industry, land use and agriculture, providing hot water and powering our cars and transport system account for the rest – and we have barely scratched the surface of those sectors. There are some emerging plans and initiatives on renewable heat, transport and in energy efficiency measures – but the reality remains that there is both a long, long way to go and a need to do it very, very quickly.

The good news is that a modern, renewable energy-based economy is certainly within our grasp. We have the technology. Green electricity can fill most of the gap, and we have a lot more of it that can be developed with the right public policy and planning environment. There’s plenty of space in Scotland for a substantial increase in well-sited onshore wind and solar farms – the cheapest forms of new power generation. We need more storage of energy in large and small scale batteries, more ‘pumped’ hydro, extensive use of heat pumps and harnessing the power of the sea, through more localised energy systems using smart technology, using green hydrogen and being able to efficiently transfer energy across the country in a robust grid system. Scotland is blessed with the most incredible onshore and offshore wind resource which can not only power Scotland much more cheaply but become a major electricity export across the UK and into Europe.

This can all be achieved, from today. We don’t need to keep on burning fossils like there’s no tomorrow, nor is there a need to back nuclear like there’s no overdraft limit, even if it was a reliable, safe source of low carbon energy with no waste issue for future generations to deal with – which is all highly questionable.

As I write this, I can sense the letter writing brigade getting excited. Some will reference impact on peatland, a current favourite of the naysayers– even though wind farms have been shown to deliver positive net gain, even more so when built with good quality habitat management plans and good construction techniques avoiding areas of very deep peat. Some say there’s ‘no point in Scotland doing anything, we’re too small, look at China’s emissions’. I would not make any excuses for Chinese carbon emissions, nor those of the US which are double that of China per capita. (China has also led global investment in renewables for the last seven years running, double that of the US in 2018.) We can choose to be responsible, lead, take opportunities and create an economy built on a renewable energy system, or not. Pointing somewhere else as a way of abdicating responsibility is a just a wee bit rubbish.

It is possible that our whole economy, every job, every business and warm home, every vehicle, hospital and school – can be, and arguably should be, powered by renewable, sustainable energy. Unsustainable, non-renewable sources pass responsibility to future generations to deal with the fallout, and that is perhaps why so many young people see the issues so clearly and are now courageously speaking out so loudly. I stand with them.

If you are one of the quiet majority in favour of renewables, please don’t be silent anymore. I’ve had ministers, MPs, MSPs, councillors, neighbours, friends and family all tug my elbow and whisper in my lug – ‘you know George, I actually quite like wind turbines’ to which I always reply loudly, ‘Why whisper it, most people love wind turbines! Shout about it!’. The Scottish Renewable Energy Festival is a great opportunity to do just that.