The reason for the raised hopes at the Future Generation conference - subtitled Developing Scotland's Renewable Energy Strategy - at Edinburgh's International Conference Centre is the change in the country's political climate. With many powers now devolved to the Scottish Executive, responsibility for promoting renewable energy in Scotland is now a matter for its own parliament. There is also a new Scottish transport and environment minister, Sarah Boyack, who is seen as a renewable energy enthusiast.
Boyack's background in the planning sector is perceived as a plus. "She understands the issues and what the barriers are," comments Robert Forrest, co-ordinator of the Scottish Renewables Forum. Her positive stance has already led to a more pro-renewables attitude among Scottish Executive officials who under previous Scottish Office regimes - which were lukewarm or even antipathetic towards wind energy - were perceived to be as big a barrier to wind development as the planning issue.
Looking small scale
"There are a lot of issues that need to be addressed before we can put a strategy together," says Forrest. "We need to have a more constructive dialogue with other stakeholders." The one-day conference attracted some 175 people - including members of the Scottish parliament, local councillors, national and local government officials, Non Government Organisations, land owners and managers, utilities, trades unions and even financiers.
The conference identified opportunities to take forward renewables outside the existing Scottish Renewables Obligation (SRO) framework. "There is huge scope to do more with renewables than just provide cheap electricity," says Forrest. Wind, hydro and biomass in particular can stimulate rural economies. But of concern is the lack of appropriate financial structures. "At the moment financing is geared to large projects - especially with 15 year SRO power purchase contracts. Yet probably the biggest opportunities are in a large number of small projects." Above all the industry needs to know where it is heading, Forrest says. "We need a market framework to allow us to plan more than one or two years ahead. SRO has encouraged short term thinking; we cannot continue with this sort of piecemeal, stop-start approach."
Boyack set the upbeat tone to the conference, but nonetheless was predictably short on detail. She admitted that despite a decade of support renewables had not advanced far. Scotland would play a "substantial" part in helping the government meet its target of 10% of UK electricity from renewables by 2010, she said, but declined to quantify Scotland's share. Wind energy would "form the largest Scottish contribution to renewable energy development in future, as it has under the SRO over the last six years." But she wants to do more for other renewable technologies as well.
Turning to the thorny problem of gaining consent for wind farm projects, Boyack wants to see the planning system play a more "enabling" role and "place a stronger emphasis" on renewables. The Scottish Executive is revising planning guidance on renewables, to reiterate national policy on combating climate change and stress the role renewables can play. Draft planning guidance should be issued in the spring, and the finalised version in summer 2000. She also wants to see a more accurate assessment of public attitudes to renewable energy and is to commission public opinion surveys around four Scottish wind farms.