Friday, 28 September 2007

Harnessing the tides and managing the floods

Published: 28 September, 2007
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.

SO wrote the Bard of Avon in Julius Caesar, but it could well be the motto adopted from the outcome of the Caithness Conference: Beyond Dounreay held in Thurso a fortnight ago.

All whom I spoke to afterwards were impressed by the positive atmosphere, the can-do spirit. Certainly there was a realistic air that a new beginning is needed and that all responsible, whether in London and Scottish governments or local agencies, have to make sure a firm partnership puts the businesses with all the skills to the forefront.

The UK Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks took the sensible step of visiting the European Marine Energy Centre in Stromness before going to Dounreay and then the opening session of the Thurso conference. He showed support for marine renewables but, as is the UK position, stressed that it is not a case of "renewables versus nuclear". He told the Orkney papers that we need more energy security, but a diversity of energy supply in the future with the early element of renewables coming from on and offshore wind as well as the Labour Government's preferred option for new nuclear build in its present consultation. The lesson is Caithness must work in partnership with Orkney.

When he got to Caithness, Mr Wicks felt sure that access to the grid would be achieved by energy producers in the Far North. Why he said this became clear later in the day, though not directly in the conference proceedings. However, the tone of the conference seemed clear to me. No-one in authority believes that new nuclear stations will be built here. They will be built in England, near to main population centres, and renewables will be a good way to use the great skills base at present involved in nuclear decommissioning hereabouts.

Therefore the key questions are how we can develop our huge tidal resources in the Pentland Firth and how we can ensure a major grid connection to market that infinite source of clean power.

The day Mr Wicks was in Orkney, Highlands and Islands Enterprise released a most insightful consultation paper. It showed up the scandalous proposals by Ofgem that would mean new sources of power in this area costing thirty times more to connect to the grid than is the case in Denmark. But, on the very day of the conference, Ofgem curiously signalled a six-month review of its punitive proposals – what a coincidence.

That's why I lodged a motion in Parliament which has yet to be signed by other than SNP MSPs. Also I gained a successful supplementary question a week ago at First Minister's Questions. Alex Salmond was known to be meeting Ofgem later that day and was quite clear that our future plans for clean energy production require a climb-down by the London Government's regulator. The First Minister's answer made it crystal clear: grid connection will not go away. It's another example of why the national conversation on full powers for the Scottish Government has a direct impact here in Caithness.

ESTABLISHING the actual costs of full commercialisation of tidal power is complex but a far from impossible task. I believe it was John Farquhar of the NDA, speaking at the conference, who guesstimated between one and two billion pounds, or the equivalent of the costs of a new nuclear station. I am seeking the guidance of Scottish Ministers and will try to establish as accurate a figure as I can get. Of course, the taxpayer directly underwrote the building of Dounreay, but today a mix of private and public funds will be required.

Also one part of the speech from the Scotland Office Minister David Cairns is memorable. He flew into Caithness to give the closing conference speech and pointed out that many communities seeking regeneration thought the route was via renewables. He cautioned against that route for some places but in contrast thought it a major prospect here. He also thought there was little reason for the continued existence of some former industrial communities but that Caithness was different. We know it is resource-rich and has every right to expect a bright future if we are focused.

FLOODING was another issue debated in Parliament last week. My contribution highlighted the inordinate time it has taken to resolve some of the consequences of last October's storms. A case in point is the cemetery footbridge over the River Thurso. It took the Highland Council until May to lodge a £200,000 bridge replacement claim in a bigger £1.6 million bid. Even so, it still awaits the wheels of civil service processes to put a report on Ministers' desks.

The promise of a Flooding Bill next year to modernise outdated practices and government responses has had a warm cross-party welcome. But in every part of the country, low-lying areas, river valleys and flood plains as well as vulnerable coasts will come under greater threat as more frequent severe weather events pile in.

Appropriately the Bard concluded:

On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

I believe that harnessing the tides and managing the floods will occupy every nation's government. For our sake in Caithness, Scotland must not be diverted from substantial investment in both or else people here will "lose our ventures".

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