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Windy conditions

April 30, 2010

Scotland is a country known for its rugged terrain, wild coast, and bad weather. But what might put off tourists could provide Europe with energy in the coming decades. Bad weather is good for the climate.

A man losing control of his umbrella in front of Edinburgh Castle
Scotland claims to have access to a quarter of Europe's wind potentialImage: AP

Just a 15-minute-drive from the city of Glasgow, suburbia gives way to wide, open spaces and rolling hills. With its whitewashed cottages, the odd farmhouse and sheep grazing on the moors The village of Eaglesham could have jumped straight out of a tourist brochure.

Whitelee Wind Park in Scotland
Plans have been approved to extend the Whitelee Wind ParkImage: Irene Quaile

Here, in the heart of traditional Scotland, is the latest environmentally-friendly technology - like giants striding across the countryside, three arms rotating in the fresh Scottish breeze.

Home to Europe's largest onshore wind farm

There are 140 wind turbines at the Whitelee Wind Farm, making it the largest onshore wind farm in Europe. Martin Mathers is the Community Relations Manager for energy provider ScottishPower Renewables. He says the wind farm here produces enough energy each year to supply 180,000 homes, and this figure will soon increase.

The Scottish government has just approved a further extension to Whitelee as part of a major package to promote renewable energy.

In the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, Jim Mather is Minister for Energy, Enterprise and Tourism. His party, the Scottish National Party, rejects the pro-nuclear policies of the Labour government in London. Mather is convinced that his small country with a population of just over five million, has the resources not only to cover its own energy needs, but also to supply its European neighbours with environmentally-friendly power.

Winners in the lottery of life

Mather says Scotland has won the lottery of life. "In the past, we've profited from coal and hydroelectric power as well as oil and gas from the North Sea. Now with renewable power, we're in fantastic shape," says the minister.

He claims his country is home to a quarter of Europe's wind potential, a quarter of its tidal potential and 10% of the continent's wave potential.

"Even solar power is relevant here because of our long summer days. There's a lot of scope and we're pushing on all of these fronts," he said.

Jim Mather, Scotland's Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism
Mather thinks Scotland could derive all its energy from renewablesImage: Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body - 2008

There's more to Mather's words than political rhetoric. Recent studies back up the ministry's figures. Duncan McLaren is the Chief Executive of Friends of the Earth in Scotland, which commissioned its own study last year.

He sees Scotland in a unique position. "We have enough renewable potential to power the country many times over. And we have a realistic plan for turning Scotland into one of the first countries to produce its power solely from renewable sources."

In McLaren's view, the Scottish government will exceed its target of generating 55% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. His optimism is based on the latest estimates, which put the future capacity of offshore wind power at up to 14 gigawatts. Licences have also just been given to companies to generate up to 1.2 gigawatts of wave and tidal power. To put this in perspective, McLaren says that a major coal or nuclear power station produces some 1.6 gigawatts.

One of the world's strongest tidal flows

A graphic of a tidal power station
Scotland has great potential for generating tidal powerImage: MCT Ltd

By investing in these new technologies, the country plans not only to cover its own needs, but also to make a contribution to Europe's future energy demands. Colin Imrie is the head of the energy markets division in the Scottish government.

He says Scotland is a leading pioneer within Europe.

"Major utility companies from around Europe have agreed to take out leases in the Pentland Firth, between the Scottish mainland and the Orkney Islands. Here is one of the strongest tidal flows in the world and they want to demonstrate this new technology, which could be providing around 10% of Europe's energy by 2050."

A North Sea supergrid

However, the new power supplies have to be connected to the national and European grids to take the power to where it is needed. "Renewable sources are more variable," explains Duncan McLaren from Friends of the Earth and the power grid has to be "strengthened and smartened" to carry this renewable power.

The Scottish Parliament building in Edinborough
The Scottish Parliament plans to modernise the gridImage: Irene Quaile

His organisation supports a recent decision by the Edinburgh government to renew the overland power lines through the centre of Scotland.

It is a controversial issue, with opponents fearing the consequences for the environment and tourism, but McLaren is convinced it's worth it in the interests of a clean, climate-friendly energy supply.

His organisation also supports plans for a new "North Sea supergrid," a high-voltage direct current grid linking offshore windfarms in the North Sea with the UK, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands.

"Ultimately it would probably extend around the north of Scotland with links to the wave and tidal resources of the Pentland Firth and potentially include also Ireland," says McLaren.

Scotland is just a small country. But for Energy Minister Mather, that has its advantages. It's much easier to get all the players together, he says, and try out new solutions in what he describes as a laboratory – solutions which could serve as a model for the rest of the world.

Author: Irene Quaile
Editor: Nathan Witkop