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Shetland could be a low carbon hotbed

SHETLAND should invite the best academic experts on climate change to assess the carbon footprint of its proposed new wind farm, the Scottish government’s chief scientific adviser suggested during a flying visit to the isles.

She also said Shetland could set itself ambitious targets to become the world’s first low carbon economy, harnessing the vast natural resources at its disposal to generate and export renewable energy.

Professor Anne Glover is a genetic engineer and research scientist at Aberdeen University specialising in the way stress impacts on human beings.

She was in Shetland last week to attend the Climate Change Summit at Shetland Museum and Archives, explaining why she believes global warming is the biggest issue the human race has ever faced.

While the debate about whether climate change is real and man-made rages on, Professor Glover said the evidence is quite simply overwhelming.

Every 12,000 years planet earth shifts from an ice age to a warm period due to the wobble in the tilt of its axis changing the distance of the polar regions from the sun.

During an ice age carbon dioxide (Co2) measures 180 parts per million (ppm), during a warm period it measures 280 ppm. “We can look back millions of years and it has never been over 300 parts per million. Now we’re at 386. It’s man made,” she said.

The challenge is convincing politicians of the importance of the issue and ensuring the investment is made in energy efficiency and renewables to mitigate the problem.

Professor Glover quoted economic Nicholas Stern, who said that if we spent one per cent of our gross domestic product (GDP) from now on we could have the problem in hand by 2050. If we delay by 10 to 15 years, it will cost five to 20 per cent of GDP.

The northern isles have a huge role to play in helping with the problem, she said, not least because we are surrounded by 40 per cent of Europe’s potential marine energy resource, the heaving ocean waves and tides of the Atlantic and the North Sea.

Harnessing this power will take investment and politicians need to be persuaded to spend the money, she said, pointing out that North Sea oil went from discovery to full production in just eight years and we now have 100,000 skilled people working offshore.

“There needs to be an appetite for massive public funding to allow the development of renewable energy generation systems. These sustainable systems will protect our position on the planet.

“There’s a price to be paid and I think this is always the difficulty our politicians have. The money has to come from the public purse and there’s such a demand on the public purse, because people want better roads, education and hospitals.

“The question is whether we are prepared to put off saving our position on the planet and frankly it’s not for you or me, it’s for our kids and our grandchildren because we will walk away from this. They won’t.”

Yet the answer is not just about throwing up wind turbines, she said. The carbon budget had to be taken into consideration.

While she has no sympathy for people who might oppose the Viking Energy wind farm because of its visual impact, she would be concerned if digging up vast quantities of peat, and erecting and maintaining the turbines released more carbon than was saved by generating power from wind.

“I happen to find windmills vaguely pleasing, but that’s just my own view. However if the choice is to put up with windmills and the visual impact they have in order to save our species on the planet, I think that’s a fair trade off.

“But we need to understand that when we disrupt peatland we release significant amounts of carbon. We need to know what the payback is. I think we need to challenge energy companies, governments and scientists to come up with more thinking about mitigating the carbon cost from cradle to grave for every form of energy so you can compare and make judgments.”

She accepted that people might find it hard to trust the developers’ estimates on carbon payback, so she suggested Shetland invite the world’s top academics on the subject to hold a summit on the issue.

“I think it’s everybody’s right to demand evidence You may not be happy with the evidence from the developer, but there’s a lot of experts out there and it would be perfectly reasonable for Shetland to host a climate change summit, but an academic one.

“Get the best experts up here talking about the evidence of generating energy for onshore wind and what the options are.”

Because of her concerns about the impact of onshore developments on the carbon budget, Professor Glover is more a fan of offshore energy – wind, wave and tidal.

She has every confidence that if the investment is made – as the Scottish government has shown itself prepared to do with its plans for the Pentland Firth and the Saltire Prize – then the technology will come through to meet the enormous challenges of generating power from the open sea.

Cheaper and more efficient ways of generating power could be developed, she said, citing the £25 million investment in Strathclyde University’s Advanced Forming Centre where new designs for aircraft wings and turbine blades are being tested out.

“If you have an offshore wind farm you need to make sure the maintenance isn’t a big issue so you don’t have boats burning fuel going out there all the time to maintain them. We need them to work 24 hours a day without maintenance.”

Looking out of the window in the museum on a blustery day, the professor saw Shetland’s potential. “There is a huge amount of energy out there in the tides and the waves and offshore wind,” she said.

“There is solar thermal and heat pumps. All of these things could be developed and manufactured here. This could be a hotbed of activity. It could be a showcase of a low carbon economy and why wouldn’t Shetland want to be part of that?

“It was at the forefront of oil and gas and it is well placed to be at the forefront of low carbon living, demonstrating how lovely low carbon living could be. I don’t want a hairshirt, but I don’t want my home to be heated at the expense of people starving or dying in developing countries.

“I think Shetland needs to identify where it wants to contribute and then I think it needs to tell the world, look here’s what we have got, you would be mad not come here.

“If Shetland was mine and I was a dictator I would draw up a business plan of Shetland being the first carbon neutral economy exporting power to neighbouring countries.

“And I would think how can that be achieved and who do we need to partner with to get that to work and where does the money come from, because there’s an awful lot of investors, huge charities who want to spend money on this.

“There’s a lot of money out there and the reason they want to spend the money is it’s a sure fire investment. They can’t lose money on this, but they need big ideas so why shouldn’t Shetland come up with a big idea? It’s got the natural resources, it’s got the people with the vision, and it just needs the next step. I think Shetland needs to be very ambitious.”

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