Keeping the lights on
Ask a government minister to comment on the renewables industry in Scotland and they will more than likely list a stream of recent success stories.
New investments, by companies such as Gamesa, which is setting up a £125m wind-turbine plant in the Port of Leith, are highlighted as demonstrating that green technology is bringing jobs north of the border.
And Ewing, who has been Energy, Enterprise and Tourism minister since the 2011 election, says he spent the first year of his job talking to industry, academics and environmental bodies and believes Scotland is ahead of the pack.
The Government already has a stated aim of providing the equivalent of 100 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020 and the sector already employs 11,000 workers in Scotland – with analysis from the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) showing that renewable projects in the past year were worth £1.7bn and the renewable proportion of electricity was already at 35 per cent.
“Scotland really is leading the way in renewable energy in Europe,” Ewing tells Holyrood.
“I made a visit to Germany recently, to Bremen, Bremerhaven and Stuttgart, meeting with business leaders and politicians. What struck me is that Scotland is seen in Europe as though she were already a member state in energy terms.” He adds: “We have done that by not just setting targets, but by showing commitment to the practical task of how we achieve those targets – building up support with industry and engaging with them; finding out what their needs are and also engaging with the academic and environmental bodies.” At a UK level, reporting of the renewable energy debate has seen comment in the media shift to discussion of the divisions between certain parts of the Conservative and Lib-Dem Coalition. Chancellor George Osborne has been at loggerheads with DECC over its green policies.
When, in July, Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey announced changes to wind-farm subsidies, which he said would drive between £20bn-£25bn into the industry over the next four years, it was after he had resisted Osborne’s demands to reduce subsidies for onshore wind even further and provide more support for gas-fired power plants.
Scotland sets its own subsidy levels, but despite this, Ewing insists he does not want to get involved in a “ping pong political attack” on Westminster and says he is keen to work “constructively” with the UK Government – highlighting in particular DECC ministers such as Davey, Charles Hendry and Greg Barker.
Nevertheless, he stresses how “united” his government is in comparison to UK counterparts.
“I think it’s a fairly open secret that it’s the UK Treasury who are seeking to take energy policy in a route that we believe is a dangerous and difficult route,” he said.
“It’s clear to all observers that the Treasury has had disagreements with DECC. It’s not political to say that.
“What we need to do as a government that is united, in all its ministerial team in driving forward our energy policy, is to seek to persuade the UK Government to forge ahead and rebuild that investor confidence. That is the absolutely crucial thing. “There’s lots of places where investors can put their money in the world, we have to demonstrate that Scotland and the UK will provide Europe’s renewable energy powerhouse in the nascent technologies of offshore wind, wave and tidal, whilst continuing to support onshore wind, [and] the various other renewable technologies.” He says he is confident the two governments can reach “sensible agreements” on major issues.
“We have shared objectives in promoting renewable energy, remarkably similar objectives in renewable energy between DECC and the Scottish Government and in cutting emissions, so I’m confident we can continue to translate that into effective action. For example, we’ve seen that in helping to persuade DECC in supporting ocean energy – wave and tidal – by proper incentivisation of that under the ROCs [Renewables Obligation Certificates] system.” But, for all its support of renewable energy, the Scottish Government has had to be mindful of the continuing importance of a far more traditional fuel source, which has long been the backbone of Scotland’s economy – oil.
Although many environmentalists, including the Greens in the Scottish Parliament, want the onset of cleaner forms of energy to see a move away from reliance on fossil fuels, the oil and gas industry, with its base in the northeast of Scotland, employs 196,000 workers across Scotland.
Ewing insists there is plenty of life left in those North Sea oil reserves, and is committed to seeing them fully exploited. The same is true of other non-renewable forms of energy, such as coal and, perhaps more controversially, nuclear.
He does not agree that there needs to be any sort of fine balancing act for the Government between green and non-green.
“Change can’t be made overnight and it can’t be made in a decade,” he says. “Most people will accept that it would be irresponsible to have an unbalanced energy policy.
“We have a policy of mixed generation that is looking to increase the role of renewables, but to do so in a phased and practical way, so that we can keep the lights on and keep costs as reasonable as we can.
“The energy policy is fraught with myths and views [are] presented as though they were facts and I suspect that will continue to be the case.
“I don’t believe there is any irresoluble tension between the energy and environmental objectives and I think Scotland is giving a lead on both and doing so reasonably well.” Instead he argues, the right thing for Scotland to do, is to continue to extract the maximum oil out of the North Sea, while we still can.
“To get the maximum recovery from every oil and gas field is the right thing for the planet as well as for a nation’s pocket. How can it make any sense to extract any oil from subsea, to the extent of 30 to 40 per cent and leave 60 or 70 per cent unused? “Surely given that oil and gas are, at the end of the day, finite resources, it makes sense to husband those resources effectively and that is just common sense.” Even on the issue of nuclear power, there is seemingly room for manoeuvre. While the SNP has been definite that there should be no new nuclear power stations, Hunterston B in Ayrshire is due to be decommissioned in 2016 and Torness in East Lothian in 2023, Ewing has left the door open for them to keep going past their current planned lifespan.
“Much of the criticism that one reads in the letters pages, proceeds on the basis that we want to close every coal, gas and nuclear station in Scotland, this is complete rubbish.
“Our Electricity Generation Policy Statement points out there will be a continued need for traditional thermal generation for some time to come, and we recognise and we support that.
“I’ve also on the record said that if the case can be made for safe extension of our two existing nuclear power stations, provided a safety case is made, then we would not object to the extension of the lives of our two nuclear power stations.”
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