EDINBURGH, Scotland — As the tide enters the Pentland Firth on the northern tip of the United Kingdom, it can reach a speed of 16 knots — enough to push a ship off course.
Generations of sailors have treated the strait separating the Orkney Islands from the Scottish mainland with respect. Now Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond is hoping the raging waters can help propel to him victory in May’s Scottish parliamentary elections.
As the crisis at the damaged Japanese nuclear power plant mounts, renewable energy looks like a winning political platform — particularly in the United Kingdom, which has the second most nuclear power plants in the European Union.
Salmond describes the Pentland Firth as “our Saudi Arabia of renewable marine energy” and his minority Scottish National Party (SNP) government in Edinburgh is investing heavily to make it a center of wave and tidal power research. The administration has created the 10 million pound ($16 million) Saltire Prize, which will be awarded to any team demonstrating commercially viable technology in Scottish waters capable of generating 100 GWH over a continuous two-year period.
It is part of a wider drive for 80 percent of the electricity used in Scotland to come from renewable sources — essentially waves and wind, two things the country has plentiful supplies of — by 2020. There is some way to go. The figure stood at 27 percent in 2009 and is expected to reach 31 percent this year.
“In the future we will generate up to 10 times the electricity that we need in the waters around Scotland," Salmond said in a recent address to the nation. "We will sell electricity across Europe and become the green powerhouse of the continent, and in the process generate tens of thousands of jobs for Scotland.”
This does not just make environmental sense to the SNP, which is lagging behind the Labour Party in the opinion polls. It also puts clear political water between Salmond and his opponents in Scotland and the British government in London. While eight new nuclear power stations are being planned for England and Wales, the First Minister refuses to sanction any north of the border.
As the Japanese crisis deepens, it looks like Salmond might have chosen a winning issue. And if the SNP is returned to power with a majority, a referendum will almost certainly be held during the next parliament asking Scots whether they want to become independent country for the first time in 304 years.
The stakes are high and unsurprisingly opposition parties, which all reject independence, are on the attack. Labour’s energy spokesman Lewis MacDonald claims the SNP’s energy policy runs the risk of costing jobs.
“Even the Scottish Government’s own Council of Economic Advisers have warned it is wrong to rule out nuclear energy,” he pointed out.
The Conservative Party, whose leader David Cameron is British Prime Minister but which trails badly in Scotland, is equally scathing.
“It is the SNP’s blinkered dogma which is threatening to turn out the lights across Scotland by refusing to consider nuclear power as part of a balanced energy mix,” claimed its Scottish energy spokesman Gavin Brown.
But this is not just a political fight — the business world is also becoming involved.
In an eloquent speech of which his grandfather Winston Churchill would have been proud, Rupert Soames, chief executive of Glasgow-based Aggreko, a world leader in the rental of power generation equipment, told a conference at the Scottish Parliament that renewable technology was not yet sufficiently developed to replace the country’s ageing coal and oil fired power stations.
“My worry is that the policymakers are so focused on the end of the road that they fail to see the large pothole 300 yards in front,” he said. “If we persist in thinking only about 2030, we will end up in deep trouble in 2018.
“We may wish the replacement to be wind; we may wish it to be tidal; but wishing isn’t going to make it happen. We need a Plan B. Scotland is a wonderful place to develop renewable energy but we cannot sit around dreaming of a carbon-free future that is at best many decades in the future. We need to move on and deal with the cold realities to avert a very real energy crisis that will hit us in less than 10 years time.”
The tidal power reality might be closer than Soames realizes. This week the Scottish government approved plans for a tidal energy project in the Sound of Islay, which is expected to generate enough power to supply 5,000 homes.
"The understanding we develop from Islay will be essential in delivering the larger planned projects in the Pentland Firth," Keith Anderson, chief executive of Scottish Power Renewables, told the BBC.