On Scotland’s Renewable Energy

Scotland – a small country making the most of its water and wind, and quickly becoming one of the world’s leaders in renewable energy (even if you don’t hear about it too often).

A recently published report shows that for the first half of 2014 renewable energy was Scotland’s largest source of power. Renewable energy generated a total of 10.3 TWh of electricity, some 32% more electricity than any other single source of electricity in the county, and an amount equal to 46.4% of Scotland’s electricity consumption. The report was compiled by the independent trade body Scottish Renewables.

The report is compelling evidence of a trend that Scotland has been fostering for some years as it’s steadily grown its renewable industry. Between 2007 and 2013 total installed output of renewable electricity in Scotland more than doubled from 8,215 GWh to 16,974 GWh (Scottish Renewables). Between 2013 and 2014 renewable capacity in Scotland increased by 10.5% and displaced approximately 11,900,000 tonnes of CO2, equal to around 22.5% of Scotland’s carbon emissions in 2012.

Electricity Consumption and % Renewables Output. Image rights: Scottish Renewables
Electricity Consumption and % Renewables Output. Image rights: Scottish Renewables

Scottish Renewables in Perspective

If Scotland’s renewable energy industry were to be ranked on its own, in isolation from the UK, over several key indicators it would be in league with those countries performing most successfully at transitioning to a clean, renewable energy industry.

Consider the share of renewable energy in gross final energy consumption – a primary indicator for measuring progress under the Europe 2020 strategy. Scotland’s 46.6% figure places it close to Sweden (51%), and considerably above countries that quickly come to mind when we think of success in renewables, Denmark (26%), Austria (32.1%) or Finland (34.3%). On the same index the top spot is occupied by Norway who generate 64.5% of their energy consumption from renewables.

Invariably however, Scotland’s renewable performance is ranked within the United Kingdom. This results in Scotland’s 46.6% being lost within the UK’s 5% – a statistic that marks the nation out as one of the poorest performers in Europe on this measure.

In terms of recent investment, a total of around £1.16 billion in capital costs was commissioned for renewable projects 2013; more than £1 billion of which went to onshore wind (Scottish Renewables) – a high figure considering that the total of UK investment in 2013 was £8 billion (UK Department of Energy and Climate Change).

There should be no mistaking – this is a laudable performance by Scotland.

Share of renewable energy in final gross energy consumption across Europe.
Share of renewable energy in final gross energy consumption across Europe; also shown are 2020 targets. Image rights: Eurostat.

Scotland’s Energy Mix

So Scotland’s energy mix is dominated by renewable generated electricity – a merit of very few countries in the world. Scotland’s success in developing its renewables industry is down to several factors. Undoubtedly, foremost amongst these is the country’s geography and climate which leaves Scotland with an exceptionally strong resource base for renewable technologies.

Scotland lies in the stream of powerful and reliable winds coming up from the Gulf Stream over the Atlantic and features lochs and powerful tidal systems in its estuaries well suited to hydro and marine power.

Scotland's renewable energy production by technology in 2013. Image rights: Scottish Renewables.
Scotland’s renewable energy production by renewable technology in 2013. Image rights: Scottish Renewables.

Consequently, wind and hydro power make up the vast majority of Scotland’s renewable energy mix. Some 69% of Scotland’s renewable electricity generation comes from onshore wind power. So reliable is wind in Scotland in fact that in October WWF Scotland reported that the country’s wind generated more energy than was required for all its residential needs. More precisely, 982,842 MWh of electricity came from the country’s wind turbines; enough to power over 3 million UK homes and more than enough to power the roughly 2.37 million homes in Scotland (2011 census). A further 4 GW of onshore wind capacity has been granted consent and is in planning (Scottish Renewables).

Investment in offshore wind power isn’t being neglected either. Recently the Scottish government approved four new offshore wind projects – new capacity totalling 2.2 GW. These projects adds to investment of over £164 million in offshore wind within the Scottish economy to date (Scottish Renewables).

Hydropower is Scotland’s second largest source of renewable electricity, totalling 1.5 GW capacity, and has featured heavily in Scottish power since the 1940s. In 2013 hydropower accounted for the equivalent of 12.5% of Scotland’s electricity consumption (4.3 GWh), and delivered sufficient electricity to power the equivalent of more than 900,000 homes (Scottish Renewables).

