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Scotland: Green Dreams May End Up As White Elephants

THE Scottish Government has placed its ambition to transform the nation into a low-carbon economy at the heart of its new strategy for growth. But experts have warned the commitment to creating a renewable energy powerhouse could be a “white elephant” and that millions of pounds in subsidies pouring into the sector are unjustified.

The reliance on wind farms and marine energy are the new priority in the growth programme set out by finance secretary John Swinney yesterday.

Supporters insisted it will be a “major driver” of economic growth, with a £70 million government renewable infrastructure fund to help boost private investment in the sector.

However, Mr Swinney and First Minister Alex Salmond faced accusations last night of stifling debate on the issue and coming down like a “ton of bricks” on dissenting voices.

The SNP wants to see all of Scotland’s electricity needs produced from renewable sources, such as wind, wave and tidal energy by 2020, but one leading economist warned this will be “impossible” to achieve.

Inverness-based Tony MacKay, who recently produced a 150-page report on the energy sector, said: “The renewables targets are completely unrealistic – they just cannot be achieved.

“They are also putting a lot of money into subsidies, particularly for offshore wind farms and offshore marine tidal and wave energy, which are just not justified.

“They are distorting the market and in addition to the subsidies, electricity companies are having to charge us about 20 per cent more for electricity to pay for the onshore wind farms. So it’s not just government subsidies, it’s also affecting consumers.”

About 20 per cent of electricity currently comes from renewable sources in Scotland, mainly hydro and onshore wind farms, but the Scottish Government wants to see this rise to 100 per cent. However, Prof MacKay said that in order to maintain a solid “baseload” of power when the wind does not blow, other sources such as nuclear and coal will be essential.

“You can reduce non- renewables down to 50 per cent if you’re optimistic, but there’s no way you can reduce it to zero,” he said. “I’ve spoken to lots of people in the industry – at Scottish & Southern Energy and ScottishPower – and it’s just not possible to do that.

“If you did away with all the baseload power stations then you would have to import electricity from England or elsewhere most of the day. The target is not only over-optimistic, it’s impossible to achieve.”

Dr Euan Mearns, an energy expert at Aberdeen University’s school of geosciences, said: “On the one hand we’ve got to say that we’re in favour renewable energy and it would be wonderful if Scotland was a leader in it – but we may end up a world leader in a white elephant.

“The full cost of large reliance on renewable energy needs to be taken fully into account.

“That includes the cost of maintaining back-up power supplies, building new storage and new inter-connectivity, in addition to the building and maintenance of a vast new renewable energy infrastructure.

“Care needs to be taken that the dream doesn’t turn into a nightmare should Scotland end up with an unreliable grid. If we end with an unreliable grid, then companies are going to go south of the Border.”

The Scotsman, 13 September 2011