Those who say Alex Salmond should not attend the world climate change summit in Copenhagen demonstrate a depressing lack of ambition for Scotland. Yes, energy is in most respects reserved to Westminster. And yes, only Westminster can negotiate on Scotland's behalf in Denmark. But instead of bleating about why the First Minister is there, we should be bleating about how control from London is preventing Scotland developing its renewable potential to maximum effect. If Salmond's presence this week draws attention to this power vacum, it will be worthwhile.
Marine power could meet our peak energy requirements in Scotland. But first we need a North Sea grid in place, according to this interesting story by Chris Watt in The Herald. Watt quotes Professor Jim McDonald, principal of Strathclyde University and co-chair of the national Energy Advisory Board, who says we need the correct infrastructure to capitalise on the best marine energy potential in the world.
Professor McDonald said: “The technology’s there, it’s proved and it’s understood. It’s challenging, but the technologies are mature enough to deliver a sub-sea grid.” A report brought in front of the board of Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) last week claimed that the country “could easily meet 100% of our electricity needs," if we developed marine.
Please remember this the next time you hear someone harping on about the need for nuclear power stations, and how the Scottish government has its head in the sand, and other such cliches. If we did build replacement nuclear stations they'd require considerable subsidy and take a great deal of time. We'd also have to import most of the technology and expertise. However, marine energy gives Scotland the opportunity to commercialise and export its own specialised knowledge. Our universities already lead the world. We have a world first in the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney. We just need to make it happen commercially. Scotland could build a reputation in harnessing the waves to rival the old glory days of Clyde shipbuilding.
The Scottish government is funding the Saltire Prize to show how seriously it takes this industry and its potential. But sometimes you wonder if the UK government is dragging its heels on helping marine energy because, for political and military reasons, it wishes to retain the nuclear option. (And it hates the fact that Scotland might exert any independent decision making on energy). The industry body that represents wave and tidal energy developers complained in October that it didn't get enough support from the UK government.
We have lots of wind turbines, but we don't actually construct them. We have no wind industry because in the early days of wind turbine development it wasn’t taken seriously by government. Danish and German firms developed the technology instead. Now they are making money across the globe. Tide and wave power will need government help to become commercially viable. Otherwise they too could be developed abroad, and we will miss the chance of a lucrative industry offering highly skilled engineering and manufacturing jobs.
That was the fear of scientists and engineers who spoke to Richard Wilson for this Ecosse article back in 2008. Here is a particularly instructive passage:
“A man particularly aware of Britain’s neglect of renewables is Professor Stephen Salter, generally regarded as the pioneer of wave power. He invented a device in the 1970s called Salter’s Edinburgh Duck, which could extract 90% of energy from waves. But the UK government withdrew funding from wave power in 1982, many believe because of the influence of the nuclear industry. “We’ve got a good resource and there was a lot of good engineering in the early days,” says Salter, professor of engineering design at Edinburgh University. “We can make ships, so we should be able to make these.” Salter wrote an energy review document for the SNP two years ago that suggested previous calculations of the energy potential of the Pentland Firth, the deep body of water that separates the Orkney Islands from Caithness and is renowned for the strength of its tides, were underestimated.
He believes that if turbines can be designed to work on the bottom of the sea bed, 70m down, and be placed close together, up to 20GW of energy could be extracted from the firth.
We don't hear this story told often enough. The constant refrain is " nuclear must be part of the mix". Cannot help wondering whether that's because the nuclear industry has huge lobbying power and deep pockets -unlike the small, university spin off companies in wave and tidal. But maybe I'm just too cynical...