It’s estimated that approximately 1.2 GW of hydro generating capacity remains untapped in Scotland – a promising thought, but it remains to be seen how much of this may be practically harnessed.

Biomass energy production is not insignificant in Scotland either; it powered the equivalent of 315,000 homes in 2012. The Scottish Biomass Heat Scheme, has paid over £2.6 million to 44 projects delivering 10 MW (thermal) of capacity, with annual reductions of over 10,000 tonnes CO2-equivalent. There are presently a further 540 MW of biomass plants at various stages of development (Scottish Renewables).

Wind turbines are seen behind Hunterston nuclear power station in West Kilbride, Scotland. Image rights: Reuters / Suzanne Plunkett.

After renewable energy, nuclear power is Scotland largest source of electricity. Scotland’s two nuclear power stations generated 7.8 TWh over the same six month period dealt with in the primary report presented earlier. Behind nuclear was coal, producing 5.6 TWh, and natural gas producing 1.4 TWh.

It ought to be mentioned however that Scotland’s two operational nuclear power stations, at Hunterston (965MW) and Torness (1190MW), are due to shut down within 10 years and there’s no intention of replacing them with new nuclear power – rather it is increased renewable capacity that will fill the void.

Not just a producer, but an exporter

Power generation on such a large scale (and given Scotland’s energy demands) allows Scotland to be a net exporter of electricity – sending up to a quarter of its generated electricity south to the rest of the UK.

In 2013, 36% of UK’s total renewable generation came from Scotland. The fact that the overhead power lines supporting transmission over the border are these days operating at maximum capacity to support Scottish energy exports is telling of the extent of renewable electricity generation in the country. But more telling yet are plans for developing this infrastructure in order to support far greater levels of power sharing.

Challenges in Distribution & Infrastructure

A prominent challenge facing the renewable energy industry in Scotland surrounds the need to develop its electricity grid. The infrastructure in place today supports transmission of electricity from large power plants into cities and towns – a traditional grid model. The problem is that this model doesn’t fit well with renewable energy production, where transmission is required from distributed, remote (and offshore) areas of generation to areas of demand.

This issue is not one isolated to Scotland; it’s a problem accompanying development of renewable energy everywhere. Nevertheless it’s an obstacle that Scotland’s energy sector is keen overcome in order to progress with its drive for expanding its renewable energy industry.

One of the issues Scotland faces is inadequate grid connection in areas where the potential renewable generation is sited. The costs of transmission upgrades is holding back development of Scotland’s renewables industry, something that Scotland is keen to resolve.

Ross Fairley, head of energy at law firm Burges Salmon

Fortunately there are engineering projects in the works to begin tackling the issue. Critical in this venture is the construction of new high voltage direct current (HVDC) power lines between Scotland and England. One project under construction is the Western Link: a £1 billion joint venture between National Grid and ScottishPower to build a 2.2 GW HVDC system connecting substations at Hunterston in Scotland and Deeside in England via a 385 km subsea cable.

Similar efforts extend to international contracts. The NorthConnect is a proposed 570 kilometres 1,400 MW HVDC line between Scotland and Norway under the North Sea. The £1.75 billion civil engineering project will connect Simadalen in Norway with Peterhead in Scotland.

Once completed this line would be the first HVDC route to directly connect Scotland’s electricity grid to one outside of the UK. Norway is not new to HVDC technology, and has been using it to make the most of its abundance of renewable energy for some time; presently Norway has HVDC connections to the Netherlands and Denmark, with plans for one linking up with Germany.

Developing high-tech infrastructure for sharing renewably generated electricity in this manner is important not just to Scotland, but part of critical energy infrastructure needed for Europe as a whole.

Above and Beyond Targets

Scotland has met the realities of global climate change with a stark commitment to accepting its role in reducing greenhouse gases. It’s a commitment that’s backed up with clear policies from the Scottish government to mobilise its economy, industries and society toward combatting climate change, reducing energy use, and transitioning to renewable energies.

The government’s formal outline for renewable energy, the 2020 Routemap for Renewable Energy in Scotland, is a comprehensive and ambitious plan, that schedules development on scales that far surpass internationally defined targets. There’s also policy in place expanding on Scotland’s commitment towards evolving into greener, more sustainable country (see, Scotland’s 10 Energy Pledges).

