Article Published in the John O'Groat Journal
-By Iain Grant
Published: 01 October, 2008
FIRST Minister Alex Salmond has said nothing should be allowed to stand in the way of tapping the Pentland Firth's potential to become the energy powerhouse of Europe.
Speaking on Monday after the way was cleared for the first wave of full-sized demonstration tidal-powered generators in Scotland, Mr Salmond said the firth is at the epicentre of the country's green-energy drive.
He said the stretch of water off Caithness can generate "extraordinary, almost unimaginable" quantities of power.
He told delegates at a regeneration conference in Thurso that this can make the Far North to renewable energy what Saudi Arabia is to the oil industry.
Mr Salmond said that for a fully-fledged commercial operation to go ahead, a super-grid, serviced by a subsea cable, would be required.
This, he said, would be needed when the industry developed beyond the first phase, which is intended to produce more than 700 megawatts of energy.
This will include plans revealed on Monday by an offshoot of Scottish Power to go ahead with marine energy ventures in the firth, as well as in the Sound of Islay and off the North Antrim coast in Northern Ireland.
The firm's announcement came in the wake of the Crown Estate inviting interest for seabed leases for future wave and tidal energy devices.
Mr Salmond said: "This is a start but it's a big start.
"We're at the very beginning of this new frontier in tapping this huge new energy resource.
"This has been talked about for years but now its actually happening.
"It's not something for the next generation – it's something for the here and now."
He continued: "The potential of the Pentland Firth is quite staggering and the Crown Estate will play a crucial part in enabling developers to take the next step and turn tested, reliable technology into the next wave of generating stations, pumping out electricity for homes and business."
He said that as the technology advances, larger units would be installed and the power output would grow into the gigawatts.
The potential, he said, could comfortably exceed Scotland's electricity consumption, equating to the output of 20 conventional power stations.
"It's clear that this area is the epicentre of tidal resource and the opportunity it provides is extraordinary," he told delegates.
"The seas around Caithness are going to reap a tremendous harvest, to the benefit of us all.
"This is a hugely important day in terms of the dream of bringing marine energy in extraordinary, almost unimaginable quantities to reality in this part of Scotland – the Saudi Arabia of marine power."
Mr Salmond said that marine turbines are set to replace fast reactors as the driving energy force in the Far North.
He was clear that development would not be jeopardised by moves to create a new seabird nature reserve off Stroma.
Local community representatives and politicians have raised concerns that the fledgling industry could be killed off were the current seabird clifftop protection area extended two kilometres into the Inner Sound in the firth.
The Scottish Natural Heritage proposal is currently being considered by environment minister Mike Russell.
Mr Salmond said there is no way he would allow a conflict to arise.
"Government agencies have their statutory responsibilities and they have to be allowed to carry these out without interference," he explained. "But nothing is going to be allowed to stop or interrupt or destroy the potential Scotland has of harnessing the fantastic natural resources which exist in the firth.
"We cannot afford to strangle the gosling that may lay the golden egg."
Mr Salmond highlighted a headline in a recent article on marine energy in the US magazine Fortune, which read "Scotland rules the waves". He quipped: "One day I hope to see a Sunday Post headline that Caithness rules the waves."
"We're well ahead of the field in this area," he said.
"We're ahead of the world and we're determined to stay ahead in providing a fantastic new power source that can help save the planet.
"All of us – and certainly our environmental agencies – should be right behind this and working to ensure that there are no obstacles put in the way as this infant industry starts to develop."
Mr Salmond said it is vital that local companies get a big slice of the action in terms of manufacturing and servicing the seabed devices.
He also backed moves to seek to attract new energy-intensive industries to the area on the back of the developments earmarked for the firth.
Households and businesses bordering the subsea turbines should also benefit from cheaper energy bills, he claimed.
"We want to ensure that the area that produces the power gets the major benefits from the power," he explained. "The vast potential of the Pentland Firth will mean more investment, more jobs and more opportunities for Caithness."
Mr Salmond said his Government is continuing to press to get rid of the current surcharge on grid connection charges in the islands and outlying parts of the mainland.
The current regime, he said, needs to be radically overhauled given that it is the farthest flung parts of Scotland where the vast bulk of the new wave of renewable energy will be coming from.
In addition, he said a new subsea inter-connector or super-grid is essential before the larger-scale generating devices are installed in the firth.
He believed this should be linked up with the continent as well as to the national grid.
Highlands and Islands Enterprise has just commissioned consultants to look at options to secure this much-sought after new link.
The Crown Estate's control over the seabed had long been viewed as a deterrent to marine energy developments around the Scottish coast.
