Change is seen as a good thing – when it brings jobs and growth

Calum Davidson, Director of Energy and Low Carbon, Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE)

This piece originally appeared as a column in the Energy North Autumn supplement, published by Scottish Provincial Press.

Summer’s over, schools are back, and the Highlands and Islands are bidding farewell, for now, to our seasonal visitors. The cabinet have finished their annual tour of Scotland, with meetings, dinners and a round of public engagements in Orkney, where energy was right at the top of the agenda. The Deputy First Minister announced the initial four competitors for the £10m Saltire Prize in Marine Energy, and a new round of research and development (R&D) funding for wave and tidal companies.

Visiting the Orkney tidal company Scotrenewables with Ms Sturgeon on a sunny afternoon in Kirkwall Harbour, I was struck by both the strong local and international focus of the company. Their base and test tank in Stromness, forward deployment offices at Hatson pier, and testing at EMEC, are complemented by strong backing from energy company Total, and the Norwegian shipping magnate Fred Olsen.

A few folk have said this before, but if you were trying to build a picture of what a successful energy industry would look like, you could do a lot worse than look to Orkney for inspiration. There you will find that oil and gas is still an important sector, but you have businesses like Scotrenewables, a growing energy supply chain, major investment in ports and harbours, and a burgeoning marine services industry developing, with new locally-owned workboats, crane barges and support vessels.

Orkney is also a producer of electricity, usually generating more power than it consumes on any half-windy day. This is of course primarily from onshore wind turbines, with community-owned machines making an important contribution. The EMEC test site has a modest but increasingly important role, demonstrating that wave and tidal power generated at sea contribute to the national grid. All this energy activity sits neatly inside a local economy otherwise based on the service, tourism, heritage, culture, fishing and farming sectors.

Places like Orkney, and their ability to capitalise on the opportunities offered by renewable energy, co-existing with and complemented by more traditional sectors, clearly refute the critics who can only forecast doom and gloom from renewable energy. The letters pages of almost all newspapers are full of dire warnings that allowing any wind farm development, both onshore and increasingly offshore, will lead to a catastrophic decline in tourism and wildlife, and claim they only survive through unfair subsidies and have no impact on carbon targets.

These latter arguments were comprehensively debunked recently with a report from the think-tank IPPR, in association with the leading energy consultancy GL Garrad Hassan. The authors state that the evidence shows unequivocally that:

“Wind power can significantly reduce carbon emissions, is reliable, poses no threat to energy security and is technically capable of providing a significant proportion of the UK’s electricity with minimal impact on the existing operation of the grid.”

But it’s the one about the impact on tourism that is rolled out time and time again, despite there being no credible evidence to show that wind farms have any negative effect on visitors whatsoever. Tourism in Scotland is subject to all sorts of pressures, but where studies have been carried out investigating the impact of wind farms on tourism, the results demonstrate that the effect is negligible at worst, with many respondents taking a pretty positive view. Indeed one of Scotland’s most popular visitor attractions is a wind farm visitor centre just south of Glasgow.

My personal view? People tend to be wary of change, unless they see a real, and often immediate, benefit to themselves and their families. That’s why the hydro schemes of the 1950s and 60s were welcomed, despite the dramatic impact on some communities. The benefits in jobs, electrification and upgraded infrastructure completely outweighed any downside from dam building. Oil and gas in the 70s, and the economic boom that it brought along with long-term well paid jobs was seen, by and large, as a good thing. Benefits from onshore wind are much less dramatic, and much less visible to most people in the Highlands and Islands.

So that’s why HIE, our partners and stakeholders, are working so hard to capture the long-term benefits of the energy in our region, whether it’s growth in oil and gas, the huge opportunities offered by offshore wind, or the long-term promise of wave and tidal technologies. The direct jobs these projects will create, the long-term growth in supply chain, the infrastructure improvements they will drive, are the changes that most people will welcome.
But in the end unfortunately, for some people it’s not about facts, it’s about perceptions, and all the reasoned arguments in the world will not change what are heartfelt views and opinions. This was summed up for me a few years ago, when the debate around a specific wind farm proposal in Lewis was at its height. A weekly newspaper with a strong circulation across the Hebrides published a very clever little Cartoon.

It showed two Neolithic gentlemen standing looking at the Callanish stones, with disapproving looks, above the caption: “It’s such a shame, I remember when this was all open countryside.”

Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder.

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