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Energising the Highlands for half a century

Tuesday, September 1st, 2015

Pioneering energy developments have been at the heart of economic activity in the north since the Highlands and Islands Development Board (later renamed Highlands and Islands Enterprise) began life in 1965. In the first of a series of four energy-themed articles marking the organisation’s 50th anniversary, Calum Davidson, director of energy and low carbon at HIE, looks at how hydro investment paved the way for industrial growth in the region – and he recounts the role of the board’s first chairman in lobbying for the Prototype Fast Reactor to be built at Dounreay rather than in the south of England

“THE Highland Problem” … It’s not a phrase you hear much these days, but in the early 1960s the long and ongoing decline of the north of Scotland was a key issue in Scottish politics, dominating the letters pages of the national broadsheets.

Stemming the region’s chronic depopulation, high unemployment and poor infrastructure was a priority for post-war planners in the Scottish Office, the subject of reports, studies, commissions and debates in parliament, all culminating in the creation of the Highlands and Islands Development Board (HIDB) in 1965, now of course Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE).

November 1 was the day that the HIDB officially opened its doors (famously when Bob Grieve, the board’s new chair, arrived on the first day, there was a west coast fisherman already waiting at the reception of the new office), but a rather higher-profile event had happened in Argyll just a fortnight earlier. October 15, 1965, saw the Queen formally opening the Cruachan Power Station at the head of Loch Awe, Scotland’s first hydroelectric pumped storage scheme.

The building of Cruachan was the culmination of 25 years of major energy investment in the Highlands and Islands.

Looking back, it’s easy to forget how critical the work of the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board (now SSE) was in providing a modern 20th-century infrastructure for what then was a remote rural area blighted by out-migration and a severely depressed economy.

Building dams and power stations and connecting houses and crofts to electricity supplies was a key means of creating local jobs, reversing the relentless population drift, and modernising a large part of the landmass of Scotland.

It’s also easy to forget how controversial these developments were – strongly opposed by many landowners and others who argued that the scenic beauty of the Highlands would be ruined, tourism and field sports devastated and large areas of land sterilised. Sounds familiar?

The simple act of wiring up a house was life-changing. As a local newspaper noted: “At Morar in Inverness-shire and at Lochalsh in Wester Ross the other day, a crofter’s wife pulled a switch and the dim glows of the paraffin lamps were eclipsed by the flood of electric light.” The 20th century had arrived in the Gàidhealtachd.

Yet the electrification of the region was much more than electric cookers and new televisions. With almost all of the Highlands and Islands connected in 1965, it provided the basis for the HIDB to invest in businesses, communities and infrastructure to grow the economy and workforce, particularly in the crofting communities and islands.

Hydro investment was also central to the establishment of a local energy construction and engineering supply chain which has grown and evolved through the oil and gas boom of the 1970s and ’80s, and the growth of renewables since 2000. Even the Highlands and Islands regional airline, Loganair, started as the air taxi service of Muir of Ord-based Logan Construction, a major player in hydro construction during the 1950s and ’60s.

Building on this, a key part of the HIDB’s strategy in the 1960s was the industrial development of the Highlands and Islands, along with the growth of the region’s primary industries, fishing, farming and crofting, and the promotion of tourism. This development focus was based on the attraction of large-scale industries exploiting the regional natural resources, such as minerals and timber, available areas of large flat land and deep water, and an “under-used” workforce.

As HIDB’s first chairman, Robert Grieve, had come from his previous role as Scotland’s chief planner, the board followed the classic economic planning strategy of a “growth pole”, where major industrial developments would act as focus for population growth, and what we would now call the creation of a supply chain “cluster”. Energy, as a key part of the region’s natural resources, was seen as a strong driver of this industrialisation process.

Of course the board was not starting in an industrial policy vacuum, with the Scottish Office having already supported the development of a pulp and paper mill at Corpach in Lochaber, which opened in 1966, complementing the area’s existing aluminium smelter. Caithness was the home to the Dounreay Fast Reactor, established in the 1950s, primarily due to its remote location, and Invergordon in Easter Ross was one of a number of UK sites being considered for three new and very large aluminium smelters.

