Scottish rugby fans were treated to the sight of Finn Russell and his magic hands in full effect on Saturday. Those in the wind industry must wish that the Scottish government's handling of the growth of wind energy was similarly assured.
In recent weeks, wind energy in Scotland has faced negative headlines on three fronts.
Last week, Scottish Power faced criticism for using diesel generators to keep 71 of its turbines warm in very cold conditions in December. The utility said it had to do so for a “short period of time” due to a grid problem, which is entirely sensible, but the story has led to accusations of “corporate greed” and “dishonesty”. The Labour Party said it shows the Scottish National Party and Greens “cannot be trusted on environmental issues”.
In other news, SNP Constitution & External Affairs Secretary Angus Robertson has been facing questions about whether he breached the ministerial code after repeatedly using incorrect figures about Scotland’s offshore wind potential. A row has bubbled for months about SNP claims that the nation has 25% of Europe’s offshore wind potential, whereas the real figure is 6%. Critics have called this a misinformation campaign.
Finally, and most explosively, the Crown Estate Scotland has come under fire for how it structured the ScotWind seabed tender process that concluded in January 2022.
The pro-independence think tank Common Weal said Scotland would lose out on £60bn from the public purse for two reasons: the Crown Estate Scotland set price caps for the sites too low compared to similar processes in the UK and US, and has done too little to ensure it secures investment in the offshore wind supply chain in Scotland. The Crown Estate Scotland has responded by calling the claims "misleading".
These headlines are in addition to run-of-the-mill stories about wind farms being paid to switch off turbines in busy times; and the potential impact of super-sized turbines.
We believe the current spate of stories about wind is linked to broader problems in the SNP, and particularly its handling of the Scottish economy. We need only look at the accusations from Common Weal about the ScotWind process to see this.
Specifically, it said the Crown Estate Scotland had sold seabed development rights for £27,000/MW compared to the £508,000/MW raised in the New York Bight tender in US waters that concluded in early 2022. Common Weal said that, if the ScotWind process was organised as tenders were run in the UK, Scotland would have raised up to £28bn more for the public purse. This is clearly an attractive argument while the SNP grapples with a reported £600m shortfall in council budgets.
We do have some sympathy here. Two years ago, the Crown Estate Scotland put up its cap on bid prices in ScotWind by tenfold, from £10,000/sq km to £100,000/sq km, after a similar auction in the UK far exceeded expectations. The logic was this would insulate developers from excessive bidding prices and stop them from having to pass on higher energy costs to consumers. But it also meant that Scotland sold these prime sites for a combined £700m. It is a decision that looks bad in retrospect as energy prices and utility profits have soared anyway after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022; and if the Scottish government cannot keep enough of the investment generated by these projects at home, which was a much-discussed part of the tender process.
Wider discontent is finding a voice in criticism of the management of wind's growth.
Statistics from RenewableUK last week could further increase discontent that people in Scotland are being treated differently than those in the rest of the UK. The association reported that almost 99% of new onshore wind capacity in the UK in 2022 was built in Scotland (314MW out of a total of 318MW). This is not excessive, but it suggests that projects in Scotland are treated differently than in England or Wales.
The biggest issue we see here for wind is that the SNP has been highly supportive of the sector, but now faces mounting problems after 16 years in charge. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced yesterday (15th February) that she is leaving the role, but will stay in place until her successor is selected. Sturgeon said she could no longer cope with the relentless pressure of the job and give it the energy it needs. The move also follows criticism of her handling of the Gender Recognition Bill, the growing waiting lists at Scottish hospitals, and the holes in Scottish local council budgets.
As the SNP struggles, the wind industry could be caught in the crossfire.