Looking to the next 50 years of our energy story

In the fourth and last of his series of articles marking the 50th anniversary of the Highlands and Islands Development Board (now Highlands and Islands Enterprise), Calum Davidson, director of energy and low carbon at HIE, looks at how energy has been a major factor in turning the Highlands and Islands from a peripheral, underdeveloped corner of Europe into a modern, progressive region

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

WHEREVER you turn in the long corridors of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) buildings in Boston, you will see glimpses of the future. HIE has worked with this world-leading technology institution since 2004, and this time last year I took a group of Highlands and Islands marine renewables businesses, engineers and scientists on a scouting trip. What we saw was quite remarkable.

Rugby-ball-sized autonomous underwater robots designed to inspect the insides of nuclear reactors… 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 cavefish 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 around ships’ hulls… 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 makes everyone pause and say “wow”.

But what I found just as remarkable was that the folk I’d brought from Shetland, Orkney, Caithness, Ross-shire, Argyll, Inverness and the Western Isles were as engaged, knowledgeable and questioning as the bright young MIT researchers: “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 ’80s. I still use one”, “Mmm – we have a problem measuring strain on turbine blades, that’s an interesting approach”, “Very sensible not rushing into prototyping yet, needs more research into alternative designs. Wish we had done that.”

What we had here was a group of Highlands and Islands businesses that were inventing their own future, a future where Scotland is the centre of a new global industry built around marine renewables, generating clean, carbon-free electricity from the oceans.

However, developing a whole new industry from scratch is not straightforward, and the past 12 months have seen the industry facing a range of technical, policy, business and financial issues. Firstly, there is now clear divergence between wave and tidal technologies, with tidal having benefited from 30 years of onshore wind generation experience. Wave, on the other hand, faces major technology challenges, chiefly the twin problems of having to invent entirely new ways of creating electricity from the movement of water, and to engineer devices to survive regular extreme weather events.

However, the market for wave power is a truly global one, so in 2015 the Scottish Government asked HIE to establish Wave Energy Scotland (WES) which has been tasked with bringing together the best engineering and academic minds to collaborate on innovative projects that will accelerate the development of wave technologies.  A key objective is to ensure the intellectual property and know-how from device development in Scotland is retained for future benefit, and enable technologies to reach commercial readiness in the most efficient and effective manner.

But, challenging as issues facing the wave and tidal sectors undoubtedly are, these are nothing to what the early planners of the HIDB had to face back in 1965. A ports and harbours infrastructure that had hardly changed since World War One, a road network that was often still single-track, a rail network that had just escaped the Beeching cuts and still used the occasional steam train, a rural largely unskilled workforce, and with high unemployment. All in all, an area blighted with chronic outmigration, with the young and educated leaving in droves.

The HIDB worked hard in developing tourism, fishing and farming. Aquaculture was invented with the strong support of the board and had a significant impact, but it was the development of large-scale energy industries that turned the economy around.

First Dounreay, then Corpach and the Invergordon smelter, followed by the North Sea oil bonanza, all providing new skilled jobs, training and the encouragement of women into the workforce.

It drove investment in new infrastructure, but crucially created a whole new supply chain. Blacksmiths became fabricators, electricians learnt how to rewire oil rigs, fishermen became tugboat and supply ships operators, and it was this cohort of locally based businesses that grew and developed new markets when the energy industry went through its periodic cyclical downturns.

As a result, the 21st-century Highlands and Islands has major oil terminals, strategic energy fabrication facilities, modern ports and harbours and significant hydro and onshore wind industries, while the waters around the region are home to Scotland’s embryonic but world-leading wave and tidal industry and will host a significant proportion of Scotland’s offshore wind industry as it is deployed during the rest of this decade.

At the same time the oil provinces of the northern North Sea and west of Shetland will continue to drive significant oil and gas investment for the next 50 years, both for new developments and long-term decommissioning, even though the current low oil price is causing the sector real difficulty.

The Highlands and Islands is one of the most energy resource-rich parts of Europe. Our islands are hot-spots of wave, wind and tidal power with 25 per cent of Europe’s offshore wind, 25 per cent of European tidal resource and 10 per cent of European wave power. The Beatrice offshore wind project in the Moray Firth, scheduled to start construction in 2017, could trigger an investment of over £3bn – that’s two Forth bridges. MeyGen, Europe’s largest tidal-stream project, will also lead to hundreds of millions of pounds’ worth of investment in the Highlands and Islands economy as it is built out over the next 10 years in the Inner Sound of the Pentland Firth, with other projects either under development or planned in Shetland, Orkney and Argyll.

As I’ve been stressing, an extensive supply chain has developed in the Highlands and Islands, with a cluster of local and global companies, with varied strengths in environmental services, engineering, fabrication, marine services, project management, subsea activities and training services. HIE actively account-manages 150 energy businesses, and we estimate that the energy industry employs over 15,000 people in the region across renewables, oil and gas and electricity generation and transmission.


Looking back over 50 years does allow the benefit of perspective, and the ability to put recent issues in a more historic context. With the current low oil price the third major industry bump since 1965, it’s important to note that despite low oil prices in the ’80s and ’90s the Scottish supply chain grew through innovation and international sales. And it’s worth reminding ourselves that the Danes, faced with the difficult early days of wind power in the 1980s, kept their nerve – and created a multi-billion-pound global business.

The growth and decline of major industries in Caithness, Lochaber and Easter Ross left an active supply chain and a skilled and ambitious workforce able to move between, nuclear, oil and gas and renewables as opportunities present themselves.

Yet it’s the growing population of the Highlands and Islands, the dramatically changed attitudes of the region’s young people, and the success of the University of the Highlands and Islands that perhaps would surprise and please the early pioneers of the Highlands and Islands Development Board most. Over the past 50 years, the energy industry has been a major factor in turning the Highlands and Islands from a remote, peripheral, disconnected and underdeveloped region to a modern first-world European region, with a successful and growing economy.

The next 50 years of the region’s energy story is yet to be invented, but the seeds are already there in the UHI research centres in Thurso, Oban, Stornoway and Inverness, in Heriot-Watt’s Stromness campus, in college engineering and training facilities from Shetland to Argyll.

It will be driven by the growing and increasingly innovative local supply chain, harnessing the power of the region’s water, winds, waves, tides and mineral riches, creating wealth, jobs and low-carbon power, and then exporting that expertise right across the globe.


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