However, the perceived remoteness of the Highlands and Islands meant that the newly established HIDB had to lobby hard for the Invergordon smelter, and for new nuclear developments. In 1966, the board’s chairman spent his first year lobbying at ministerial level for the UK’s Prototype Fast Reactor to be built at Dounreay rather than Winfrith in Dorset, arguing that the PFR would act as a magnet for supply-chain activity in Caithness and develop internationally exportable technology.

This lobbying paid off, with both new developments confirmed in 1967 and construction starting in 1968, and the plants were operational in the early 1970s. Neither Dounreay, Invergordon, nor the Corpach pulp mill survived the UK’s deindustrialisation of the 1980s – although the complexity and sensitivity of nuclear decommissioning means Dounreay will remain a significant employer in Caithness for some time to come. But in retrospect they had played a crucial role in bringing industry to the north, training a workforce and growing a local supply chain.

Cruachan was the penultimate Hydro Board project, with just the Loch Ness Foyers scheme being built in the early 1970s. Yet 50 years on hydro power is still growing, now being driven by smaller community-based projects with the support of HIE. What’s more, they are still being built by local companies that got their start through the Hydro Board, and grew through infrastructure investments championed by the HIDB.

And Cruachan? Its dam and generator room are recognised as one of Scotland’s most iconic post-war industrial structures. It is an important tourist attraction, and is also a film location seen in James Bond movies. Today the Cruachan Power Station is still a critical part of Scotland’s energy infrastructure, storing power when the wind blows, and generating when we switch on the kettle at the end of Strictly.


Renewable Connections in Japan

Monday, March 23rd, 2015

From Calum Davidson, Director of Energy and Low Carbon, HIE

Flying into Tokyo from Europe means that you pass over what seem endless tracks of forest and steppe in Russia and China, and then descend over the Northern islands of Japan. Very mountainous, and where agriculture is possible, every inch seems to be covered with rice paddies, of which Japan is a net exporter. Quite remarkable as only 15% of the country can be farmed. Japan also has an extensive coastline, and as the plane banked to commence its descent into Narida airport, I could see the north east coast line of Fukushima, and in the distance the cranes and domes of the crippled Nuclear reactor.

The Japanese Government’s decision to close down their nuclear programme in the wake of the 2011 earthquake is one of the reasons why a group of us from Scotland are undertaking a marine renewable energy programme of visits to Japan. Wave, tidal and floating wind, all key areas of interest to HIE, and all areas where the Japanese Government, their local authorities and their large multi-nationals are increasingly interested.

So it’s off first thing Monday morning to the British Embassy, just across the moat and ramparts from the Emperors palace, patrolled by middle aged policemen who ride around on rather old fashioned bikes. They are of course the Imperial Guard. Cue the Star Wars theme music.

Floating Offshore Wind

Friday, March 20th, 2015

From Calum Davidson, Director of Energy and Low Carbon, HIE

In 50 years of being Europe’s leading rural development agency, its fitting that HIE has been right at the cutting edge of a wide range of industries, indeed helping create whole new sectors. Back in the 60’s it was HIDB research and investment that created the regions fishing industry, especially in Shetland. In the 70’s it was Tourism, with purpose built hotels in remote island locations, and fish farming, where HIE R&D money and co-investment with some of the UK’s largest conglomerates that led to salmon farming now being such a mainstay of our rural economies. Business outsourcing, telecommuting, digital health, medical science, all areas where HIE has invested in R&D, in infrastructure and in pure old fashioned “vision” well ahead of the commercial curve, and sector where it can take 10-15 years to see real economic return.

But all areas where the H&I now see strong employment, strong business growth and well paid jobs.

