How Scotland can get its energy for renewables back

Scotland has been a pioneer in renewables, says Kirsten Jenkins. But the easy wins are over and the task of decarbonising Scotland’s economy is becoming steadily more difficult, as the row over net zero targets showed. Nonetheless, the potential to build on its record is clear and the obstacles are not insurmountable.

(Photo by Scotland on Unsplash)

Windswept Highland cows; wave-battered cliffs; abundant, water-filled lochs; and famously sporadic but utterly beautiful sunny days are some of the features that point to Scotland’s renewables potential. Yet Scottish political leadership and the direction of travel for climate change policy and the renewables transition is far less certain.

In the first few months of 2024, much has changed at Holyrood. The First Minister, Humza Yousaf, ended his Scottish National Party’s power-sharing agreement with the Greens, saying their climate targets were no longer achievable. Then Yousaf himself resigned. It leaves Scottish energy policy in a state of flux and uncertainty.

Historically, Scotland’s politicians have positioned the country as ’the Saudi Arabia of renewables’, constantly referencing its abundant natural resources, capacity for self-sufficiency, and world-leading expertise in research, development, and production, building on decades of experience in the oil and gas industry. Much of this praise is deserved. Renewable technologies generated the equivalent of 113 percent of Scotland’s overall electricity consumption in 2022, and Scotland has further, ambitious targets, aiming for 50 percent of total energy demand across electricity, heat, and transport to be supplied by renewable sources by 2030.

Scotland is home to the world’s first community-owned tidal array, the first floating offshore wind farm, and one of Europe’s largest hydrogen bus fleets. The Orkney Islands in the far north host the European Marine Energy Centre, an internationally renowned facility offering purpose-built, open-sea testing facilities for prototype technologies. As host of the COP26 talks in Glasgow in 2021, Scotland was the first government to commit funds to addressing the irreversible impact of climate change. Scotland’s Just Transition Commission provides independent scrutiny and advice on ensuring justice is at the heart of climate action.

There is undoubtedly much to be proud of, and yet much further to go.

Progress has stalled

In a speech in February 2024, just months before his sudden departure as Scotland’s First Minister, Humza Yousaf reinforced Scotland’s role at the forefront of the green energy revolution. He spoke with passion about the skills and expertise in the Scottish energy workforce, as well as those that could be developed; Scotland’s contribution to the international fight against climate change, and the economic opportunity the renewables transition brings. He reinforced the constant message of how well-endowed with resources Scotland is, and referenced impressive headline figures, stating that “the development of a green hydrogen sector in Scotland [alone] could support up to 300,000 jobs and add up to £25 billion to Scotland’s gross value added by 2045”. All that was missing, he claimed, was the UK government’s backing, promoting, in line with independence rhetoric, that “in Scotland, we have the will. We have the energy. All we lack is the power”.All that said, what comes next for Scotland is uncertain. On 18 April 2024, shortly before the departure of the First Minister, the government announced its plans to remove the 2030 climate change target to reduce emissions by 75 percent from the 1990 baseline. Previously, eight out of 12 annual emissions targets had been missed, with critics suggesting that wider plans are ‘beyond what is credible’. Scotland is now moving to a system of five-yearly carbon budgets in line with the UK government, though the exact mechanism through which these will operate is yet to be determined.

Scotland’s latest Climate Change Plan, last updated in December 2020 and due for renewal in 2023, has yet to materialise. Meanwhile, Yousaf pledged not to move ‘by a single month, a week or even a day’ from the 2045 targets. In early June Kate Forbes, the new deputy First Minister, said that the Scottish National Party is not opposed to new oil and gas licences in the North Sea if they meet compatibility tests and are considered on a case-by-case basis.

Time to recalibrate

Where does this leave Scotland? It leaves it with abundant potential, a strong track record of renewables integration, ample ambition, and the need to recalibrate.

Many choices and challenges remain. Scotland operates in the context of partial devolution, where many of the powers to influence the renewable energy transition remain the responsibility of the UK government, including the overall budgetary position and energy market structure. In a context where the UK government has recently rolled back on key climate and energy commitments, including, for instance, delaying a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars to 2035 and a nine-year delay in the ban on new fossil fuel heating for off-grid homes, Scotland’s capacity for radical action is constrained.

There is also the issue of technology choice. Scotland hosts 85 percent of the UK’s hydroelectric energy resource, though much of this was developed in the 1950s. The Coire Glas project, with a potential capacity of up to 1500 megawatts if approved for final delivery, would be the first pumped hydro storage scheme to be developed in the UK in 40 years. Onshore wind capacity, whilst it has grown exponentially in recent decades – reaching a current peak of 8.8 gigawatts (GW) – is making way for an increasingly offshore future. Over the next 10 to 15 years, there are plans to increase this capacity to 42 GW, with 30 GW of this out at sea. And as Scotland gets to grips with five-year carbon budgeting, negative emissions technologies will inevitably have to play a larger role in the face of stubborn, residual emissions. Only clear policy pathways will make this possible.

Lastly, whilst the language of the renewables transition often conjures visions of large wind turbines and high-tech wave devices sitting on top of crashing waves, these are just one part of the transformation. More action is needed in the key devolved areas of heating, transport, agriculture, and land use. Several key policies have been delayed, including the Heat in Buildings bill, the route map to reduce car kilometres by 20 percent, and changing the farm support system. Elsewhere, the Berwick Bank wind farm proposed by utility SSE, missed the National Grid’s deadline for the government’s Contracts for Difference auction round after Scottish government consenting delays.

Scotland has, in essence, picked much of the low-hanging fruit and now must engage with thornier challenges, and quickly.

How can Scotland’s progress continue? The typical answer is almost always money, and that’s certainly part of the solution – the Scottish Fiscal Commission estimates that transitioning to net zero will cost the Scottish government, on average, an additional £1.1 billion per year. Yet the answer is more than that. Scotland requires a concrete plan that is ready for scrutiny, clear and realistic targets, and a political apparatus oriented towards long-term thinking. It needs an expedited planning and consenting process, and a focus on hard-to-abate sectors and cross-sector action. At the same time, it must retain its focus on the just transition, making sure that policy action is not just fast, but fair.

The views and opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union.


Dr Kirsten Jenkins is a Senior Lecturer in Energy, Environment and Society within the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Her research interests centre on energy policy, energy justice, just transitions, fuel poverty, and sustainable energy provision and use. She is Managing Editor of the journal Energy Research & Social Science, deputy Theme Champion for the Energy, People, Policy, and Society theme of the Energy Technology Partnership, and a member of the Scottish Government’s Fuel Poverty Advisory Panel. X: @jenk2021

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