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Last updated: 07 December 2018. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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A Case for Renewable Energy Production

by Steve Mowat

Scotland with it’s abundance of natural resources and small population is renowned as a producer of surplus energy, from the near freezing oil and gas fields in the north sea and in the Pacific ocean, to the fierce winds which blow on mountain hill sides, and the tides which encircle small island communities Scotland can harness that natural energy which is powering cites the breadth of the small nation.  Until this point much of Scotland’s energy has come from a mixture of mostly oil, gas and nuclear power. These old sources are set to dwindle, with competition for fossil fuel energy security giving rise to conflict across the globe, domestic fuel bills seem to rise with the hidden hand of the market, pushing millions into poverty. The dangers of nuclear energy as a costly alternative have prompted the Scottish government to look at the feasibility of providing all Scotland’s energy from renewable sources by 2020. But not everyone agrees this is the best way forward. The future energy securities of Scotland, and indeed the implications for the UK, have become the centre of a political battle. Wind and tidal energy are at the centre, with issues of community ownership, cost, environmental responsibility, corporate interests and constitutional issues all at stake.

Against Renewable Energy

Recently the BBC reported on an-anti wind farms campaign conference, communities against turbines (CATS), with a keynote speech from Conservative MEP Struan Stevenson, and Labour MSP Graeme Pearson. The conference took place in Ayr. Several other business leaders attended the event where Stevenson made a sweeping claim that “we all stand to suffer from the growing scourge of wind farms and the inestimable damage they do to our landscape, economy and national prosperity, all for a negligible return on energy and environmental benefit”.

The pro-free market think tank the Adam Smith Institute and the Scientific Alliance concur, claiming that renewable energy can never meet the energy needs of the UK, and that an effort to do so will result in higher costs for the consumer. Report co-author Martin Livermore said; “for too long, we have been told that heavy investment in uneconomic renewable energy was not only necessary but would provide a secure future electricity supply”.

The Other Side of the Coin

The claims from the Smith Institute & Livermore are very much contrary to a recent report from reform Scotland which claims Scotland could earn 2 billion pounds a year exporting renewable energy. In fact Graeme Blackett of Reform Scotland supports an increase in energy exports with a target of around half the energy in Scotland being exported. He states; “even using conservative assumptions on prices, this would increase Scottish exports by 2 billion pounds per annum…given that some of the current fossil fuel and nuclear capacity will still be available in 2020, this is feasible if the renewables target set by the Scottish Government is met”. The group also calls for nuclear power stations to be phased out and for matters of energy to be fully devolved to the Scottish parliament. The environment and influential charity the world wildlife fund (WWF) also contrasts with that of the Adam Institute. WWF Scotland director comments that the Institute’s attack; “on renewables just don’t stack up. More renewables really do mean less fossil fuels comprises a selection of tired and unconvincing myths about renewables and is a distraction from our fight to reduce carbon emissions”.
Dan Barlow, WWF’s head of policy goes one step further in stating; “the legacy of Struan Stevenson’s (Conservative MEP & CATS spokesman) proposals would be missed climate change targets…and energy bills at the mercy of volatile global gas prices and thousands of lost green jobs opportunities”. He also mentions the increase pile up of nuclear waste. The Scottish governments approach is in harmony with the WFF position of attempting to provide all of Scotland’s energy needs through a drive for renewables by the year 2020.

A Look at the Facts

The accusations laid out by the Adam Smith Institute and spokespersons from the Scientific Alliance fail to stack up. The plethora of viable wind farms springing up in Scotland are numerous, and in many cases community owned. An example can be drawn from the renewable energy company Falck renewable, who build wind farms across Europe, in the UK (especially Scotland), France, Spain, and Italy. Falck offer a substantial share in that technology to local cooperatives, (energy4all are the community cooperative operating in Scotland and the wider UK) who offer those shares to residents in the local community of the wind farm. In this way the local community covers some of the costs involved in developing the use of wind energy. In turn they also receive a fairly generous annual profit based on electricity sales from the wind farms to the national grid. A little extra money is also set aside for social projects, such as education, environmental causes and looking at ways to provide grants to cover energy bills among the poorest in the community.

Community ownership is an un-sung example of how resources can be used democratically, and includes a much wider spectrum of society than is possible under corporate dominance of, let’s say the oil industry. The people of Aberdeen for example are not offered shares in new drill site developments, nor are they offered annual interest on returns – unlike those offered to the wind farm cooperative projects – which make the interest rates on a regular savings bank account seem like a sick joke, which they are.