I’m writing this blog in-between planes in Heathrow airport, where I flew down from Scotland just as the 2015 solar eclipse was covering the North of the UK. At 33,000 ft the dimming of the sun was quite obvious, and it was weird to see sunset reds and yellows in the middle of the day. Strangely enough the last time I saw a solar eclipse was outside the old HIE offices in the middle of Inverness almost 20 years ago, where we used the old pinhole camera trick to see the occluded sun on a piece of white card. The group I was with included a few colleagues who were talking about renewables, wind farms and wave machines, and the potential they held for the North, if only we could make sure that we could capture the long term knowledge through R&D, and testing, and manufacturing.

Well fast forward to 2015, and we see that 11 years of EMEC in Orkney means that we are now seeing the worlds first tidal stream array being build in Caithness, with huge supply chain wins for the region. Back in 2006 we saw the Beatrice deepwater windfarm demonstrator build out from an almost derelict Nigg. Ten years on we see SSE looking to use the refurbished ports of the Cromarty Firth to construct a huge offshore wind farm east of Wick.

So early investments pay off, whether its in aquaculture or renewable energy, with moving water growing strong fish, and creating electricity.

Yet we always need to looking to the next thing. Off-shore wind will almost certainly be a major part of global renewable energy production by 2050, but it won’t be from fixed towers sitting on the sea bed. The Eastern UK and the North sea countries are pretty unusual in having a flat shallow continental shelf to build windfarms on. Some parts of the world have deep deep water right next to their cities, and are looking to develop wind farms that float on platforms, or buoys that are anchored to the sea bed. Interestingly these look to be a fair bit cheaper as well, as it does away for the need for big expensive steel jackets.

For the Highlands floating wind is an attractive proposition. The seas to the north and west of Sutherland and the Hebrides have great wind resource, deep water and seabed that’s over the horizon and almost out of sight. We also have the Oil and gas experience in building specialist floating structures like spar bouys and tension leg platforms that the wind industry needs.

Ahh – but we also need to invest in R&D, and somewhere to test. Well that’s what our “next big thing” is in HIE. We are proposing a floating offshore wind test centre, in the seas North of Caithness and Sutherland, where companies from around the world can come and install their prototype devices, see how they work and prove their technologies. And some of the folk who are most interested in Scotland for floating wind are big Japanese companies, and that’s why I’m in Heathrow, just about to board a flight to Tokyo, as part of a Scottish Mission to Japan investigating opportunities in Floating Wind.

I’ll keep you posted.

OFFSHORE WIND DENMARK – The Global Business Delegation

Thursday, March 19th, 2015

Denmark is a ‘windy nation’ as it has successfully managed to grab the opportunity and develop the world-leading wind energy supply chain – both in the onshore and offshore sectors.

Audrey and I joined a 4-day business tour around Denmark – visiting some of the key offshore wind supply chain and test facilities, with an opportunity to network with colleagues involved in the industry from all over the world. Major developers, steel fabricators, wind turbine manufacturers, installation and operation and maintenance service providers, cutting edge test facilities for components and full-scale wind turbines and an impressive ports infrastructure – Denmark has it all. The tour offered the delegates a glimpse of what the country has to offer to the global industry across the wide spectrum of products and services for an offshore wind farm. The packed schedule included visits to a substructures fabricator, onshore test centre for full-scale next generation wind turbines, a regional trade body, lighting protection services provider, blade test facility, major turbine pre-assembly yard, turbine installer, offshore cables installer, a test facility for major turbine components, condition monitoring supplier and two major European wind developers. The highlight of the tour was a boat trip to an operational offshore wind farm off Copenhagen coast – DONG Energy’s 40 MW Middelgrunden Offshore Wind Farm.

The tour was a truly eye-opening experience – there seems to be a real feeling of pride, commitment and a joined-up approach in the wind industry in Denmark and this must be one of the reasons for their success. Constant innovation to drive costs down – is another. There is a lot to learn from our Danish counterparts, but as the projects move further offshore, Scotland has a real opportunity to build on our existing strengths and expertise in deep water engineering, and develop strong capability to supply the offshore wind industry in Scotland and globally.

