Scotland is a small country in the north of Europe with dreams of generating 100% of its gross annual electricity consumption from renewable energy by 2020. It may seem like an impossible ambition for any country to provide electricity in this way for all its citizens in just a few years’ time, but Scotland is no ordinary country.
Known for its wet and windy weather, Scotland is turning the elements to its advantage. The country already boasts 25% of Europe’s offshore wind resources which generated 62% of Scotland’s renewable energy in 2014 alone. The country also has tremendous wave and tidal energy resources and the potential to generate more electricity than it currently needs from the waters around Scotland.
Currently leading the way in tidal energy research, the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) based in Scotland, has a decade of real-sea experience. There have been more grid-connected marine energy converters deployed at the EMEC than at any other single site in the world and the centre remains the world’s only accredited marine energy laboratory.
In August of this year, Scotland actually did achieve over 100% of its energy needs for one day for the first time from wind turbines alone. The turbines provided 39,545 megawatt-hours (MWh) of electricity to the National Grid with the country’s total power consumption for homes, business and industry at 37,202 MWh – meaning that wind power generated 106% of Scotland’s electricity needs.
But what is driving this push towards renewables? Climate change is an obvious factor, but the Scottish Government is also keen to diversify its energy mix given weak oil prices and declining North Sea oil production.
Scotland has been hit hard by the global fall in oil prices, particularly in communities such as Aberdeen and surrounding towns like Peterhead which are heavily linked to the oil business, with many people in the city employed in the energy sector.
The price of crude oil fell to a 12-year low of just below $30 a barrel in January 2016, from a high of $115 in summer 2014. Falls in price like this have had a multiplier effect on the broader Scottish economy which is underpinned by the fate of the oil industry just off its coastline.
The Scottish government’s North Sea revenues collapsed in 2015-16 to £60m from £1.8bn a year earlier. This may sound like a big drop, but it’s even further from the £11.6bn in oil revenues Scotland reaped in 2008-09. Income from the oil industry is a key factor in debates over Scotland’s ability to fund its public finances as an independent nation.
Economic doom is a key factor in the drive towards renewable energy in Scotland. Particularly post Brexit, which creates further uncertainties for the future of North Sea oil.
Scotland’s minister for business, Paul Wheelhouse, recently told CNBC’s Energy Future, “The oil and gas industry is having a pretty rough time globally because of the fall in oil price.”
“It has meant that we’re having to move to an environment where we live with the lower oil prices, perhaps for a longer period than anticipated.”
“It’s a good time to be investing in renewables in Scotland,” Wheelhouse said. “It’s a really great coincidence of an economic need because of the challenge we face but also a really exciting opportunity. There is also the ability to transfer skills – from subsea, from oil and gas workers – into offshore wind, marine energy projects.”
Although some reports may estimate that Scotland will fall short of its 2020 target, the country is driven to achieve its goal, not only by the necessity brought about by fluctuating oil prices, but also by the need to do better in the face of climate change. It is also well placed to still meet this target, geographically, but also in terms of skills and infrastructure. In the race to lower carbon emissions, Scotland is streets ahead.