One of Scotland’s energy targets for 2011 was that 31% of its energy consumption be met by renewable sources. In actuality renewable output surpassed this and totalled 36.2% that year. Encouraged by such successes the government raised their targets for renewable energy production – from 40% in 2005, to 50% in 2007 and more recently to 100%. More precisely, the Scottish government has stated its aim to generate the equivalent of 100% of the country’s gross annual consumption by 2020.

In 2008 the EU committed to a legally-binding 20% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 across all member states. This is to be realised by the EU ’20/20/20 Climate and Energy Package’ (20% emissions cuts / 20% renewable energy / 20% energy efficiency by 2020). Scotland have proven committed to these targets and are on track to meet them; furthermore, together with several other nations, are advocating to raise this common target to 30%.

Under the EU Directive on Renewable Energy, the UK aims to source 15% of energy demand from renewables by 2020. This is further broken down into renewables delivering 30% electricity; 12% heat; and 10% transport fuels. The Scottish Government has committed to going beyond this by setting a target of 20% – broken down into 100% electricity; 11% heat; and 10% transport fuels. Such is an example of how Scottish energy policy diverges from that of the Westminster based UK government (another story entirely).

A Bright Future

The renewables industry has come a long way in a short space of time, but there is still plenty of potential for further growth.

Niall Stuart, Chief Executive of Scottish Renewables

By all indications Scotland’s renewable energy industry is performing remarkably well; but the future looks brighter still. Aside from raising the bar on EU targets, Scotland has made clear that it intends to go further to capitalise on its natural resources, whilst at the same time nurture a strong renewable energy research sector that’s sure to benefit the international community.

It’s an attitude that dovetails neatly with Scottish engineering heritage and plain to see in Scotland’s growing hub of green sector industries. A report published in 2014, showed that already some 11,695 people are employed within the Scottish renewable energy sector as of 2013 (Scottish Renewables Report). And by way of ambitious plans for expanding its use of renewables, Scotland is sure to see this labour force expand further. By the end of the decade, the Scottish renewable sector is projected to provide upwards of 40,000 jobs.

Leading the Way in Marine Energy Technology

One could make a strong case for Scotland emerging as a world leader in marine energy technologies in the coming decade. A key reason for this relates to Scotland’s access to ideal testing grounds (or waters, as it were) coupled with a vision to nurture innovation in a field that holds great potential.

It’s estimated that practical offshore renewable capacity of Scottish waters is some 206 GW. That figure includes offshore wind, but waters around Scotland account for nearly a quarter of Europe’s tidal potential and 10% of its wave potential. Scotland is working to capitalise on these resources through heavy investment. A report published in September outlined that the Scottish wave and tidal energy sector had invested more than £217 million to date, with £31.8 million being spent in the past twelve months alone.

Scotland is fostering research and development of ocean energy technologies with a view to harvesting the enormous potential of its seas. Pictured here is the Pelamis  system.
Scotland is a hub for research and development of marine energy technologies. Pictured here is the Pelamis wave energy system – the world’s first commercial scale wave energy converter to generate electricity to a national grid from offshore waves. Image rights: Pelamis.

Scotland is already a hub for international marine energy research. Scotland’s Orkney Islands is home to the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) – the world’s first, and leading, testing facilities for marine energy conversion technologies. Established in 2003 with some £30 million funding from the Scottish government, the facilities lie between the North Sea and Atlantic, adjacent to waters that are subject to some of the most powerful tides in the world, including what is considered the best site in the world for tidal energy –  the Pentland Firth.

EMEC has supported the testing of more grid-connected ocean energy devices than any other single site in the world. EMEC is also the proving ground for entries into the Saltire Prize – at £10 million, it’s the world’s largest prize for marine energy innovation.

To be sure, marine energy conversion technology is in its infancy, and there are very few large scale, or commercial systems in use anywhere in the world. That being the case, the potential is enormous and it represents a technology that could massively add to the global renewable energy mix.


The milestone detailed in the report relating to the share of renewables in Scotland’s energy consumption is one of several significant accomplishments that’s testament to its government pursuing its clear vision for a clean, fossil-free future for Scotland.

While Scotland may never be in a position capitalise on solar photovoltaic technologies, it’s certainly making up for it with wind power. What’s more, Scotland is positioning itself to champion marine energy conversion – a venture that could substantially improve its own and many other nations’ renewable energy industries.


European Commission – EuroStat energy database

Scottish Renewables

2020 Routemap for Renewable Energy in Scotland

Ocean Energy Europe