Sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to see what a country is doing well, for example someone like George Busenberg, Associate Professor of Environmental Management and Policy at Soka University of America, a man who is now on a sabbatical in Scotland, to research the country’s wind, solar, wave, tidal and hydroelectric projects.
The American scientist has come to investigate what he calls a “remarkable advance” in renewable energy. His research plan is to chart what he calls ‘Scotland’s renewable achievements, its achievements in wind, solar, tidal, wave, hydro and pumped storage’ and make those achievements more widely known to the world.
Professor Busenberg sees the use of renewable energies as “the leading global strategy for mitigating climate change”.
“But,” he said, “this is a long road, and to walk it you must sort out the political, financial, and practical issues along the way, and the best way to do that is through experience.” And Scotland is building that experience.”
His views offer a glimpse of Scotland as others see us, from the perspective of a California-based climate expert, where US President Joe Biden’s Anti-Inflation Act, after being neglected by former President Donald Trump, is now driving a catch-up in green technology development.
Professor Busenberg, who has already developed an online hub of resources for teaching and learning about global climate change, looked around the world from a country where states like his home country of California had set renewable energy targets, which he kept away for years. What he saw in Scotland was “a place that is already there”.
There’s certainly plenty to shout about: 57 per cent of all electricity generated in Scotland in 2021 came from renewable sources, and there will be rapid roll-out of offshore wind, tide, solar and other renewables in the coming years.
According to Scottish Renewables, Scotland has more than 17 gigawatts (GW) of planned renewable capacity under development, including 11.24 GW of onshore wind; 3.93 GW offshore wind; 958 MW solar power; and 317 MW wave and tidal.
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‘Scotland,’ said Professor Busenberg, ‘has an extraordinarily diverse range of renewable energy sources that could be developed not only within Scotland but in many other countries around the world. This makes Scotland an important example of renewable energy advancement for the global community.”
As part of his tour he attended a Scottish renewable energy planning conference in Glasgow last month and also visited Whitelee Wind Farm – the UK’s largest onshore wind farm – on Eaglesham Moor, East Renfrewshire. “Remarkable” is a word he often uses to describe what he experienced here.
Whitelee wind farm
At Whitelee he stood under the wind towers to “get a feel for the sheer force”.
“It was noticeable,” he said. “These are huge structures. The wind they pick up has great power and this is where you can really see it in action. But being a recreational area is interesting and I never thought of that before I came to Scotland, that you would turn a moorland into a wind farm and then into a recreational area as well.”
Professor Busenberg also described a recent visit he made with his family to the National Museum of Scotland, where he stopped to look at the early steam engines. Among them was the Boulton & Watt engine, designed in part by James Watt.
“These innovators,” he said, “started with a steam engine that was huge and inefficient. and then Watt and his partner developed something that was much more efficient. The museum documents a whole series of experiments that effectively herald the industrial age.”
We live, said the professor, in a similarly experimental age.
“The process,” he added, “of developing a new type of economy that reduces our CO2 emissions into the atmosphere will involve lots of experimentation as we scale it up.” The way to learn is to plan, implement and observe what happens and then you adapt over time and there is value in having a pragmatic successful example in operation. That’s why I came to Scotland. It is ideal for studying the reality of an increasingly renewable society”.
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According to the professor, what is happening in Scotland and around the world is no small matter. “I think we’re talking about transforming industrial civilization away from the legacy of fossil fuels — slowly, not quickly — toward a new kind of civilization that’s going to depend on other energy sources that don’t emit as much carbon, and that’s going to be a be a long way, just as the fossil-fuel powered industrial age was a long way.”
Could it be that Scotland, which played such an important role in starting the industrial revolution and fossil fuel age, is now playing a key role in finding our way out of it?
Professor Busenberg is not interested in blame or credit when it comes to such shifts. “If the steam engine had not been invented in the British Isles,” he said, “it would have been invented elsewhere. The global civilization powered by fossil fuels has been built in many different countries around the world. It’s not climate change that’s to blame, that’s not my focus. My focus is on progress for a better world.”
After his visit, he plans to publish his findings here and make this information as accessible as possible for anyone who wants to know “how renewable energy works in practice”.
“I want,” he said, “to document Scotland’s experience with renewable energy in both words and pictures, and I want to stay in touch with experts in Scotland.”
He added: “I think if the global community wants to mitigate climate change, it clearly requires some hard work. Examples of experience are very valuable to spread these lessons worldwide. The more people know what works and what doesn’t, the better. Scotland is important to the world community because Scotland worked on the problem.”
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He acknowledged that the technological challenge for the global community is still the development of bulk energy storage. But even in this respect he marveled at the progress made in Scotland, an example of which he intends to visit at Cruachan pumped hydroelectric power station. “With pumped storage power plants,” he said, “you essentially use electricity to pump water into a reservoir, and then the water’s descent through a turbine creates electricity — making a very reliable water-gravity battery.”
He also noted that one of the challenges will be the development of a broader energy supply infrastructure. He said: “Grid reinforcement, energy storage, transport and heating are critical elements of decarbonization. This will be a system-wide transformation of civilization. It’s not quick. And it’s not easy.”
Professor Busenberg has long been a proponent of renewables. As a student at Rice University in Texas, he was interviewed by the student newspaper about the key energies of the future, and his response was the same then as it is now.
However, the big change he has seen in the years since is the rapid decline in wind and solar prices. “This is amazing and in turn inspires policy because decades ago, when wind and solar energy were uncommon and expensive, they were difficult to argue with. Now that key renewable energy sources have become economical, the argument focuses less on cost and more on climate protection and energy security.”
This drop in renewable energy prices was crucial and timely.
Offshore wind farm at Beatrice in the Moray Firth
He said: “I think what has happened in recent years is that the science of climate change has revealed dangers to the global community severe enough to cause countries to change energy courses, and that happened around the same time Time, like the price of wind and solar, fell to the point where they became very beneficial economically.”
However, Professor Busenberg is not at all Pollyannaian in his assessment of where Scotland and the world stand. As a professor who teaches not only climate protection but also disaster and emergency management, he has long been aware of the magnitude of the challenge and the damage that will result if the world is not decarbonized quickly.
“Essentially, in our time we have learned the full implications of a fossil-fueled civilization moving carbon from the earth to the skies and surface waters of this world, as some of the carbon we release through combustion remains as fossil fuels not in the atmosphere, but dissolving in the waters of our world and acidifying the oceans.”
Those implications, he said, are enormous. “What we have learned about climate change points to impending dangers and the need to consider a new type of civilization. And Scotland is doing that and it makes Scotland a very important example, both because it’s such a concerted effort with many elements and because it could be scaled up.”