Could green jobs melt in the sun?

Solar panels Image copyright Other
Image caption Solar power alternatives have been dropping rapidly in price

The gathering of green energy developers and investors in Edinburgh this week is more about quality than quantity.

That's to say, it's not exactly packed. But to have a panel, as this afternoon - bristling with chief executives and their bonuses, along with the first minister and high representatives of regulator Ofgem and the Crown Estate - makes for quite a lot of green clout.

They may be in competition with each other, but they're all agreed on what they want to do. They want to build a very large number of very large wind turbines, adding the wave and tidal variety when they can be proven commercial.

Where the wind blows

With a bill for upgrading and re-orienting Britain around low carbon energy of £200bn, the larger ones can pony up investment cash from their own resources. Or put another way, consumer bills generate profits, and that can be reinvested.

Other, smaller operators, are finding it tough to persuade investors to join in, particularly beyond onshore wind, which is the safe and proven option, at least when it blows a bit.

The banks will do some debt financing, but it's not going to be enough, and the constraints on the banks - possibly about to get much worse - are the main constraint on roll-out of renewables.

Financiers say the big institutional funds, meaning your pension and mine, will have to be persuaded to join in if expectations and targets are to be met.

Salmond's fingerprints

And that's one reason why the Scottish government is very, very keen to give these annual Scottish Low Carbon Investment conferences (this is the second) a high priority.

Alex Salmond appeared twice today, and three of his ministers will follow, to make the case that this is at the heart of the SNP's economic policy.

It needs that extra heat applied to it. There's a risk of complacency (not, to be fair, from the first minister - he wants his prints all over this issue) that Scotland has the windy, wavy stuff, and the rest of the "Saudi Arabia of renewables" rhetoric will surely make us oil sheikh rich.

It won't. It needs a lot of co-ordination of financing. It needs offshore oil and gas companies to get involved with skills and technology they can transfer into marine power. Scottish Enterprise today issued research that suggests the hydrocarbon boys could deliver cost savings of up to 20% on renewable development, if only they paid enough attention to get involved. Sir Ian Wood was on hand to make sure they do.

Prototype primer

This also needs the big foreign players enticed in to Scotland, as several are already doing. One remaining gap in the public sector's development offer was closed today, with a £35m Scottish government fund to help build prototypes of the next generation of wind turbines for operation in deep water.

That hints at one of the more significant problems Scotland faces. Yes, it has the resource. But the first waves of marine wind farms are being built in shallower water, nearer consumers, to the east of England and in the Irish Sea. Scotland has lots of wind, but it blows above deep water, and the cost of grid connection is much higher.

You can solve the connection costs politically, and the case for that goes on.

Shallow waters

The geography is another matter, and Scotland's potential is not matched by its current reality.

While England has the world's largest marine wind farm in Thanet, Scotland has, when I last looked, a modest Solway Firth array and a trial turbine in the Moray Firth. It has but one turbine manufacturing plant, in Campbeltown, which has been in administration on three occasions in as many years.

If Scotland has to wait for the easier places to be developed, further south, the big manufacturing decisions may have already located the associated jobs in fabrication yards and turbine factories closer to English waters.

Siemens and GE are already committed to north east England. Spanish renewables giant Gamesa is to decide by the end of next month between manufacturing turbines in Hartlepool or Dundee.

Ahead of his opening of a significant research engineering site in Glasgow on Wednesday, chairman/chief executive Jorge Calvet told BBC Scotland that transportation costs will play a part in that decision, alongside supply chain, port facilities and room for expansion when demand is ramped up in five to seven years. And while he's being heavily lobbied in Edinburgh, the English authorities are taking this seriously as well, with extensive port investments.

Sunshine sparkles

This Edinburgh investment gathering is also a useful reminder of the global picture, putting Scottish ambitions in perspective.

The conference began with a reminder that vast funds are flooding into renewables, but not all the marine type in which Scotland specialises.

The really rapid growth since last year has been in solar, with $86bn investment last year to $95bn in wind. Biofuels have fallen back, after they fuelled a spike in crop prices, while marine wave and tidal is put in its place, with $0.1bn.

This analysis, from Bloomberg, goes on to look at costs of producing energy, which it says is the most significant factor in explaining why last year saw 34% of newly installed generating capacity being renewable - 47% if you include large hydro.

And while fossil fuel can be cheaper, it's heading in the wrong directions, while green power is getting cheaper. Solar, in particular, is dropping rapidly in price.

And it's not just the hottest countries that are investing in it. Germany was the biggest market, followed by Italy.

Hard Climb Ahead

It was pointed out, however, that the Clean Energy Stocks Index has not fared well, with prices falling more sharply than other indices with this summer's routs, reaching close to the 2009 trough, and not far off share prices in 2003.

The closing down of tariff incentives explains a rush to invest last year, while Chinese wind power is blowing the rest of the industry away.

South America and India are the next markets to watch - Chile being one country watched carefully by Edinburgh-based Aquamarine wave pioneers, along with the US west coast and Ireland.

That global perspective is worth keeping in mind amid the Saudi rhetoric.

Bloomberg's recent note on developments closer to home is titled: "Hard Climb Ahead Before Scotland Can Take the High Road on Renewables"

More on this story