Promoting the role of women in energy

Friday, March 6th, 2015

Although women make up over half of our workforce, they are seriously underrepresented both in the workforce and in senior positions in the energy sector. This is set to change, says Calum Davidson, Director of Energy and Low Carbon at Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

A couple of decades ago if I went to the doctors for whatever ailment, odds on my GP, or my hospital doctor, would be a man. Roll the clock forward to 2015 and the position has changed entirely with my local surgery on the Black Isle being almost exclusively staffed by women. More girls than boys now leave school to study medicine and nobody blinks an eye to meet a female consultant. There has been a paradigm shift in the way the medical profession is perceived as a career open to all, and as a consequence it is increasingly gender neutral.

Unfortunately not all professions are the same, and the energy sector has a long way to go. The numbers are stark – a report produced recently by PwC entitled Igniting Change: building the pipeline of female leaders in energy stated that of the top 100 UK-headquartered energy companies (including oil and gas, power and renewables), 61 percent have no women on their board, and only five percent of executive board seats are held by women.

The report was commissioned by POWERful Women, an organisation established by Baroness Verma and MP Laura Sandys in 2014 to advance the professional growth and leadership development of women across the UK’s energy sectors.

If we measure the report’s findings against the Scottish Government’s target to have 50/50 gender balance on boards by 2020, we can see energy companies have a hill to climb, however they are cautiously optimistic that change is happening.

Earlier this month I attended the Scottish Energy Advisory Board – a bi-annual meeting which brings together ministers, the energy industry and other relevant bodies to discuss the main challenges facing the energy sector in Scotland.

The meeting took place in Aberdeen, and was the first opportunity for Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to co-chair the Board and underscore her own personal commitment to the sector.

In a wide-ranging discussion we covered the work of the Oil and Gas Task Force and security of supply, topics which have been high on the news agenda in recent weeks, and then moved on to this very subject – the balance (or rather the lack of) of women in senior positions in the energy sector.

It did of course produce some wry smiles, as the First Minister looked around the room at a table populated predominantly by middle aged men; but there was no doubting industry’s commitment to address the challenge.

One issue, in my view, is that many teenage girls still do not see the energy sector as a place to build a career. The Scottish Government, with strong support from HIE over the past 15 years, has done tremendous work in increasing the profile of STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) – yet still 72 percent of pupils who sit Higher physics are boys, with many of the girls who take the topic using it as a route to medicine and veterinary science, rather than a career in industry. At grass roots, we need to continue promoting positive energy career choices to girls and young women in secondary and tertiary education – and Skills Development Scotland of course has this at the top of their agenda.

There is too, perhaps, the misconception that jobs in energy equate to engineering roles, but of course this is not the case. Any business today relies on multi-disciplinary teams and energy is no different, with companies including financial analysts, computer modellers, environmental scientists and geologist, to name just a few relevant disciplines. Indeed the Energy Team in HIE is staffed with economists, geographers, political scientists, European law specialists, as well as the occasional engineer and business analyst, with woman outnumbering men by two to one.

However HIE’s energy gender balance is unusual, so the question the First Minister posed is what can we, as an industry and a country firmly promoting energy as one of our prime motors of economic growth, do to ensure its leadership and workforce is more representative of the population as a whole?

Angela Constance, Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, has said: “You can’t be what you can’t see” – and we need to get more stories out there of women having interesting and successful careers in renewables, oil and gas.  Networking organisations such as WIRES (Women in Renewable Energy in Scotland) already play a vital role in actively promoting positive messages and providing mentors to the new leaders of tomorrow, and this can only be a good thing.

According to Lindsay Leask, vice-chair of WIRES and Senior Policy Manager, Offshore Renewables, at trade body Scottish Renewables, the renewable sector has better gender balance than oil and gas, yet just 26 per cent of Scotland’s renewable energy workforce is female.

“I think we’ve still got a long way to go,” Leask says. “The good news is that the Igniting Change report finds we are looking at an entirely fixable problem.

