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Comment: Can a sustainable Scotland be achieved?

Niall Stuart

In January Scottish Renewables put forward a manifesto calling for 50% of Scotland’s total power output to be sourced from renewables by 2030. Niall Stuart, Chief Executive of Scottish Renewables, explains how this ambitious objective can be achieved and explores some of the benefits it could have for the country and its future.

Scotland’s 100% renewable electricity target has provided a hugely powerful focus for government and industry and helped create the green energy industry we have today. It’s not, however, a target we’re going to be able to meet.

Though the reasons for that may be up for debate, it’s hard to argue that the benefits of that unequivocal focus – 21,000 jobs, to name but one – haven’t been hugely valuable for Scotland.

But with almost exactly four months to go until May’s Scottish Parliament Election, and four years until the end of the decade, now is the time to set ourselves new challenges. Ahead of that election Scottish Renewables has set out the case for extending our own horizons beyond existing targets for 2020 and for the setting of a new vision for renewable energy in Scotland out to 2030.

At its heart, that vision should be designed to continue the development of our established renewable technologies while supporting the growth of new parts of the industry. But it must also reflect the need for a more strategic approach to how we grow renewables’ share of our energy needs, and the changes we need to make in the way we distribute, store and use energy as we move away from fossil fuels to cleaner alternatives.

We believe that by 2030 half of all the energy consumed in Scotland – in the form of electricity and heat, and by our transport sector – should come from renewable sources.

Meeting this new goal would require a tripling of green energy from 2014 – achievable given that latest figures show we will be more than halfway there by 2020.

This new objective would be a ‘natural next step’ from the country’s existing 2020 renewables targets, and would be the most effective way to both tackle carbon emissions and maintain secure energy supplies. It would also mean the continued adoption and expansion of some already-familiar technologies, like pumped storage hydro, and the advent of some less familiar ones.

Marine energy – in which the power contained in our waves and tides is captured – has the potential to make significant strides towards delivering a proportion of the energy we use. It’s fair to say Scotland is one of the world leaders in the development of this technology: the MeyGen project in Caithness will be among the largest in the world when it is constructed, and the knowledge and supply chain in Orkney, thanks largely to the development of the European Marine Energy Centre, have made the islands a vital part of the global marine energy industry.

The benefits of storage technologies, too, are clear. By storing energy when demand is low and releasing it when required, storage can provide ancillary services to the grid, delay or reduce the need for infrastructure upgrades, give consumers more energy autonomy and make the best use of our renewable energy resources. All of this ultimately makes our energy system more secure and reduces carbon emissions – helping to hit any 2030 target.

How we define and regulate energy storage will determine the future of the technology, and thus the future of our energy system as a whole. That is a debate which is just beginning, but the continued development of storage will play a huge role in the way we use electricity in the next decade.

Our manifesto for May’s election sets out our ideas on how Scotland can best achieve our aspirations by focusing on the need for ambition, leadership, increased competitiveness, and innovation.

Not only will these measures support growth in the next chapter of our industry, they will ensure that renewables can play a key role in meeting Scotland’s climate change targets and maximising the jobs and investment that our sector can bring to Scotland.

Some of those support measures are simple, and we hope they’ll receive cross-party support. Communities, for example, are already taking control of their own energy use – evidenced by the announcement in October (2015) that Scotland had reached and surpassed its target of generating 500MW of locally and community owned renewable energy five years early.

We want to expand community and local ownership of renewable energy projects though the creation of a Scottish Renewable Energy Bond which would allow savers to generate returns from the growth of the UK’s renewable energy sector, as well as bringing in capital to finance future development at an attractive rate.

Our public sector, too, has a role to play: Scottish Renewables would like to see local authorities, NHS boards and the Scottish Government itself acting as an exemplar, spearheading the growth of renewable energy through a target for its use in heat, power and transport for public bodies.

Scottish Renewables research last year showed just 1% of Scotland’s local authority buildings are heated by renewable sources – a figure which we’d like to see increase dramatically.

We also believe that our transport sector should receive more help to decarbonise. Scottish Renewables would like to see the contribution of sustainable transport acknowledged by allowing the use of bus lanes, providing free parking, and expanding the provision of charging and re-fuelling points for low-carbon vehicles.

Notably, the Scottish Government has already installed more than 600 public electric vehicle charge points across the country, fuelling a steepening rise in uptake of EVs. Arnold Clark Group, Scotland’s largest car sales firm, say the number of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles they’ve sold rose 70% in the 12 months to November 2015, and that they expect the number of EVs on our roads to increase ‘exponentially’.

The foundation for much of Scottish Renewables’ ambitious 2030 target has already been laid. Renewables became the country’s largest source of power, surpassing nuclear at the start of 2014, and provided almost half of Scotland’s electricity in that year – the latest for which figures are available.

The barriers to the continued development of our industry have been made more than clear in the last nine months, with a series of announcements from the UK Government – including the removal or reduction of crucial support schemes – creating huge uncertainty.

So no-one should be under any illusion: the challenges ahead are great, and while transport, electricity and heat all have contributions to make, no sector on its own can deliver the overall changes we need to ensure the continued growth of renewable energy in Scotland.

However, we believe that continued growth of renewable energy can, will, and should be one of the defining features of our economy over coming years, and that our industry can be at the very centre of efforts to build the progressive, inclusive and successful Scotland we all want to see. 

We look forward to the debate ahead and to working with the next Scottish Government on the hugely important task of defining the future of renewable energy in Scotland.


Niall Stuart is Chief Executive at Scottish Renewables.


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Energy efficiency  •  Energy storage including Fuel cells  •  Policy, investment and markets  •  Wave and tidal energy