Article - The Scottish push to reap the benefits of its renewable energy supply chain - a lesson for Australia?

Portree, Scotland. Photo by George Hiles

Portree, Scotland. Photo by George Hiles

On 2-3 May 2018, I attended the All Energy conference, held in Glasgow. Scotland has a proud tradition of innovation and it was no mistake that Glasgow was chosen again to host this leading UK renewable energy conference.

Scotland is blessed with abundant renewable energy resources - on the train between Edinburgh and Glasgow, I couldn’t help but notice the many wind farms dotted along the way and a trip to the coast would have revealed the country’s ample marine and offshore wind resources.

In October 2017, the UK published its Clean Growth Strategy to deliver on the country’s climate change goals. Later in the year, in its Energy Strategy, Scotland set ambitious targets for 50% of the energy of its heat, transport and electricity consumption to be supplied from renewable energy sources.

Those two strong policies set the backdrop for what would be an exciting conference, with more than 400 speakers. A range of topics were covered including wind energy, low carbon transport, energy storage and energy efficiency. Being Europe, topics that are much less prevalent in Australia such as offshore wind, low carbon heating and marine technologies were also at the forefront of discussions.

Striking similarities between the UK/ Scotland and Australia

Some pros and cons of the UK/ Scottish policy environment discussed at the conference struck me as rather similar to what makes the headlines in Australia.

Similar problems were discussed:

  • the policy uncertainty created by Brexit and the ‘drying out’ of European subsidies that have historically allowed the development of technologies could lead to a slow down in investment in renewable energy capacity;

  • STEM subjects are less popular in schools and gender diversity is lacking in the industry;

  • the Scottish government has a greater ambition for renewables than its ‘federal’ counterpart.

There are also similar advantages:

  • some communities (particularly in Scotland) are really embracing renewables. They show strong support for the jobs and economic development that the renewable energy projects bring to their area, and many choose to invest in local projects;

  • despite the policy uncertainty, there is broad optimism because the sector is seen as a key potential driver of the decarbonisation of the economy;

  • the cost of offshore wind is falling and technology is improving (with an emphasis on the broader cost of technology falling in Australia, rather than offshore wind);

  • the slow but steady transition to smart meters has the potential to drive a digital energy data revolution.

Scotland is pushing to develop its supply chain

The UK now has more than 5GW of offshore wind installed, more than any other country in the world. Many large or innovative projects are also set to be built off the Scottish coast.

On top of this large investment, a common thread to the conference was the shift away from policy onto the construction sector and the development of a supply chain. The goal here is for the UK to take advantage of the many opportunities that the renewable energy sector presents, particularly where it has a first mover advantage.

The number of jobs related to the low carbon economy - 50,000 in Scotland alone - was consistently noted as a great opportunity that Scotland needs to harness and continue building on. There was palpable excitement at the opportunities ahead in local manufacturing, maintenance facilities, shipping and installation of turbines, etc. Many speakers were bullish about positioning Scotland ahead of the curve.

One of the industry's key advocate was The Hon Nicola Sturgeon MSP, First Minister of Scotland, who made a passionate and boldly supportive opening speech to the conference. Glasgow officials were also very keen for their city to use its manufacturing and shipbuilding knowledge to take advantage of the transition to a low carbon economy. 

Scotland has a forward looking, ambitious agenda and actively supports research and innovative projects. With emerging technologies such as tidal energy, many speakers highlighted the need to “get some runs on the board” by establishing a few larger projects in the UK and developing skills and knowledge at home before exporting their know-how overseas.

Like in Australia, Scottish sub-national entities are leading the way and pushing renewable energy to the front. Their thinking however might be a little further down the track in terms of building a supply chain and being proactive about ripping the benefits of economic development that the transition to a low carbon economy offers.

This post was first published on LinkedIn.

Marilyne Crestias