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Islay’s new water of life

 The Big Issue in Scotland 01 October 2019

More famous for dramatic scenery and whisky, Islay now finds itself at the forefront of an energy revolution. Adam Forrest reports on the race to harness the power of the sea. (1603 Words) - By Adam Forrest

Anyone attending Caledonia - the Edinburgh International Festival play about the Darien expedition - will know Scotland has history with ill-starred schemes on the high seas. Fortune still favours the bold, nonetheless, and momentum is building behind the nation's grand 21st century venture in coastal waters. News that a Scottish company has won a contract to build one of the world's most advanced tidal turbines has reignited excited talk of our next great energy windfall.

Two years ago First Minister Alex Salmond announced details of The Saltire Prize - a £10m competition to find the first commercially viable wave or tidal energy system achieving 100GW over a 24-month period. The handing over of the cheque may still be some way off but a number of projects are advancing beyond the testing stage. Once a distant dream, marine power now appears a certainty

Fife-based BiFab, which manufacturesequipment for the oil and gas industry, is to build ScottishPower's first full-scale operating turbine. This is the first stage in an ambitious project to install 10 of the one MW-generating devices in the fast-moving channel between Islay and Jura. If all goes according to plan, ScottishPower will develop a much larger 95MW project in the Pentland Firth, the stretch of water separating the Orkney Islands from Caithness, known for its violent tidal surges.

Most people who are working in the renewables industry regret the extent to which Scotland missed out on the lucrative wind energy boom. The vast majority of onshore turbines scattered across the rural uplands were manufactured elsewhere, and expert contractors continue to arrive from Denmark, Germany or Japan to oversee maintenance before returning home.

There is great determination this will not happen again, that Scotland should be ready to capture a greater share of the offshore energy market. On Islay, where Wavegen is already operating a small wave-powered turbine at an inlet near Portnahaven, there is excitement that ScottishPower's tidal scheme promises to transform the island's power supply. The current antiquated system is based on a single cable from the mainland. Power cuts are not uncommon, and the considerable energy demands of the island's many whisky distilleries can exacerbate fluctuations in voltage

The HS1000 turbine, if ready by 2013, should generate enough power to cover Islay's energy needs (effectively exporting energy to the mainland during peak periods). The installation will also mean improving connections to the National Grid. Andrew Macdonald of the Islay Energy Trust has been working with ScottishPower to make sure the tidal farm will have plenty of local benefits. "From an Islay point of view, we want to see people here involved in the survey work and installation," Macdonald explains.

"Local divers and ecologists have been used so far, and hopefully we can build on that to create a hub for research and expertise on the island. The [ScottishPower] project will eventually look fairly small if things go well in the Pentland Firth. But it is an important stepping stone, showing all this is commercially viable on a larger scale."

The native whisky industry is also behind the plan: ScottishPower has signed a deal with drinks giant Diageo to supply electricity for eight distilleries and maltings on Islay, including Lagavulin. The plan comes as other companies consider following the lead of Bruichladdich distillery, which is investing in an anaerobic digester to convert thousands of tonnes of yeasty waste into methane gas to be burned to make electricity. The island's green movement is delighted that the industry - known for it large carbon footprint - seems to be moving toward self-sufficiency.

Scotland is entitled to be ambitious about its future energy supply. Alex Salmond often cites estimates suggesting the country's coastline offers 25 per cent of Europe's offshore wind and tidal resource, and 10 per cent of its wave potential. Since the offshore sector is still in its infancy, such estimates may appear vague and overly-optimistic.

Yet a recent offshore study indicated that harnessing just one-third of Scotland's marine power potential by 2050 would take our offshore renewables capacity to 68GW - with a net value in electricity exports of around £14bn. Looking at the UK coastline, the report estimated exploiting one-third of offshore resources could unlock the electricity equivalent of  one billion barrels of oil a year (matching North Sea oil and gas production), and create 145,000 new jobs.

