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Viewpoint / Viewpoint: Inter-connectivity key to green future

Dr Ian Duncan MEP - Photo: ShetNews

TORY Euro MP Ian Duncan says the proposed North Sea electricity grid could be the way forward for Shetland’s many untapped energy resources being linked up with customers across the European Energy Union.

The Shetland Islands are blessed by a remarkable range of energy resources, from oil and gas a near stone’s throw away, through some of the most powerful tides and waves in Europe to the ever-present wind.

Despite this plethora of energy sources, the islands continue to face serious challenges in energy supply. Simply put, Shetland is off the grid, both gas and electrical, and must rely upon local sources of generation.

Despite recent attempts to plug Shetland in to the UK grid, distance and cost keep getting in the way. Even the proposed Viking project remains on the drawing board.

Which brings me to developments in Brussels. Three months ago the European Commission launched its flagship Energy Union initiative. Its aim, to connect Europe’s disparate energy markets, maximise efficiency of production and counter our dependence on Russian oil and gas – EU taxpayers pay over a billion euros a day to Mr Putin.

So what does this have to do with Shetland? Well, simply put, the islands lie right at the heart of what could be the largest electricity free trade area in the northern hemisphere.

The North Sea electricity grid is a straightforward yet powerful concept: connect up the electricity grids of each of the countries bordering the North Sea using subsea cables; allow electricity to flow from where it is generated to where it is needed; and in the by-going, reduce bills for consumers and industry alike.

Creating a grid will need cash. The European Commission estimates that laying the cables and building the grid will cost up to £8 billion. However the Commission is clear that some £35 billion of private investment is ready to flow into the project.

Shetland, with the deep-water harbour at Lerwick and the vital shoreside facilities, is perfectly situated to berth the vessels, which will lay the connecting cables, and later to provide the ongoing servicing which will be required.

Coordinating infrastructure investment across the North Sea done right will save money. At present Scotland alone wastes a significant amount of money and electricity from its intermittent renewable generation. When the wind doesn’t blow or when it blows too hard there are problems.

However, in Europe at any given time there are almost always the right conditions somewhere for the generation of electricity. With the right cabling this electricity will always find a home (or a business) to power somewhere in Europe. The European Commission estimates that upwards of £50 billion could be saved over the coming decades.

The storing of renewable electricity remains a challenge. The only sure fire way uses pump storage hydro technology. The electricity generated by wave or wind or tides is used to pump water up the hillside to the top dam. There it remains until it is needed, when with the flick of a switch the water falls generating hydro power as it does so.

Whilst Scotland has such power plants, the bulk of Europe’s pump storage hydro plants are in Norway.

Connecting Norway in to the North Sea grid would inevitably lead to cables passing through Shetland’s waters lying as it does just 225 miles from Norway and 130 miles from mainland Scotland.

As it stands, the North Sea grid project is still on the drawing board. However, with the coming of the Energy Union the time is right for the North Sea electricity grid.

However, there will be competition for the funds from other projects. That is why as the Energy spokesman of the Conservatives in the European Parliament I have been pushing the Commission to prioritise the grid.

I hosted an event in the parliament a few weeks weeks ago where the Commission announced they want to begin work on the North Sea grid as early as 2016. There are still hurdles to be jumped but it was a welcome statement.

With the right mix of political will and the right injection of cash (homegrown and European) I believe it can be done.

Shetland will benefit. Scotland will benefit. The UK and the rest of Europe will benefit too, and in the by-going we will make a significant contribution to reducing our carbon emissions, so the climate will benefit also.

I will be keeping the pressure on the European Commission to make sure that their commitment to the initiative is not just hot air.