Tackling climate change and regenerating the economy are the two biggest public policy challenges the country faces and renewables is one of the few industries which can help meet both those goals, argues Niall Stuart
So began Niall Stuart’s journey on the path to a career in policymaking. It was 1984 and miners’ leader Arthur Scargill was ignoring calls for a national ballot on industrial action over pit closures. Instead, he encouraged union members at the threatened pits to go on strike, isolating those at the ‘safe’ pits who might have rejected a yes vote.
“I grew up in a family, in a household, where politics were always discussed,” said Stuart, chief executive of Scottish Renewables. “Dad was involved in left-wing politics in the 50s and 60s, and my mum went to socialist Sunday school, not just ordinary Sunday school but socialist Sunday school, in Pollok in Glasgow.
“I remember my mum having the temerity to suggest that Scargill should have called a vote before the strike – and let’s just say my grandfather’s reaction of ‘reactionary bastard’ suggests he didn’t agree!
“I was always really into current affairs and politics and was going to do history and politics at university but a last-minute change of mind meant that I ended up doing psychology instead.”
That was followed by two years teaching English in Spain. “I came back and thought: ‘No, let’s focus on what has always been of interest,’ and that was public policy.”
Stuart then worked for Anne Begg MP, was Head of Press and Parliamentary Affairs for the Federation of Small Business in Scotland and then moved to a similar role with the Scottish Council for Development and Industry. It was here that his interest in policy was combined with his belief in the fundamental role that energy, like health or education, has to play in our lives.
“I remember coming out of a meeting with the then energy minister and representatives of business organisations – at the time they were nervous about the SNP’s policy – and it was clear there wasn’t much of an evidence base on which to draw informed conclusions,” said Stuart.
SCDI commissioned energy research consultancy Wood Mackenzie to study if the Government’s then target of 50 per cent of electricity from renewable sources by 2020 was achievable. Its report, published in December 2008, concluded that it was – and that Scotland could also keep exporting electricity to England and Northern Ireland.
“That’s when I really became immersed in energy policy,” said Stuart. “It’s an area where there is a huge blurring of responsibilities between government, the private sector, organisations and citizens.
“And an area where there are many seemingly competing and diffi cult but hugely important policy priorities: ‘keeping the lights on’, keeping bills down, economic development, meeting climatechange objectives and energy security. There are some incredibly fascinating but diffi cult decisions to be made. When the opportunity at Scottish Renewables came up, it was a no-brainer.”
At the time, Wood Mackenzie envisaged a 500 per cent increase in the number of wind farms, with Scotland needing around 450 MW of new wind power – more than twice the size of the country’s then biggest operational wind farm – every year until 2020. It said onshore wind would provide more than 80 per cent of the increase in renewable electricity by 2020, with marine, biomass and hydro expanding at a tenth of the rate of new wind.
Scotland would need £10bn of investment in new electricity generation between now and 2020. At the same time, demand for electricity would rise by 10 per cent, despite continued attempts to encourage greater energy effi ciency.
Much has changed in a short space of time. In May last year, First Minister Alex Salmond announced that the target had been raised to 100 per cent: “Because the pace of development has been so rapid, with our 2011 target already exceeded, we can now commit to generating the equivalent of 100 per cent of Scotland’s own electricity demand from renewable resources by 2020,” he told the All-Energy conference opening in Aberdeen.
“By then we intend to be generating twice as much electricity as Scotland needs – just over half of it from renewables, and just under half from other conventional sources. We will be exporting as much electricity as we consume. So we will continue to work with industry and governments at local, UK and European level to build on what we have achieved. We will now move still further and faster to secure our place as the green energy powerhouse of the continent of Europe.”
But while Scotland garnered praise around the world for its bold ambition, at home, opposition to the spread of wind farms and questions over policy have begun to grow. Over pizza at a restaurant across from Scottish Renewables’ Glasgow office, Stuart expresses frustration over the arguments used against renewables, and wind power in particular – that it doesn’t work, that it is expensive, that wind farms get paid not to generate. He proceeds to tick off half a dozen of these arguments, countering each with a long list of facts and fi gures; wind in Scotland is now the single biggest source of electricity in terms of installed capacity, supplying the equivalent of almost 20 per cent of annual demand, last year it added just £7 to consumers’ annual bills and payments for non-generation to coal and gas-fi red producers were 30 times higher than to wind farms.
“You can’t really get into a debate with someone if they say they don’t like the way wind farms look – that is a subjective opinion about the aesthetics of turbines. I don’t agree but wind farm developers can’t just build anywhere – contrary to popular opinion, the Government is not railroading applications through, evidenced by the fact that there have been a number of high-profi le rejections recently.
“My frustration with the debate is that tackling climate change and regenerating the economy are the two biggest public policy challenges we face as a country and renewables is one of the few industries which can help meet both those goals. Yes, we must have a proper debate on energy policy but it has to be a debate based on the best available evidence on the merits and costs of all forms of energy.
“This should not be seen as an ‘either-or’ decision; Scotland should maximise the output from its renewable resources but we will need investment in other forms of energy for many years to come.”
The problem, said Stuart, is that the debate quickly becomes polarised and skewed. He cites two examples; a lone voice calling for the abandonment of renewables in favour of shale gas being given a huge profile in the media (who also selectively focus on the aforementioned issue of payment for non-generation and highlight the cost of renewables only) and professional institutions which fail to correctly defi ne government targets when arguing that energy policy should be governed by acommission made up of their members.
But Scottish Renewables is bolstering its evidence base to demonstrate the sector’s signifi cant contribution to energy supply and security, to the Scottish economy and to combating climate change.
While major investments by global energy companies are visibly growing, the evidence will become even more finely tuned; next year, Scottish Renewables aims to produce detailed information on jobs in each part of the country to highlight the myriad of small to medium-sized companies in the sector which are cumulatively making a major contribution to employment across the country.
As well as Scottish Renewables trumpeting the sector nationally, this will allow the industry to better tell its own story; providing small companies with the means to demonstrate their impact to local business organisations and local politicians.
“The industry has grown very quickly; fi ve years ago, I don’t think you could have anticipated its scale. But we are at a very important stage as we look to the transition from onshore wind to offshore; that is the next chapter in Scotland’s renewables sector.
“But that transition requires an acknowledgement of onshore wind’s essential role in terms of research and development and the sector’s return on investment. It also requires consistency of policy and support on the part of Government. The wrong decisions could put everything that has been achieved so far and the future in jeopardy.”