Examples of currently operating wind farms include; Milleniun, Kilbruar, Ben Aketil, Boyndie, Kingsburn, and Earlsburn. Further wind turbine sites are up for construction, on at least a part community owned basis. Examples include Dunbeath, Nigg Hill, Cushnie, Moorhouse, Nutberry, and Assell Valley. This surely has to be a good thing, with local authorities generally very supportive when the proposed sites meet environmental criteria.

The obscure objections which arise from these projects are based largely around destruction of the environment, which is incredible. A turbine destroys no more land than the square couple of feet that it stands on and poses no hazard to bird movements. There is absolutely no reason why wind farm development cannot work alongside reforestation projects in adjacent areas, perhaps similar to the trees for life charity I mentioned in previous DGS issues. Funding for such native habitat redevelopment can quite easily come from cooperative social funds themselves, and may well do so in some areas.

The comments from Livermore and Struan Stevenson have not been thought out. Labour MSP Pearson’s comments about issues of complexity strike a defeatist tone amid the event he attended, which was dominated by free market think tanks, and open opposition to renewable energy use. Their rhetoric is simply populist nonsense, which ignores the community and environmental benefits these wind farms are ALREADY having in Scotland, and fails to acknowledge the most recent research from Cambridge University. Scotland is estimated to have 36.5GW of wind power and 7.5GW of tidal power, almost 25 percent of the European Union total.

The challenge in the years ahead will involve ensuring that the baseless nonsense from Stevenson & former Uniliver director, Livermore whose profits were amassed on an oil dependent packaging and logistics company do not become mainstream argument. On the contrary it is important that wind farm development continues in Scotland, and in fact that opportunities for further share offers can be made to local communities on a wider scale. This could be better achieved through a national land bank, whose prime purpose is to invest in renewable energy, providing local citizens ownership of profit from resources in their area, and helping Scotland achieve its target of 100 percent energy production via renewable by 2020. The risks involved in such principles of community ownership and social banking are small; the benefits are both profitable, sustainable and not subject to market madness, as the shares are not floated on the stock market. They are simply used to cover costs and benefit the community.

Wind is an unlimited supply of energy, but it does vary in intensity. As well as this, turbines occasionally need maintenance (especially at the beginning of their operation). However, even with lower than expected performance, energy generation is still hugely significant, profitable, beneficial to the community in the instance of cooperatives, and of course does not release carbon into the atmosphere. David MacKay from Cambridge University has been looking at ways in which its possible to overcome fluctuations in the wind. He gives an example; “The Scottish island of Fair Isle (population70, area5.6km2) has pioneered several of these technologies. To solve the demand-management problem (wind unpredictability and storage), Fair isle has for over 25 years had two electricity networks that distribute power from two wind turbines and, if necessary, a diesel electric generator. Standard electricity service is provided on one network, and electric heating is delivered by a second set of cables. The electric heating is mainly served by excess electricity from the turbines that would otherwise have had to be dumped. Remote frequency-sensitive programmable relays control individual water heaters and storage heaters in the individual buildings of the community. In fact there’s up to six frequency channels per household, so the system behaves like seven networks. Fair Isle also successfully trialed a kinetic energy storage system (a flywheel) to store energy during oscillations of wind strength (with a period of 12 to 20 seconds)”. McKay summarises that the development of energy storage devices is useful. Over and above this he calculates that offshore wind farms deliver around 3MW of electricity per KM2 around the UK.

Tidal Power as another source of renewable energy

With regards to efficiency, recent studies have shown that tidal power is more reliable than wind energy. There has been much development in this area, with tidal motion machines being tested in the UK, and turbine tidal machines proving a popular area of research with our cousins on the Eastern coast of the USA.

Any future development of tidal energy should follow a similar example of community ownership in wind farms, as opposed to the corporate low tax policies of greed in the oil industry which leave Scotland vulnerable to market fluctuations and offer nothing in reserve when bad times come, except job losses, wage cuts and empty yards. A socialist banking model, alongside national energy community companies could galvanize an energy future for Scotland where sustainable growth takes precedence over short term profits for a few. New technology can be purchased by a land bank, potentially manufactured in Scotland, community shares offered to local residents, with surplus energy exported. Reform Scotland estimates that Scotland can export up to 17 percent of its energy production in renewable are harnessed correctly.

As this is an essay in the technology section, let’s take a look at technological developments for converting tidal energy to electricity. The University of Maine in Eastern USA reports that the UK is in the advanced stages of developing horizontal tidal turbine devices, which could have minimal environmental impact, and generate maximum energy. Some specifications of the device and a technical diagram show how much power can be generated by this device.