Have the sector's advocates gotten a little carried away? If this many jobs are ever to blossom, mass-scale manufacturing will be needed for the huge expansion of engineering work at ports on both coasts. At the moment, wave and tidal power accounts for only a tiny fraction of working renewable energy. One industry executive has described the imaginative prototype tests going on in the Pentland Firth as "a bit like Wacky Races" - the 1970s cartoon featuring an array of inventive vehicles.

No reason to be cynical, says Macdonald. "Wacky Races isn't entirely untrue, there are a lot of different ideas out there, but commercialisation will push us toward the cheapest and most efficient models," he says. "There may well be room for more shallow devices, some floating devices which will sit just below the water, depending on the environment - there won't be the same uniformity of design as with onshore wind. Ten years ago it wasn't viable to invest in these technologies but now it very much is. We've reached a turning point."

Ron Hewitt, chief executive of Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce and organiser of next month's conference on financing Scotland's renewables industry, believes now is the time to be making the investments for the long term.  "Everyone seems to understand that this [renewable energy] really is the key sector for us," he explains. "It's like the oil boom all over again.

"There is a lot of tremendous activity going on and we have a lead in research and development in marine energy. We have to make sure we capture more of the investment and industry than with onshore wind."

Hewitt believes we must accept it will not be possible to slap a saltire or union jack sticker on every part of the burgeoning industry. Partnerships such as the one between ScottishPower and Hammerfest Strom, the Norwegian firm that developed the Islay HS1000 turbine to be built by BiFab, will be common, and the capital required will only be found internationally.

"The scale of the offshore sector could be massive, and that kind of investment money just cannot be found in the UK alone, so you have to go abroad for the major amounts," he says. "There will be a lot of potential winners, and we'd obviously like as many of them as possible to be Scottish as possible. The industry will create its own supply chain, from catering to divers and builders, to the very high-quality engineering and design needed.

"It's important to develop the skill base; the world-leading expertise we can also export."

Yet the sums required to transform this rosy picture into reality are daunting. The same report evaluating offshore energy's profit-making potential estimates that delivering on the hoped-for electricity exports would require capital expenditure between now and 2050 of £443bn across the UK (equating to £177bn for Scotland).  George Osborne and his successors at No 11 are unlikely to be thrilled at the outlay.

Pelamis Wave Power launched the innovative 'sea snake' electricity generator in May, and both Eon and ScottishPower have snapped up the device in a bid to create wave power farms around the coastline. Yet Pelamis' business development director Max Carcas says the company had lived a "hand-to-mouth" existence as it battled to find funds to develop its ground-breaking technology over 12 years. Lady Susan Rice, managing director of Lloyds Banking Group who sits on the Scottish Government's 2020 Climate Group says: "Where technology is still in its infancy, banks aren't always best placed to take the risk… we need to find ways to underwrite the risk, or seek different funding models." All the more reason for a green investment bank not concerned with guaranteed short or even medium-term returns, says Dan Barlow of WWF Scotland.

"The idea has the potential to ensure significant sums are available - it should help overcome some hurdles," he explains. "Bolder climate targets will help send out a clear message there can be real confidence in the sector for investors." The technology may be here to stay, but others are concerned that Scotland is not developing the necessary talent. Tom Hopkinson, of recruitment firm Taylor Hopkinson Associates, says the oil and gas industry remains the most lucrative for school leavers and graduates with engineering or design skills. "The education institutions need to develop more vocational courses," he says. "It's frustrating because things should be moving at a fast pace.

"We can capture a lot of the work but the worst case scenario is that you have a fleet of wave and tidal energy devices going to wrack and ruin because there aren't the people coming through to keep them going. We're staring at armies of contract workers coming for the installation and then disappearing back overseas."

Scotland's waters seem destined to play a big role in a world adapting to climate change and the demise of oil. If we are to fully capture the job-creating and money-making potential of marine and offshore power, the nation will also need to harness its fiercest sense of urgency.

Originally published by The Big Issue in Scotland. ©

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