I have written before about how I enjoy chairing external conferences. It's on the very short list of things at which I seem reasonable adept and it brings in useful income to the RSA. But best of all it provides a quick and easy way way of getting to know a subject, its experts and practitioners.
I am writing this post between sessions of the annual conference of Scottish Renewables having arrived last night for the pre-conference dinner featuring Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond. Already, I have had my eyes opened.
The renewables sector is in fine fettle. It has for some years benefitted from the renewables obligation framework put in place by the last UK Government. It has also been inspired by the announcement by Alex Salmond at last year's same conference of a renewables target of the equivalent of 100% of Scottish electricity demand being from renewable sources by 2020 alongside the goal of a 30% of all energy (including heat and transport). This will mean roughly a trebling of the existing 4200 megawatts. It's a challenge which everyone here seems confident the sector will reach, indeed much more than the additional capacity needed is already at some stage of development.
Among the other oft-repeated facts: the costs of wind power are coming down steadily, Scotland now boasts the majority of all global research on wind and tidal energy, last week saw the Spanish firm Gamesa announce a £125 million investment in offsite turbine production at Leith near Edinburgh and yesterday saw new research showing the sector is already providing over 11,000 jobs in Scotland.
As well as chairing today I have also been asked to make some closing comments. It is a tough gig and not just because it is the last session; I am not Scottish, not an energy expert and - as regular readers know - a bit of a misery.
As well as saying some complimentary things (I'd quite like to be asked back next year) I thought I would use my moment at the lectern to strike a cautionary note. As any reader of the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, or observer of Coalition internal debates or Conservative back bench obsessions knows, the Scots' enthusiasm for renewable energy (which here crosses party lines and includes most of the public) is far from universally shared in England. And, as Scottish Secretary of State Michael Moore emphasised this morning, in a dig at the nationalists, just as England relies on Scottish wind and seas to hit its renewables and carbon reduction targets, so Scotland relies on English politicians and consumers being willing to subsidise energy which is still more expensive that its fossil fuel based alternatives.
So I intend to flag up three perils of success. The first is believing your own propaganda. The Scottish renewables sector is so upbeat right now it may not feel it has to engage with the sometimes OTT attacks of its opponents. The fact that the most visible critic of wind power in Scotland is Donald Trump only adds to the danger of complacency. The sector needs to engage with the tougher and more robust critics and the genuinely difficult questions, particularly over cost. This is all the more important with rising concerns about energy bills and fuel poverty, and the impression that some of the countries that took the lead on renewable energy - like Spain - may be having second thoughts.
Relatedly, the sector must balance unity and a common voice to policy makers with a willingness to be be tough on practices which damage its reputation. If there are things going on in the name of expanding renewable energy which would be difficult for the public to accept, then the sector needs to tackle these before they become ammunition for critics. Two key issues are better community engagement about planning consent (where the sector is improving), and the level and distribution of income and profit (where there is much more needed to be done). The sector needs to see long term and substantial community gain not as an unwelcome burden for schemes but as intrinsic to the value proposition.
Third, there is a paradoxical danger that a sector which is underpinned by a social mission - reducing carbon emissions and securing supply - takes its case for granted. As Rebecca Willis and Nick Eyre explained in a well argued Green Alliance pamphlet last year low carbon energy supply can only ever be part of the solution to the issue of sustainability. Looking over recent decades, energy efficiency and declining demand have played a bigger role in reducing the carbon intensity of economic growth. This is likely to continue to be true. So to show that its environmental commitment is real and not just a rationale for raking in profit, the sector needs to be part of a broader green movement and support policies for sustainability in which the sector has no direct financial interest.
Sitting in Edinburgh things look good for renewables. But fast forward to an energy debate in a few years' time. An English speaker is appealing to his domestic audience. 'Why' he asks ' are we paying a poll tax on our energy bills - a tax that hits the poorest hardest - in order to send money up to an independent Scotland, much of which is then repatriated to the overseas HQ of large energy companies lining the pockets among others of German investors (EON) and the French Government (EDF). It's time to stop subsidising the Scots and making foreigners rich on our energy bills. It's time for English clean coal (or nuclear, or simply imported gas)'. It may be crude, it may be disingenuous but I can hear the deafening applause.
The mood at this conference is proud, optimistic, and can-do. But sometimes when you feel strongest you are at your most vulnerable.
Come to think of it, this isn't the most cheerful of messages. Maybe I shouldn't get my hopes up for a repeat booking.
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