“It proposes actions for CEOs, HR departments, senior management and women themselves. Targets are one tool, but broader cultural shifts are equally important to achieve these numbers. The research found the most important action a CEO can take is to simply lead by example, create a diverse team and challenge bias,” Leask concludes.

This view certainly matches the opinions the First Minister heard at Scottish Energy Advisory Board.

There was a broad consensus on the need to drive change from the board level down – with affirmative action and personal leadership to the fore. In other words, to “be the change you wish to see..’

This change will need to happen soon if Scotland is the meet it’s 2020 ambitions and I hope that, as we have seen in other competitive fields, such as medicine and, dare I say it, politics, the more women we see at the top, the more it becomes the norm.

As our own First Minister said on appointing her cabinet of five men and five women in November last year: “The cabinet line-up is a clear demonstration that this government will work hard in all areas to promote women, to create gender equality and it sends out a strong message that the business of redressing the gender balance in public life starts right here in government.”

Leadership, as Nicola Sturgeon has shown, comes from the front.

The American Way To Do Business – from Calum Davidson at MIT, Boston

Thursday, November 6th, 2014

Doing business the American way was the thread that ran through our last day at MIT, with a focus on entrepreneurship through the Sloan School of Management, and visits to an Energy Start up companies in the leafy suburbs of Cambridge MA. Ambri, a spin out from MIT developing utility scale Liquid Metal Batteries was particularly fascinating. Packed full of young PhD’s and their older mentors, computer workstations covered with sports and music stickers, yet through a glass door, complex engineering labs, prototype systems and a huge lathe that delighted our engineers.

Ambri’s plan to develop utility scale cheap battery storage for the renewable market certainly interested our group, and its ability to link to tidal generation in particular had all the folk from Orkney grabbing business cards and product brochures. I was struck by the spin out experience from MIT, as it is backed by some big names in the tech world, and the story of how they caught the interest of one of the worlds richest men is fascinating.

MIT have a policy of “open courseware” as all their lecture notes and presentations for all courses are on-line, and free to view and download to anyone in the world. A certain Mr Bill Gates decided one day to brush up on his Chemistry skills, and started to study an on-line course run by Professor Donald Sadoway, the man behind the Liquid Metal Battery. So taken was he by the course, Bill contacted the Prof, struck up a relationship and invested in his company!

It could only happen at MIT.

Calum Davidson, Director, Energy and Low Carbon , HIE.

Thinking ahead at MIT – from Calum Davidson in Boston

Monday, November 3rd, 2014

Winter can come early to New England, and even though its only the 2nd of November, the rain is turning to sleet, and the skyscrapers of downtown Boston are dim through the grey clouds. Our group from Scotland is having a quiet breakfast, catching up e-mails, and chatting about some of the quite remarkable things that we have seen over the past few days on the MIT campus, luckily in bright autumnal weather.

 Rugby ball sized autonomous underwater robots designed to inspect the insides of nuclear reactors, fleets of mini kayaks that roam the waters of the Charles river testing the limits of underwater accoustic communications to the limits, and weird new ship hull and propeller shapes that dramatically reduce drag, increasing speed and fuel efficiency.

 Clever new underwater sensing technologies inspired by the navigation methods of blind Mexican cave fish, and harbour seals whiskers, a remotely operated vehicle that can be built for £100 by a group of bright 10 year olds, suitcase sized robots with sophisticated sonar that crawl under the hull of ships looking for things that should not be there – anomalous objects in MIT research speak.

 Crazy new battery designs using chemicals that you may find under a domestic sink, powered by seawater, robots being trained to understand human emotions and body language, and a museum that mixes art, technology and innovation in a way that make everyone pause and say “wow”.

 Over dinner and late into the night the conversations and discussions continue, “why would anyone want to design a ship that travels at over 100mph?”, “Oh, so they are the people who invented that ROV back in the 80’s. I still use one”, “Mmm – we have a problem measuring strain on turbine blades, thats an interesting approach”, “Very sensible not rushing into prototyping yet, needs more research into alternative designs. Wish we had done that”.

 Still another day to go, before flying north through the snow to Canada.