But this was removed on Monday when the agency set out details of leases it is to offer for wave and tidal energy projects.
In the first announcement of its kind, the agreements are geared to produce over 700 megawatts by 2020.
The deadline for applications is April next year with the first devices scheduled to be in the water by 2010.
The Crown Estate has made it clear that firms whose bids include clearly defined community benefits will be favoured.
Rob Hastings, of the Crown Estate, said: "Unlocking the potential in the Pentland Firth is crucial to meeting Scottish Government renewable energy targets, stimulating the north of Scotland economy and boosting the fledgling renewables industry.
"The Crown Estate is keen to play a central role in generating confidence among investors and the process we are announcing is an important step towards achieving just that.
"As well as the economic opportunities, the area could become a world-class centre of excellence in wave and tidal power development, research, testing and environmental monitoring."
Scottish Power, meanwhile, announced it intends to go ahead with between five and 20 tidal turbines in the firth and the same number in the other two sites.
It has invested £1 million to set up a new company, Hammerfest Strom AS, in a joint venture with two Norwegian energy companies to spearhead what would be the world's largest tidal stream venture.
The sites in the firth, off Islay and North Antrim will deploy Norwegian-designed tidal turbines, assuming final tests prove positive.
The two-bladed, 30-metre tall devices, which have been likened to underwater wind turbines, are connected to an electrical generator mounted on a steel tower which is fixed to the seabed.
The three sites have the potential to generate a total of 60 megawatts – enough green energy for over 40,000 homes The company, which expects to have planning applications lodged by next summer with the devices scheduled to be installed by 2011, is considering basing its manufacturing in the Far North.
Keith Anderson, director of ScottishPower Renewables, said: “This is a historic day for the development of marine energy.
“The rapid technological advancement of tidal power has enabled us to progress plans for this substantial project which has the real potential to deliver significant environmental and economic benefits.”
Mr Anderson said a lead Scotland once had in wind power was not capitalised upon, with Denmark and Germany taking the initiative in developing the technology.
He said: “Tidal power provides Scotland with another chance to become the global leader in a new renewable energy industry.”
Monday’s announcement by the Crown Estate was welcomed by Dutch company Tocardo, which was the first to firm up plans for a marine energy development in the firth.
Managing director Hans van Breugel, who attended the conference along with operations director Pieter de Haas, said it is now seeking to secure a lease to allow it to go ahead with a 10 megawatt prototype plant.
“We have leased land at Wick harbour where we are to build the plant and we have secured a grid connection,” he explained. “The missing part in the jigsaw had been the Crown Estate lease and we’re very pleased with this announcement today as we can move forward fairly quickly.
“We’d be looking to have a device in the water by early 2010.”
Looking to the future, Mr van Breugel warned that a full-scale commercial operation will not happen without a new subsea power cable.
“That is the only way we as an industry will invest in the long term,” he said. “Everyone agrees the firth is an unrivalled site for marine energy but if there’s no grid connection, you’re not going to get the jobs and benefits that will come from major developments.
“That is a major obstacle which needs to be addressed and solved in the next five to six years, then there is a fantastic future here.”
Mr van Breugel anticipated his company’s Wick operation growing to employ 50 to 60 in four years’ time.
But he warned: “For us to make a final investment decision, we must be confident that this grid connection will take place.”
Far North MSP Jamie Stone yesterday called for the supply of cheap electricity to local households and businesses on the back of marine energy ventures in the Pentland Firth.
He said: “I believe that business parks should be established in the land areas adjacent to where the energy is produced. They should be supplied with cheap electricity below the national price.
“The effect of this would be that many businesses would consider relocating to the Far North. In addition, there could be opportunities here for local households.”
The Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross Lib Dem MSP intends to raise the issue during First Minister’s question time tomorrow.
Highlands and Islands SNP MSP Rob Gibson said that the commitment shown by the SNP Government to renewable energy will pay great dividends to the economies of Caithness, Orkney and north Sutherland.
Commenting on the news that ScottishPower Renewables has identified the Pentland Firth as one of its sites for commercial tidal farms, and that the Crown Estate has decide to open the Pentland Firth seabed for commercial marine energy projects, Mr Gibson said: “This is extremely welcome news for Caithness, Orkney and beyond.
“The First Minister’s announcement marks the start of a new period in marine renewable development and it is clear that the Pentland Firth as well as the areas bordering it will the centre of that development.”
“The conference was a success and shows that the wide community of Caithness is focusing in on moving towards a new future.
“The organisers deserve huge credit for their work.”
“The enormous opportunities that the Pentland Firth offers mean increased investment, more jobs and new opportunities. I find that prospect exciting.”