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SHREC shows ambitious Highlands and Islands still punching above its weight in renewables

The renewable energy sector in the Highlands and Islands will be at the forefront of the next era of the clean energy revolution – providing that a supportive regulatory environment allows the vast resource the region provides to deliver on its full potential.

That was the overwhelming message delivered to the 9th annual Scottish Highlands Renewable Energy Conference (SHREC), hosted by leading law firm Harper Macleod at the Kingsmills Hotel in Inverness on 26 April.

Around 100 delegates, representing communities, developers, decision makers and other energy stakeholders, gathered to hear from leading figures in the local industry and discuss the future of the sector.

With the ambitious targets of the new Scottish Energy Strategy providing a focus for proceedings, SHREC delivered an optimistic outlook for renewable sector and the economic benefits it can bring as it matures and strives to compete on a level playing field with competing energy sources on cost and regulatory support.

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Claire Mack, Chief Executive of Scottish Renewables (pictured below), had made a whirlwind journey from the "phenomenal" Nigg Energy Park to deliver a keynote address to the conference and focused on the Scottish Government's Energy Strategy from a practical perspective. In particular she considered what challenges it posed to those operating in the sector and how they could tackle these successfully.

Scottish Renewables had pushed for the target the equivalent of 50% of the energy for Scotland's heat, transport and electricity consumption to be supplied from renewable sources by 2030 and Mack said it set out "a clear ambition and strong message for the industry".

She compared the transition from a reliance on gas towards clean energy to the digital switchover which saw TV services switch from analogue to digital – a transition she was involved in with Ofcom - and emphasised the need to make a compelling case for people to switch. The question of the cost of energy to consumers is crucial to both the UK and Scottish Governments and therefore the issue underpinning the whole of the industry's future.

David Bone, Harper Macleod's Senior Partner, and head of the firm's Energy & Natural Resources team, chaired proceedings and had opened the conference by delivering a 'State of the Nation' address for the sector in Scotland and the wider UK and international context.

He highlighted the maturity of the market, and indeed the secondary market in selling or acquiring existing renewable projects, which was no longer viewed as a risk for financial institutions. He said: "Mainstream investors are now more comfortable putting finance into wind farms, which we've seen direct evidence of. The team at Harper Macleod team has been involved in a number of significantly sized deals which led to us having our best ever year, which is indicative of a maturing market.

Mr Bone highlighted the further potential for growth in offshore wind, with a new leasing round in the pipeline from the Crown Estate - making the UK the world's biggest market for this type of development.

However, he added a warning over the potential impact of Brexit, saying: "The renewables sector may not be impacted as much as some others, but there are a significant number of projects which have benefited from European funding and the absence of this will need to be factored in."

The second speaker on the day was Audrey MacIver (pictured above) Director of Energy & Low Carbon at Highlands and Islands Enterprise. She brought things into a pure Highlands and Islands context and outlined what success would look like when it came to implementing the Scottish Government's Energy Strategy in the region.

The conference took place on the day it was announced that DF Barnes, part of one of Canada's biggest industrial construction businesses, took ownership of the Arnish yard in the Western Isles with promises to make significant investment. It also followed on from recent news that the massive dry dock at Kishorn, which was last used in the construction of the Skye bridge in 1994, was to be used again to construct large concrete substructures for the turbines for the Kincardineshire Offshore Windfarm project – one of the world's largest floating windfarms.

Audrey MacIver said: "The Highlands and Islands punch above their weight in terms of renewables and we are committed to ensuring that continues to be the case. Significant progress has been made over the past decade and renewables is very much a success story overall, though we still have many ambitions that can be realised."

She used the time-frame of the SHREC conference's existence, from the first event in 2010 until today, to highlight some of the major developments which have shaped the sector, including Global Energy Group buying Nigg yard to creating an energy hub in 2011, and the Jubilee Quay being completed at Scrabster in 2013, along with a host of onshore wind developments.

Going forward, with developments such as the world first Beatrice Offshore Wind Farm allied to the ongoing development and use of harbour sites for infrastructure and the supply chain, the future looked bright.

