With North Sea oil running out and nuclear power stations closing, Scotland's renewable revolution should get a move on – John McLellan
The plan for a massive wind turbine plant in Leith revealed this week brought welcome cheer to what has been an otherwise very gloomy employment outlook, with the promise of 3,000 badly-needed jobs.
The numbers are impressive; a £40m investment to create 1,000 “high-quality, long-term direct jobs” and 2,000 indirect jobs on a 175-acre site ─ big enough for 100 football pitches ─ in Leith Docks, expanded on piles over the water to accommodate the world’s biggest offshore wind installation vessels.
Forth Ports said the development would “secure the Firth of Forth as the driver for Scotland’s green energy transition”, and this may well be true. It also claimed it would “help spearhead Edinburgh’s and Scotland’s Covid-19 recovery plan”, but it lacked one key detail to back this up, a target date.
From both a jobs and energy point of view the announcement was certainly good news ─ and the kind of boost for which Scottish manufacturing is crying out ─ but the pandemic recovery is not so much something that should be planned for but acted upon now, and a development which could be years in the making can hardly be said to be spearheading an economic rebuilding needed immediately.
That the expansion of renewable energy is essential is not in doubt, not least because even without moves away from fossil fuels, North Sea oil-and-gas reserves are dwindling fast and with them will go the thousands of high-quality jobs.
Latest official figures estimate oil and gas employs around 100,000 people and generates around £8.8bn for the Scottish economy compared to about 18,000 jobs and £1.6bn from renewable energy.
So too will the decline in UK oil-related taxation accelerate, worth £650m in 2019-20, according to the Scottish government’s expenditure and revenue figures, compared to £1,297m two years before.
Numbers vary, but according to one recent report based on data from BP and the US Energy Information Administration, without imports Britain would use up its available oil reserves in five years and gas in just three, so the reliance on imported fuel is only going to grow unless something drastic happens soon.
As worrying is the imminent closure of nuclear power stations Hunterston B, next year, and Torness, in 2030, both of which have a capacity of 1.2 gigawatts, the equivalent of 85 of the very biggest offshore turbines which produce 14 megawatts or 440 average onshore machines. Even then, wind power does not produce the same consistent output as nuclear.
With some understatement, the UK and Scottish governments have set “ambitious” targets of 40GW and 11GW of offshore electricity by 2030 respectively, the UK from the current 1.7GW and Scotland from 0.89GW. It’s a tall order to say the least when the Scottish target alone requires a minimum of over 700 of the biggest turbines in nine years; with average offshore turbine capacity currently 7MW, the figure is likely to be closer to 1500.
With around 5,000 turbines needed to hit the UK target, no wonder Forth Ports spies an opportunity.
But with electricity demand set to soar with more battery-powered vehicles, the replacement of gas central heating, the plug being pulled on Scottish nuclear power and North Sea fossil fuels running out fast, they need to get a move on if we are to avoid a new Dark Age.