By Joshua Wilkie
When I think back to what Scotland was like in my childhood, even before I started my undergrad in 2006, the change in the country is fascinating. When I was younger I was aware of a few hydroelectric dams and our two nuclear power stations, but other than that I – as most people do – had no clue where exactly my electricity was coming from. Since then both nuclear power stations have been decommissioned and strong opposition to any more being constructed, a carbon capture pilot at the country’s only coal fired power station was not renewed and no plans for any new large hydro-power schemes. How on earth do we manage to turn on the lights and keep our houses warm during our cold, dark winters?
I was driving home from England in the winter of 2012 – a journey I had made countless times in the past. I had recently bought my first car and it was the first time I had made the journey during daylight hours. As I admired the mountain scenery, I suddenly realised that, my country now had an abundance of wind turbines rising over the forested hillsides. Much of the hillsides within the central belt of the country – where most of Scotland’s 6 million people reside – are now a dynamic landscape of farmland, forestry and gleaming turbines.
Renewable energy now accounts for over 57.7% of Scotland’s electricity annually. The country is a green superpower: on top of the incessant winds, the country’s coastline (which is longer than that of Spain) possesses 25% of EU tidal reserves, and 10% of EU wave reserves. Our renewable projects are also not just restricted to large scale projects either; there are widespread small generation projects now underway such as micro-hydro installations in remote locations, wind-to-heat, and reclaiming heat and biomass from the world-famous whisky industry. So vast are these combined green energy reserves that their potential capacity (60GW or higher) almost exceeds Scotland’s current electricity production from all sources by a factor of six. The country has repeatedly exceeded the Scottish Government’s renewable energy targets – even the current ambitious goal of 100% of electricity from renewable sources by 2020 does not seem beyond reach. In fact, one very windy day this summer the country joined only a small handful of countries which have ever achieved 100%! Who would have thought our bad weather would be a blessing in disguise!
Scotland’s iconic coastline also offers extensive opportunities for thedeployment of wind, wave and tidal power
Of course, it isn’t as simple as throwing up a few thousand wind turbines – there are still environmental and ecological impacts to consider. Scotland also had to translate it’s success decarbonising it’s electricity supply into other areas such as transportation and heating systems (although such technical challenges are not beyond one of the most ingenious societies in human history). It’s also a country with a small population spread out over a relatively large area – would the same achievements be possible elsewhere? The greatest concern is the increasing conflict in energy policy between the Scottish Government in Edinburgh and the climate-sceptic British Government in London, as subsidies for renewables are being cut severely to promote nuclear power and shale gas fracking in England (both of which the Scottish parliament block using its control over planning permission within Scotland). This division is likely become increasingly profound in the new uncertainty of Britain’s relationship with the EU, which could impact UK environment legislation and renewable energy targets, which Scotland has no control over.
As a young person it is really encouraging to see that your government, society and culture values your future – as well as the futures of people beyond your borders. It is also positive to be included in making that future a reality; many students have opportunities to research and work towards achieving a sustainable future – I spent my Master’s year researching redox flow batteries which are a technology that could one day be used to store renewable electricity for those rare days when it is perhaps not so windy as we would like. It’s interesting to see the change too from 10 years agwhen most of my classmates aspired to work in the North Sea oil industry, when today many students look forward to working in renewable energy and sustainable development.
Yes, there is a still a long way to go, and many challenges along the way, but I’m still optimistic. The massive strides in progress Scotland has made towards a sustainable energy future is exciting and speaks volumes about how much our societies can achieve if we have the collective will and determination to address our problems.