Calum Davidson, Director Energy & Low Carbon, HIE.

Energetic Creative Thinking at MIT

Thursday, October 30th, 2014

It is a glorious late fall morning in Boston, with the trees on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT ) and by the Charles river showing the colours that New England is famous for in October. But much as I like the splendour of the seasons, that’s not why I’m in Cambridge MA,  with my colleague Norma Hogan. Later today we will be joined by around a dozen businesses from all over the Highlands and Islands.

 So why are we in Boston, and why MIT? Well we have been working with one of the worlds leading tech universities for 10 years now, in fact my first visit here was in October 2004 where we focussed on IT and Creative Media technologies through the MIT Media lab. Over the years HIE has concentrated on tapping into the Universities specific expertise into venture funding, entrepreneurship, and “doing business the American way”.

 However we have had some success in taking groups of companies from the H&I in a specific sector or supply chain, and exposing them to a series of research projects and technologies being developed by different students and facility (MIT is very much a research and post graduate institution – they have very few undergrads). We do this through our Membership of MIT’s Industrial Liaison programme, where over 200 of the world’s leading companies and research institutes work and interact with MIT. Our key contact there is Marie-Teresa Vander Sande, who we have worked with for many years, and is a great friend to HIE and the H&I. She will be hosting us for our visit.

The purpose of these visits is twofold. Firstly to highlight to businesses in the North of Scotland relevant early stage research and development in areas of direct interest, but which can be slightly left field or whacky. Secondly it’s to take a group of Scottish business people, technologists and project developers out of their “comfort zone” and encourage new types of networking and discussions. In the past we have had groups from the IT, Healthcare, Life Science and Creative Industries sectors undertake visits to Cambridge.

This time it is businesses in the marine sector, wave and tidal, who are “technology scouting”, before they travel on to Halifax in Nova Scotia next week, for the International Ocean Energy Conference. I’ll keep you posted on the cool, weird and wonderful things that we see here over the next few days.


From Calum Davidson , Director Energy and Low Carbon 

Highland and Islands Enterprise 


From Norma Hogan, at the Seventh Bristol Tidal Energy Forum

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

Some of the HIE Energy Team are in a wet and windy Bristol today, attending REGEN South West’s 7th Tidal Energy Forum at Burges Salmon’s offices, looking at Marine Operations for Tidal Energy. Over 100 delegates have gathered for the conference from as far afield as France, Netherlands and of course the Highlands and Islands. We have heard from supply chain companies who are on the ground delivering marine operations, including Mojo Maritime.  Johnny Gowdy, director Regen SW kicked off the day with an overview of the state of the marine sector in Bristol, Pembrokeshire and the South West. This afternoon we can look forward to hearing from developers – Atlantis, Alstom Ocean Energy and Tidal Energy Limited. 

Norma Hogan, Senior Development Manager – Wave and Tidal – HIE

From Calum Davidson at the European Ocean Energy Conference in Paris

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

It is unseasonably warm in Paris, and the marine energy part of team Scotland has moved en mass from the Scottish Renewables Wave and Tidal Conference in Inverness last week, some via the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, to the French capital. Whilst the focus is on how Europe is leading the world in the marine sector, and a major showcasing of potential French tidal projects, its clear that EU ambitions are built on Scottish success.
This was clearly demonstrated in some of the early sessions, where speakers from a range of European countries talked about proposed projects, about route maps for consents, environmental management and the need for further testing and research.  Scottish speakers focused on how projects have been delivered, best practice in government support, and how we moved on to delivering financial engineering solutions as well as physial engineering.
This year’s European Ocean Energy Conference, with 2014 in Paris following on from last years event in Edinburgh, has highlighted how the wave and tidal sector has moved right up the political agenda in Brussels, with Energy securtity, and the need for new low carbon electricty generation from European resources driving a new focus from the Commission. Scotland, and the Highlands and Islands with 25% of EU tidal resource and 10% of its wave power,  is in pole position to deliver that.

Calum Davidson, Director of Energy and Low Carbon, HIE.