Last week’s Scottish Renewables’ Annual Conference was a prime example of an event impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Initially postponed from the planned “normal” conference; delayed amid uncertainty as to how the crisis was going to play out; and then ultimately arranged and delivered in a new and innovative way that no-one would have envisaged even 7 months ago. A wholly online conference, with speakers in numerous locations, online “speed networking” and a function for 1-2-1 discussion in separate chatrooms. As with many other things that have occurred in the renewable energy sector in 2020, a way had to be found in our new normal to keep going, to make the best of the situation and to take decisions and actions to deliver on a goal – to that end, it was a welcome event with some excellent industry speakers and discussion topics.

The message remains the same

A strong part of the message arising from the conference was admittedly not dissimilar to what we have heard in various conferences, meetings and discussions over a number of years.  On one hand, Scotland has great potential to be a world leader with our combination of natural resources, genuine market-leading expertise and skills, and our highly ambitious targets represent a huge opportunity for many; but on the other, it is clear that huge levels of investment will be necessary; the consenting system in Scotland is hindering delivery of projects in the timescales required; and clear policies and regulation to enable swift and decisive progress are still to be developed and implemented. The example given of removing the planning requirement for sustainable development highlighted the contradiction in messaging and the Government’s direction of travel in other areas in order to achieve growth.

It is, of course, true to say that this is by no means easy.  The job of creating and driving forward the policy to deliver on the targets is an unenviable one, bringing together many different Government departments and sectors, at a time when the impact of Covid and Brexit are still unknown.  As Kate Forbes said in the Cabinet Secretary Address to the conference, “it is one thing to talk about it, but quite another to actually put policies in place to achieve it.”

The potential for future growth

There are however several positives at present if you look at the focus of a number of developers in establishing a strong pipeline in onshore wind and solar; onshore wind being brought back in to the CFD auction; serious progress in offshore wind with projects now being brought to construction, reducing costs of the technology and the launch of ScotWind leasing; a greater focus on the de-carbonisation of heat and transport; and of course the fact that COP 26 is coming to Glasgow.  The Scottish Government’s Programme for Government (released while the conference was ongoing) identifies a number of ways in which they plan to drive forward the achievement of net zero by incorporating the green agenda squarely within our economic recovery from the pandemic.

In the ‘Planning for Net Zero’ session of the conference the general concept of resistance to change was noted, and that struck a chord with a number of people. In general terms the voice of the angry and activated minority is often heard louder than the quiet majority – this has been a problem for decades in renewable energy development, and one that still remains to this day. People often cite barriers to change and new ideas, but rarely come up with alternative ideas or work to find innovative solutions.  It’s becoming clearer than ever that this needs to change.

Treating climate change as a true ‘emergency’

One thing that has stood out strongly in the country’s response to the Covid pandemic has been to illuminate how the reaction to an emergency has to be – decisive action, strong leadership, and a radical response to a true emergency situation. With Covid, we have seen the Treasury shake Theresa May’s ‘Magic Money Tree’, bailouts of sectors, the furlough and dine out schemes, all with the intention of keeping the economy moving and tackling the long-term effects of the crisis.

We have also had a raft of legislation, impacting on personal freedom and civil liberties, that only 7 months ago would have been unthinkable during peacetime. This radical and decisive action provides a potential blueprint for the kind of action that many in the sector believe will be required to tackle the climate emergency, and help Scotland (not to mention the rest of the UK and further afield) deliver on ambitious net zero targets.

The Conference heard that we are expecting a number of publications and announcements in the coming months – for example the Climate Change Committee’s next publication on the pathway to net zero; the UK Government’s Energy White Paper; a Climate Change Action publication by the Scottish Government; the long-awaited National Planning Framework 4 in 2021 (although what is clear is that an interim solution to consenting issues will be required to stimulate progress); and the development of Local Heat and Energy Efficiency Strategies (LHEES).

All of these are of course to be welcomed in terms of the focus on the ultimate goal - but the danger is that we see more discussion / consultation and not enough action. Perhaps the only way that we’ll realistically achieve our net zero targets is by policy makers and regulators taking radical decisions and implementing swift action, and driving the attitudes and behaviour of all in the process.