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Scotland faces an unjust transition

The wind energy boom in Scotland is not going to Scotland — why are we allowing both the jobs and the energy being produced go to foreign companies, asks KENNY MACASKILL MP

THERE’S no doubt we need to transition from fossil fuels. Climate change is real — and even in this country, the effects are becoming frightening. In other lands, it’s now deadly, and shamefully most often it’s affecting those countries that contributed least to the situation our planet faces.

That said renewables offer a huge opportunity for both Scotland and Britain. Our geography and climate, so often a curse, are now a blessing. Wind and location, once an impediment, now offer huge opportunities with on and offshore wind, never mind other technologies such as wave and tidal.

But it cannot happen overnight nor simply be magicked up. It takes time to transition, and skills and strategies are required to achieve it. Plastics are needed for vital components in turbines, never mind diesel to get them to site on land or sea.

The skills required to extract oil and gas are also required to manage the turbines and harness the wind. Providing new, as well as existing challenges in often difficult terrain or seas. It’s why just shutting down the North Sea immediately isn’t possible. Moreover, it’s vital to retain the manufacturing capacity and the skill base that exists.

I’m minded of a tale from the early days of North Sea oil when rig construction was commencing. Portholes were required, something that had long since been jettisoned in shipbuilding.

Fortunately, someone knew of a worker long since made redundant who was tracked down and was able to show them what needed to be done. That may be apocryphal, but it resonates today and if workers are lost to the Continent or Middle East, we’ll all lose out.

It’s why there needs to be a Just Transition which sustains our communities that have grown around the fossil fuel sector and protects the workforce who have risked and sacrificed so much. But is that happening? Or are we facing an “unjust transition?”

Anyone driving up the east coast of Britain will see turbines onshore and increasingly offshore. As the A1 bends west to head across to Edinburgh a windfarm is now visible at the mouth of the Firth of Forth. That’s Seagreen, operated by SSE, but it’s only to be one of many.

Another, called Berwick Bank, will be of a scale to provide for 2.8 million homes, which is more households than Scotland possesses. And indeed, in a country where almost 100 per cent of domestic electricity supply can already be provided by renewables — no doubt explaining why 40 per cent of its energy is to be cabled directly to Blyth in Northumberland, reducing grid capacity issues.

What can be wrong with that you might think? East Lothian is surely blessed by its location and climate, as is Scotland. But while county and country are energy-rich, folk are fuel-poor. Many can see the turbines from their homes but can’t switch on their heating.

There’s little revenue other than some handouts from operators to communities and a modest payment to Crown Estate Scotland for cables crossing the foreshore. Ah well, maybe jobs will come in manufacturing and supply chain? Think again as without an industrial strategy and failure to ensure a Just Transition, we’re losing there too.

Both the lost opportunities and the injustice are shown by even a cursory glance at the Neart Na Gaoithe windfarm. It’s a microcosm of what’s happening across our land seas.

Sited near both Berwick Bank and Seagreen at the mouth of the Forth, it’s only going to be 16 kilometres from the coast of Fife, with the energy coming ashore on the other side of the Firth in East Lothian. With 54 turbines it’ll produce enough energy to power 375,000 homes.

But where’s the benefit for the community or country? Profits will be made by the operators, not the state. Who owns it? Well, a clue is in the name which is in fact Irish, not Scottish Gaelic. It’s owned by EDF, the state energy operator of France and ESB, the state-owned electricity supply company of the Republic of Ireland.

Indeed, the Irish Consul General proudly told me that it’s ESB’s biggest-ever investment outside the island of Ireland. No wonder he’s happy as profits will go to Dublin and Paris, not Edinburgh or London. They’re simply two of many state energy companies operating in the North Sea and onshore from Europe, Asia and the Middle East, yet none from Scotland or Britain.

Ah well, maybe we’ll get the work in manufacturing the turbines? After all, BiFab in Methil lies idle just across the waters in Fife. Spit and the wind might carry it there. Instead, the work is being done by Siemens Gamesa in Humberside.

At least it’s in Britain with many others being towed across the seas whether from the Netherlands or even Indonesia. They’ll be assembled in Dundee, but the high-value contract and high-paying jobs are missing. Even the contract for towing them north is going abroad with that work being done by the Fred Olsen Group from Norway.

Turbines though are only one component and maybe there’s some opportunity with the foundations. But they’re going to Saipem, an Italian company. The cables and connectors are being delivered by DEME Offshore, a Belgian company. That work isn’t just a small extension but 12 separate 66-kilovolt array strings, as well as interconnectors between turbines and to shore.

NnaG, as it’s known, will be operating out of Eyemouth but with preparatory works hubbing out of Montrose. At least some respite in contracts and jobs going abroad you’d think. That’s what a constituent of mine thought, nearer home and less travel.

He signed up for Solstad Offshore but had no sooner started than he was laid off. He and other British workers were replaced by a Filipino crew who’ll be on far lower wages.

That P&O situation is an existential threat to the offshore wind sector. Outwith the 12-mile territorial limit and employment law and other rights not just change but are lost.

It’s why we’ve seen the perversity of a man from Wales lost from a supply ship 100 miles from Aberdeen being the responsibility of Liberia under whose flag his ship as with so many others operates. The African state is in turn contracting out its duties to lawyers in Houston, Texas — not even the small town of that name in Renfrewshire.

That’s bad enough but the minimum wage doesn’t apply. As flotels as living accommodation become the norm, who’ll be working there? Will they simply pass through Scotland on arrival and departure unless medevacked out for emergency treatment?

We need to transition but it must be a Just Transition. The profits should be coming to our land not going to corporates or even foreign state energy companies. The work and contracts should be benefiting British and local companies and jobs should go to those with the skills that served us so well in oil and gas.

Let NnaG be a lesson that we learn from. This can benefit us and our planet, but we need control of profits and work and jobs for our businesses and people. We cannot have the perversity of being energy rich yet our people are fuel poor.

Kenny MacAskill is the Alba Party MP for East Lothian.


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