Scotland banks on North Sea once again

UK: Scotland is today a major supplier of petroleum and gas. But as those fossil fuel industries decline, the UK's northernmost country is seeking a new role: leadership in offshore wind. The necessary policy and political commitment show all signs of taking shape.

"Scotland has come a long way since the days of the oil and gas boom in the 1970s," Scottish environment secretary Richard Lochhead says. "We now recognise the enormous renewable energy potential this small country holds, from the ferocious north-westerly winds to the surging tides and waves battering our coastline."

Progress is brisk. The UK Crown Estate, which owns the UK's territorial waters, last year pinpointed ten sites in Scottish waters where it was prepared to grant commercial leases for offshore wind energy developments totalling around 6.4GW.

While not all capacity has yet been taken on, with its existing 4GW of existing renewables, Scotland is well on the way to exceeding its 8GW target for green electricity by 2020.

Scotland has 2.1GW of installed wind capacity and last year its southern part led the UK in wind power installation. Scotland already meets almost a quarter of electricity demand with renewables and aims to boost that portion to 31% by next year and 50% by 2020.

Today, Scotland has only one operational offshore wind farm, the 180MW Robin Rigg off the western coast. Yet Scotland is estimated to host about a quarter of Europe's entire offshore wind resource. Roughly 40% of UK maritime resources suited to wind turbines tethered to the ocean bed, and just over a third of those appropriate for floating wind turbines, are in Scotland, according to a study by government and industry organisations.

Scotland's target of 11GW of offshore wind by 2020 represents roughly 25% of total planned UK wind power capacity - enough to power more than 5.5 million homes, says Lochhead. With some 2.6 million households expected in Scotland by then, this will potentially make the country a massive green power exporter. "This administration will urge the new UK government to work with Scotland to deliver an electricity grid capable of exporting this potential capacity to the UK and Europe," Lochhead adds.

The central UK government sets overall energy policy across Britain, but Scotland has broad scope to determine particulars within its own borders. The new coalition government of the UK has sent strong signals of support for Scottish ambitions. Only days into his appointment as energy secretary, green-leaning Chris Huhne - from the coalition's junior party, the centre-left Liberal Democrats - visited Scotland to back its renewables agenda.

Scotland's North Sea waters would remain an important source of oil and gas, Huhne said at the All-Energy 2010 Conference and Exhibition in Aberdeen, adding, "but at the same time has the potential to develop as a resource with offshore wind, in particular, which could be absolutely crucial for us in the years to come". The Scottish government opposes nuclear power, a stance that benefits the competing energy source of wind.

Nobody says building the offshore presence will be easy. For one thing, political tempers must be soothed. Trade association Scottish Renewables has been pressing the central UK government to channel £174 million raised under the defunct Scottish Fossil Fuel Levy on coal, gas and oil consumption into offshore and other renewables (Windpower Monthly, December 2009). Scottish insiders say there has been good news from policymakers but Huhne remained quiet on the issue at Aberdeen.


Meanwhile, experts point to the enormous commitment needed in planning, training and developing the supply chain. Investment to build offshore wind in Scottish territorial waters will total between £15-18 billion over the coming decade, according to a government report.

But the Scottish renewables sector worries that feet-dragging could instead lead to missed manufacturing opportunities on a tragic scale. If new environmentally and economically viable offshore sites are not identified quickly, Scotland will fail to develop its own supply chain and offshore projects will end up relying on supplies from overseas. "If this happens, the economic benefit to Scotland will be minimal despite the country's unmatched renewable energy generation potential," warned Scotland's government in its National Renewables Infrastructure Plan (N-RIP) published earlier this year.

So Scotland has ramped up efforts to stimulate a manufacturing base serving offshore wind. The N-RIP identified priority ports and harbours to serve the marine renewables sector. Topping the list of 11 potential coastal manufacturing sites are Leith, a port in the capital city of Edinburgh; the city of Dundee; the Energy Park Fife at Methil; and Aberdeen. All four are on the eastern coast, looking out on large offshore development zones under the Crown Estate's Round 3 offshore wind site awards and a collection of smaller offshore wind development sites in Scottish Territorial Waters closer to shore. The other seven sites are scattered to the country's north and west.

Last month, Scottish government officials, port owners and offshore wind developers were to hammer out development and investment plans for the 11 sites. Funds are to be disbursed in a third stage.

One stop shop

New laws are also creating opportunity by shifting reliance away from fossil fuels. Last August, the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 set a target to slash greenhouse gases by 42% by 2020 and 80% by 2050. First Minister Alex Salmond, Scotland's political leader, called it the most far-reaching environmental legislation considered by the Scottish Parliament during the first ten years of devolution - a reference to Scotland's acquisition of greater autonomy from central UK rule. The Scottish government expects the climate legislation and Round 3 offshore leasing rounds to spark large-scale project installation starting around 2014.

In March came the introduction of the Marine (Scotland) Act aimed at streamlining regulation of maritime activities, including the exploitation of energy. It reduces the red tape involved in developing offshore wind. Under the new law, the government is moving toward a one-stop shop approach to licensing in which developers can consult one office in Aberdeen for help in applying for four licenses. Previously, application followed separate tracks.

In another improvement, rather than requiring that developer's hand in mountains of supporting documentation at the start of their application process, regulators will allow them to submit on a priority basis. That way, as their applications proceed, developers can assemble material of lower urgency, reducing lead time. If the streamlining goes ahead as planned, one Scottish government insider said his country would likely become one of Europe's, and the world's, friendliest regimes for offshore wind in terms of natural resource and regulation.

Grid access

"Another big issue for the sector is grids and the visibility of grids," Lynne Vallance, head of the Scottish government's offshore renewables policy team, noted at the conference. She cited a UK report by the Electricity Networks Strategy Group (ENSG) - comprising the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change, UK energy regulator Ofgem and the Scottish government - that estimated about 11GW of new electricity transmission capacity would be necessary to connect enough offshore renewables generation to the grid to meet 2020 targets. "It wasn't ambitious enough for Scotland," she said. "We reckon it's much closer to about 24-26GW and we're pressing the government to include that in their revised ENSG report."

There are signs of progress on the grid. Martin Moran is electricity portfolio manager at system operator National Grid, which contributed to the current ENSG report. "National Grid is forecasting to invest around £22 billion (in transmission) over the next five years," he said. That compares to £4.5 billion under the current five-year period, he added. "This significant step up in investment in the UK is to ensure energy supplies are secure and that essential infrastructure is able to handle the changing energy landscape," said Moran. "National Grid will be connecting new generation, reinforcing the existing transmission and distribution networks, maintaining our assets and exploring new investment opportunities."

Yet in the end, a common refrain at the conference was that even if all else goes well, Scotland's offshore ambitions can be held up by one basic bottleneck. "We have a big skills gap," said Tom Ryan, high-voltage maintenance manager at French nuclear giant Areva, which has activities in turbine production and provides grid services across Europe. The shortfall means many technicians will probably be needed in the near term from continental European countries that have put more emphasis on training technical apprentices. "We'll all have to learn some French," said Ryan.

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