Scotland's struggle for energy independence and a competitive advantage in clean energy should inspire "can do" Albertans to do the same.
The history of Scottish nationalism is intertwined with their transition from fossil fuels to clean energy systems and contains important lessons for Canada, and Alberta in particular. In the 1970s, when offshore oil was discovered, the majority of the largest oil fields in the UK’s North Sea were in the waters off the northeast of Scotland. In the 1970s, "It's Scotland's oil" was the political slogan that drove the Scottish National Party (SNP) to prominence. The SNP was born from a type of energy nationalism very familiar to Albertans.
The SNP’s struggles over energy resources parallel Alberta’s later struggles against Ottawa’s National Energy Program in the early 80s. Following success at the polls in the 1974 General Election, the SNP argued that the discovery of North Sea oil off the coast of Scotland, and the revenues that it created, would not benefit Scotland while they remained part of the United Kingdom. Energy economics and Scottish nationalism both demanded greater independence from London.
After taking leadership of the SNP in 1990, Alex Salmond built political capital by championing Scottish energy independence and self-determination. By 2008, Salmond recognised the economic implications of dwindling North Sea oil reserves and the end of the fossil fuel age. The SNP pivoted to renewable energy. Both Salmond and present leader Nicola Sturgeon have pursued independence and economic dynamism through a transition to 100 per cent clean energy. This ambitious target and associated policies are designed to drive the re-industrialisation of the economy and to build world-leading expertise in renewable energy. The Scottish experience contains important lessons for the government of Alberta, which has also just announced a $10.5 billion plan to get 30 per cent of its own power from renewable sources by 2030.
1. Seize the opportunity to lead the world in innovation.
It is no accident that Scotland is a global leader in tidal energy. A systematic focus started with demonstration projects in the Pentland Firth and the Sound of Islay on the west coast, and today Scotland is exporting tidal technology and know-how around the world. Not content with progress to date, Scotland’s government continues to push for leadership in the marine energy sector by funding five demonstration wave and tidal power projects. Scotland’s success with tidal power should inspire Alberta to do the same with its abundant geothermal, wind and solar resources.
Scotland had the foresight to build on its natural endowment of readily available ocean energy. Alberta is similarly endowed with wind, solar, and geothermal energy, and already possesses world-class expertise in geosciences and drilling required to build a thriving geothermal sector. With Scotland reaping the local employment benefits of deploying clean energy solutions at scale, Alberta could do the same.
2. Use clean energy to drive job creation and prosperity
In challenging economic times, Scottish energy policymakers recognized that the shift to 100% clean energy systems would provide a route to high quality employment, export growth, and economic prosperity. The government's 2013 electricity generation strategy aimed for a bold goal of ramping up of clean power exports to 14.1 Gigawatts by 2030, and this ambitions continues to guide the industry. The Government describes it as “both a statement of intent and a rallying call, embodying our firm belief that Scotland can and must exploit its huge renewables potential to the fullest possible extent.” Alberta could have similarly ambitious targets.
The nature of distributed clean energy systems means that an Albertan clean energy build out would have knock-on job creation effects across the country. Long term high-quality jobs building and then servicing both small and utility-scale clean energy installations would go a long way to addressing current drags on the provincial economy tied to a volatile oil price. Alberta should act on the opportunity to scale up clean energy jobs and learn from Scotland’s success in planning for a prosperous transition away from oil revenues.
3. Inspire people with the future of energy
Innovation, technological transformation, and energy abundance are inspiring themes. Increasing domestic prosperity and driving the world towards clean energy are powerful motivators for young people. The shift to clean energy systems can inspire workers, students, and researchers to support industrial-scale innovation while improving community health and environmental outcomes.
Scotland’s energy policy has succeeded because the transition to clean energy is attractive on so many fronts. Scotland has reduced air pollution, improved community health, enhanced its energy security and is much less vulnerable to income volatility as energy export receipts shift away from oil. In addition, the Scots have improved energy access in off-grid communities and boosted biodiversity and freshwater conservation. Clean energy projects generally have smaller footprints and lower long-term impacts than hydrocarbon extraction, development, and transport.
Rachel Notley and her colleagues at the Alberta Legislature can learn from Scotland’s experience. Energy independence and the transition to 100% renewable energy is a politically empowering experience.
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