MacIver made it clear that HIE are behind the new Energy Strategy and its whole system approach which should ensure no-one was left behind – which is important for many of the communities within HIE's remit.

She said future success required a supportive regulatory environment and community engagement, and would include: the continued growth of the supply chain and developments around the coast; better route to market for marine technology; continuing pioneering work on local energy systems; continuing strengthening of relationships with communities; seeing Cfds secured for island projects, which could be transformational; and the further development of storage technology and capacity.

Next to address the conference was David Mudie, Highland Council Planning Department's Team Leader responsible for renewables and Chair of the Energy & Resources sub-committee of Heads of Planning Scotland.

Mr Mudie opened by looking back at the early years of renewables in the council area, which he described as very much a race for capacity, before going on to explain the important and complex role that any local authority planners have. He looked to the future under the National Planning Framework, as well as the cost involved in resourcing proper planning decisions.

As always, this brought the need to balance tensions between the national interest and local decision making, being mindful of local planning requirements.

The morning session was closed by Iain Maciver (pictured above) Estate Factor of Stornoway Trust, who gave a fascinating insight into his community's 25-year journey in using renewables to produce benefits for the area and its people.

He highlighted the word 'collaboration', which as he said can have two meanings – to work with someone to produce something, or traitorous cooperation with an enemy! While not everyone is a believer in wind power, he said working with credible, trustworthy developers over an extended period of time had proven to be the former kind of collaboration.

The community around Stornoway had a strong motivation to embrace the renewable opportunity, with a need to create local jobs and investment to combat the threat of depopulation.

He said: "We knew we had a world class resource and a need, but we face a lot of challenges – not least grid constraints, supply chain issues and environmental challenge. There were a lot of different interests to take into account while initially the appetite of financial institutions to get involved wasn't there."

However, he went on to demonstrate the success that the Trust had achieved, and what more could be achieved should connectors from the Western Isles to the grid finally be put in place.

SHREC's afternoon speakers: David Steel, Michael Ansell, Jean Curran and Kenny Hunter

Michael Ansell, Head of Estate Development for Forest Enterprise Scotland, opened the afternoon session by looking at wind and hydro developments on the National Forest Estate (NFE), which makes up 10% of Scotland's land mass.

He has overseen the growth in renewable energy on the NFE from zero to 1GW of installed capacity as the organisation looks to maximise the potential of the NFE for the country, while maintaining the delicate balance it requires.

In particular, Mr Ansell highlighted how Forest Enterprise Scotland had been instrumental in creating the standard for community benefit payments from renewable developments, and increasing the options for communities including having the ability to build out scheme's themselves or take equity in a developer's scheme.

Harper Macleod's David Steel, who has advised on many of the renewables projects built on the NFE, then looked into the nitty gritty of what a developer can expect when negotiating to build such a project. He looked at practical aspects such as tree felling, responsibility for roads and reforestation and the other conditions which come with the territory. However, both he and Mr Ansell believe that far from this deterring any prospective developments, this thoroughness has assisted in the success of the projects which have been achieved by collaboration.

The final two speakers of the day continued the practical theme of the afternoon.

Kenny Hunter, of Hunter Hydro, has decades of experience in developing and managing hydro projects around Scotland and he talked the conference through the reality of running small hydro developments, of which fewer are now been built.

In particular he showed how dependent hydro schemes are on rainfall, and indeed the "right kind of rain" where a steady water supply generates power to maximum effect. His own data, gathered from from active schemes across Scotland, showed how this can vary throughout the year, and how this data can be used to assist with scheduling maintenance and other operational issues to ensure owners gets the best possible return on their projects.

The final speaker of the day was Jean Curran, Managing Director of Atmos Consulting, who brought more than 20 years' experience to bear in her presentation on navigating Environmental Impact Assessments in any prospective renewable development. Delivering a commercially viable planning consent is vital, and without this a project can stall fatally and never get off the ground. However, again by taking a collaborative approach and using the power of data developers can gather and present all the evidence they require to ensure that they meet all the regulatory benchmarks required.