Much work has been done in the UK. Horizontally installed on ground, the rotor would be 10m in diameter and 60m long cylindrical rotor rolls around long axis as the tide ebbs and flows Connecting two of these together with a generator in the middle could produce around 12MW of power, enough for 12,000 average family homes. Much cheaper!

The manufacturing costs are about 60% lower, the maintenance costs are about 40% lower (Malcolm McCulloch, Oxford)could be installed at around £1.7m per MW, can use more of the incoming water than a standard underwater windmill.
* (kilowatt= ten 100 watt light bulbs; a megawatt= 1000 kilowatts
The Americans are developing and experimenting with slightly different models, and one vertical turbine, which also currently functions in an experimental capacity in the sea of Northern Ireland. Examples of these designs can be seen here;

Rotech Tidal Turbine (RTT) 

MCT, marine current turbines

Pilot studies in the USA are going to use MCT and RTT technology. RTT- designed to produce 2MW from 7.2 knot tidal stream (no cost estimate was established for this). MCT- free flow water conversion device and will stand in water <50m deep.

There is reason for such development in tidal energy research in the USA and in the UK; this is because tidal ranges have huge energy in these areas. Scotland stands to benefit hugely from this, with the right strategy of development, as the map shows;

World’s Strongest Tides

Global distribution of mean tidal ranges: showing high energy around the UK and North America.

Democratic Ownership and a Bright Future

Much focus here has been on the development of tidal technology. The chart below summarises the cost and efficiency of different energy sources. I’d argue here that wind farms continue their development on a community owned model, alongside the reforestation of Scotland’s ancient woodland, as in Glen Affric, Lochaber and other areas in Grampian and the borders following suit. This can be expanded with offshore wind farm projects within a national democratically owned scheme, operated by the Scottish government. In the mean time any known opposition to wind farm development in your area can be challenged with a letter of support to the petitions department of the Scottish government.

The costs of tidal technology are a little higher than for wind, and the benefits also greater. The role of a planned approach as afore mentioned can help Scotland a great deal with tidal energy development. This avoids the conflict and debt ridden market madness in the energy industry, and shows that resources in community hands, rather than corporate colonists are safe. 


The evidence of the potential for these technologies simply leaves the ill thought out comments of the Adam Smith Institute dead in the water and pie in the sky. Retorts that renewable energy will never fulfill the energy needs of the UK ignore the fact that these sources would more than supply Scotland with its energy needs, with some left over for cheap export to our cousins south of the border. The challenge is to remain focused on the task of making renewable energy the provider of Scottish energy. If everyone is to benefit, this involves more than tax breaks for big business exploration, and populist propaganda from London based parties, but genuine community ownership, a properly ethical land bank and local community cooperatives, similar to energy4all, and those cooperatives existing in Denmark and Germany. This can be successfully achieved within a nationally planned framework. Where a complete lack of planning failed for the finance industry, it will work alongside democracy to secure the future of Scotland’s energy industries.

Bibliography & References

1. Against wind farms
2. Enhancing Electrical Supply by Pumped Storage in Tidal Lagoons, By David J.C. McKay, Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge.
3. Green energy opposition
4. Falck renewables
5. Great glen energy coop (by energy4all)

Other useful Links for Tidal Energy Technology Research

1. Tidal Energy
2. Energy Savers
3. Ocean Energy Council
4. Cianbro
5. Marinus Power
6.  Sipayikenergy
7.  Ocean Renewable Power Company
8. U.S. Department of Energy
9. ConceptsNREC
10. OLR Research Report
11. Treehugger Science and Technology
12. Guardian.Co.UK
13. Lunar Energy
14. Nova Scotia Power…A Tidal Power Pioneer
15. Maine Tidal Power
16. Maine Current turbines
17. Maine Ocean Energy
18. Maine Tidal In- Stream Energy Conversion (TISEC): Survey and Characterization of Potential Project Sites
19. System Level Design, Performance, Cost and Economic Assessment- Maine Western Passage Tidal In-Stream Power Plant
20. Tidal Stream Energy in the Bay of Fundy
21. Maine Tidal Power Initiative: Linking Knowledge to Action (K-A) for Responsible Development
22. Ocean Tidal and Wave Energy Renewable Energy Technical Assessment Guide- TAG-RE: 2005
23. Tidal Turbine Cost Estimation Research
24. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
25. Electric Power Research Institute

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

Word Power Books