Four years ago, just to begin to gain background in what wider society was up to, I attended a huge trade fair at the Scottish Exhibition Centre – later to be the location for COP26 – a life-changing and affirming experience in terms of the input from science and the indigenous groups present.
After a lockdown break, the 2023 version of ‘All-Energy and Dcarbonise’ has certainly evolved: battery storage has made it into the logos and graphics, the level of self-characterisation of Shell and BP as environmentally concerned and life-enhancing forces of nature has if anything accelerated. And they give you a nice cup of coffee on their stand…. But as a visitor from Nature Scot also remarked, it is very expensive to actually exhibit here at all, which itself will shape the impression it gives. The youngish men in a particular sort of navy suit and the slightly older skinheads in slightly posher suits predominate. A vibrant digital billboard enthuses about the urgent need for more women in all the industries, at all levels. Not there yet! But a walk through the exhibition halls continues to startle. Finding out what you might not have thought.
Almost every unreflective knee-jerk objection to sustainable energy technology you’ve every heard is accommodated with the ingenuity of late capitalism: from safety equipment for maintaining and refurbishing elderly turbines, and a growing number of companies extending their initially expected life. 70% of a turbine’s materials are directly and unproblematically recyclable, it seems. There’s a robot cleaner for solar arrays, and an integration with advanced weather forecasts and patterns in planning of backup storage and operation of wind farms. Even the pinch-point practicalities of transporting a new generation of improbably large blades for turbines whose height which will dwarf the Eiffel Tower. And Scotland is where these things can happen. Lots and lots and lots of them, onshore, offshore, wherever …. We have the wind, the land – though not on the new national parks we’re looking forward to, following the encouragements around COP27.
Green groups in churches may find a bit of research pays dividends in dealing with the harmful misinformation of the local church climate denier: listen first to their objections (“wind doesn’t blow all the time etc etc”) then look up what’s really happening, because people who invest tens of millions in a project will be looking before they leap. And as churches might note: being able to point to real benefits for biodiversity gives far more public credibility and is a better investment than the ludicrously glossy greenwashing that convinces no one with their head screwed on. But that too is an industry in its own right.
Triodos Bank, who so often come high up the lists of ethical finance, was there, alongside all sorts of financial and legal advisers. You’re reminded how vital planning and planning regimes are to the whole project of just transition.
And how much difference your encouragement makes to politicians and authorities who know where they should be heading but lack the courage to set out. The new First Minister came and talked hydrogen, and the Minister for Energy paid tribute to the value that oil and gas had added to the high-carbon economy, looking for those skills to ‘drive’ a just transition. There was also a very reassuring commitment to democracy amongst all speakers I heard, – alongside impatience with time-wasters who simply object because turbines are involved. And there is hope for different ‘solutions’ from those which seemed the only way just a few years ago: the grazing land which it is claimed is fit only for sheep can accommodate turbines and maybe even solar too – alongside the sheep – rather than being monopolised by questionable and exclusive tree-planting, which is a carbon liability on deeper peat soils. It’s clear we haven’t seen the last of the highly ‘productive’ species that raise some naturalist hackles. But disconnected monoclture, without connectivity between biodiverse habitats may have had its day?
…And so much more, with a whole lot of hydrogen going on, though everyone really wants their hydrogen to be thought ‘green’ ( primarily via electrolysis, eg with spare capacity from turbines. even sea-water might be used) rather than the counterproductive ‘blue’ hydrogen from fossil fuels, to which no one is going to own up. Teslas gleam in the midst of it all. In talks, we hear about the prospects for district heating based on ‘waste’ heat from the mushrooming data-centres, of a genuine and mixed -motive trickle of re-useable skills from offshore oil and gas to sustainable sectors. We hear why asking for ‘just one thing to change’ is a wrong-headed question when “everything all at once everywhere” needs transformation. Can the resources needed for warm homes be medically prescribed, so decarbonisation does not simply create a widening gap between those who ‘can afford to pay less’ and vulnerable victims of high energy prices with no insulation or scope for investment in a heat pump.
There are new ubiquitous words and exciting prospects: ‘re-powering’ = upgrading a 1 or 2 megawatt turbine on an existing site to 6 megawatts. And perhaps most encouraging of all, a very serious need at least to be seen to be ‘Nature Positive’ alongside, where possible, ‘carbon neutral’. New planning guidelines take the cause of nature into account, which shapes decisions and planning . After the development of previous projects, there’s now clear evidence of the viability of a mixed-use landscape: with power generation, conservation, farming, forestry and peat restoration weaving together. The widely misunderstood Darwinian virtue of collaboration in a habitat and environment gives cut-throat competition a run for its money. And there’s a keener grasp of the sheer urgency of the climate crises than I’ve seen in most church circles. A straightforward acceptance of Net-Zero as a destination, with amazement and delight that the churches might be heading down that particular road. How is it that Christians are making such heavy weather of even getting started? If a power company can employ an ecologist, could the churches, collectively manage something similar in the management of the glebes, gardens and churchyards still under their care?
Everyone’s persona non grata? This has to be the National Grid, connection timetables to which for new energy facilities stretch painfully towards the target range of 2035 for the decarbonisation of all electricity in the UK. There is ‘no transition without transmission’ !!!
So a blessing, though a mixed one. Don’t underestimate industry’s eagerness in all the ‘at speed, at scale, driving, delivering, to stakeholders”, though there’s a gaping hole in the scope for reaching out to hearts as well as minds.
That’s what we’re here for, isn’t it?