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Scottish Parliament Speech: Renewable Energy (October 2010)

See this speech in context on They Work For You

Sixteen years ago I wrote the only history of North Sea oil that has been written so far, and I view the Government's energy efficiency action plan through those lenses. It represents an excellent step towards a sustainable society, but its very merits tend to remind one of a saying beloved of investment bankers: "This time it's different." The old ghosts still walk.


The first of those is social inertia. A travel survey by Stirling Council found that 82 per cent of staff drove to work by car, 1 per cent cycled and 11 per cent walked or ran, which is a third of the number of people who walk or run to work in Copenhagen. Alas, I think that the Stirling Council figures are more representative of Scotland as a whole than those of Holyrood, which are not too bad.


If we look further into the background, we find that funding for environmental research in the UK amounts to £90 million annually, whereas the bill for research on weaponry is £2.5 billion. Secondly, peak oil will soon be on us. The bulls are already talking about oil costing $100 a barrel. Within six years, I think that it will have reached $200 a barrel. We can kiss goodbye to an awful lot of mobility.

Thirdly, climate change is a fact, as the introduction to the action plan implies in the one line in which it quotes Sir Nicholas Stern. We can expect a wetter, windier Scotland and more flooding and landslides - think of the A83 or the Bervie braes and the carbon costs involved. Stopping disasters may be as important as deploying new marine generators. Two years ago, flooding cost the UK £2.7 billion. The tsunami that swept the Indian Ocean five years ago went off the scale - it cost at least 50 times that.

However, there are ways in which we in Scotland, because of our position, can benefit from such appalling setbacks. We can use them to bounce back into providing global solutions. We can expand pump storage, the efficiency of which has increased from 58 to 90 per cent, to store the irregular electricity that is produced by wind, tidal and current power. The hydro schemes that were developed by Tom Johnston and the reservoirs of Scottish Water can help to make Scotland an electric battery for Europe.

Scotland is also well placed to tap the north-east passage through the melting Arctic ice sheet, which lops 7,000km off the journey from the far east. Germany, Belgium and Holland either have densely trafficked seas or not much sea at all. Orkney and Shetland can be the new break-bulk ports. We have perhaps a quarter of Europe's usable marine power resources, the research on which is only beginning. It is as if we have reached the stage of the steam engine in 1760, before James Watt came along.

Our disadvantages are the lack of appropriate authority, the lack of revenue streams and, above all, the lack of trained labour. That is our most immediate need. In world war one, the Clyde fitter beat the Kaiser as much as the soldier did, but that debt went unpaid and Thatcher, in Sir Alastair Morton's words, blew the oil money on the dole. We have only a fifth of the trained personnel who are available to German industry. We need a major, well-funded technical training initiative, and we need assistance from Europe, from companies such as Sweden's Vattenfall, Germany's Voith or Norway's Statoil. We need an efficient, single-door gateway - a Statoil for renewables - and we need it now.

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