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Delivering a vision of our energy future at the 10th Scottish Highlands Renewable Energy Conference

Think of the entire United Kingdom as a great big version of Orkney. Add in 30 million electric cars, wind turbines in the sea with blades of epic proportions, and an intelligent, connected system in which not a drop of energy is wasted and local needs are met by the generation of local, clean heat and power.

That gives you just some idea of the vision given to around 150 delegates at Harper Macleod's 10th Annual Scottish Highlands Renewable Energy Conference (SHREC) in Inverness on 25 April.

Organised in conjunction with SPP Media, and followed by the inaugural Highland and Island Renewable Energy Awards, the 10th SHREC used that milestone to look back on a decade of progress – despite some major challenges – and forward to what the future might hold for renewables.

If the whole UK seems too ambitious – and it shouldn't be – the message of the conference was that the Highlands and Islands has the resources and ability to lead the way in how we meet energy needs in the future. Groundbreaking developments across the region, where the region has been a tested for projects which pull together many strands of energy usage and generation, were a recurring theme of the event with Orkney featuring regularly.

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Looking back to the future 

David Bone, Head of Energy & Natural Resources at conference organiser Harper Macleod and the only man to have spoken at all 10 SHRECs, opened proceedings in his role as Chairman by looking back at what he said at the 1st SHREC – an event that almost didn't happen after heavy snow forced it to be postponed.

His concluding slide from that day was dusted down and proved prophetic in identifying what the sector's main challenges would be as Scotland moved from have installed generation capacity of 3800MW towards a 5GW target. Scotland's installed capacity is now 11GW and he introduced an array of speakers who reflected on the past decade then looked to the future of what was possible.

Long time conference chair Jeremy Sainsbury OBE, of Natural Power, took the conference back to the future with an energetic, inspiring and combative address on what needs to happen for the kind of vision outlined in the introduction to come to fruition.

He said: "This isn't just a community initiative, or a local government initiative – it's a UK one. How do we organise all of this? It's about collaboration, and it's great to come to the Highlands and Islands to look at these concepts as it’s a place where people do genuinely collaborate.

"In 2030 we're likely to all have smart houses and you will be consuming energy from a smart energy provider in a way which is more like how you pay for mobile phone data. You will be much more energy efficient, which allows renewables and the other resources we have to supply everything you need. Your car is going to be electric. If we have 30 million electric cars plugged in, they can also be used as a back-up battery which would have a total capacity equivalent to the National Grid's average winter day demand! But how do we plan for and manage this system.

"There will probably be a lot more remote working – the way we work is going to change. More services will be automated and disruptive technology will change our opportunities.

"We need to understand the key enablers to the future economy because the next 10 years is not going to be evolution, it's revolution. We are changing fundamentally the way we think and deliver things every 3 to 5 years. This is not something that's going to stand still. We can't predict exactly what technologies are going to happen so we have to enable the planning, grid and regulatory frameworks to in turn enable the technology to work over the top of it.

"No piece of infrastructure should be looked at in isolation. Every bit of infrastructure we're putting in will be there for the next 30-50 years. If you look at what's going to change in that period it has to be flexible infrastructure that has more than one purpose.

"And we need to think on a much bigger scale. Identifying from community level up to government and back down the way, how we can best utilise the energy that is abundant in the region to serve the region and grow the economy. That's what I would like to see if I return in another 10 years' time.

"The rural economy has a fantastic opportunity to grow, thrive and develop over the next 15 years if we get the infrastructure right. What is the cost of failure – local economies will stagnate. Without these technologies and infrastructure in place you won't be able to take advantage of these developments. So we have to make it happen."

Highland Council and local communities

Stuart Black, Director of Development and Infrastructure at the Highland Council, identified four key areas for the local authority, starting with the climate change challenge we all face and the way it affects the Council. He moved on to outline the growth of installed renewables in the council area and how the authority is going to meet its future energy needs with some interesting projects in the pipeline as local energy planning - something much more prevalent on the continent – comes into play.

Local communities feature heavily in the Highlands and Islands renewables scene, and have always played a big part in the agenda at SHREC. Nicholas Gubbins, Chief Executive of Community Energy Scotland, laid out the development and growth of community energy projects. The overwhelming message was one of incredible innovation arising in the face of every challenge, innovation which was only possible through partnership and collaboration across the board.

In four 'waves' of community renewables development – mobilisation, transformation, consolidation and innovation – it had gone from being a new idea that people knew very little about to a vital element in the present and future of many local communities.

Keynote address - Fergus Ewing MSP

The second session of the day began with Fergus Ewing MSP delivering the keynote address at his 5th SHREC in 10 years, and urged delegates to “lift our eyes to the horizon of what’s possible” because the opportunities have never been greater".

A former Scottish Energy Minister, and now Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy, he set out many of the achievements of the sector and the great steps forward that had been taken to reach this point. And he assured delegates that the Scottish Government was committed to driving the sector forward.

Praising SHREC for being at the heart of the development of renewables in the Highlands and Islands, he said: "SHREC has brought people together and has played a part in recognising the enormous successes that individuals and businesses have achieved, and it has been a great forum for the cause of renewable energy in the Highlands. When I first attended SHREC seven years ago I said that we have to be ambitious, we have to be innovative and these words remain true today. Whatever barriers there are or may appear to be in place, we will overcome them in future as we have in the past."

Technologically advanced and leading the world

The Minister was followed by Elaine Hanton, head of energy technologies at Highlands and Islands Enterprise, who explained how an energy tech-savvy Highlands and Islands can and does lead the world. Elaine was another person who actually spoke at the very first SHREC event, and she started her talk by going back in time to 2010, when the concept of deep water offshore wind was still being proven and we had no idea that a project on the scale of Beatrice, for example, would be possible.

She said: "There has been massive progress across technologies, across the supply chain and the infrastructure and investment over the years. This is time of rapid change as part of a longer term transition in our whole energy sector and we believe that the Highlands and Islands has led the way over the past 10 years and will continue to do so."

Elaine concluded with the sincere hope that the development of islands interconnection, on a scale which works for everyone, would finally get over the line after being within our grasp for a number of years now.

A lesson from Inverness' German twin

The final presentation of the conference broke new ground for SHREC, with Roland Schwarz from Stadtwerke Augsburg - the 3rd largest utility company in Bavaria – addressing delegates.

For 60 years Augsburg has been twinned with Inverness, but now both cities were looking to develop economic links on top of the cultural and civic bond.

In impeccable English, Roland explained the integrated energy/transport/services model of Augsburg, delivered by the arms-length Stadtwerke which, while a business in its own right, subsidises the most sustainable local transport system in Germany with the proceeds from its energy arm. The presentation included fascinating detail on expansive district heating systems and water supply, from a utility company which also powers the local football stadium.

Roland was accompanied by David Scrimgeour MBE, formerly the Scottish Government's official investment representative in Germany and now Managing Director of DS Consulting. He said: "The Highlands and Islands have the capacity to deliver really interesting projects. We can learn from some of the long term activity in areas such as district heating in Bavaria, but we can also become a test bed for new developments and partner with people in other countries. There is the potential to bring in investment in projects which have a range of values, not just financial but social and environmental."

Highland council is actively looking to learn lessons from how things are done in Bavaria and the huge opportunities and benefits in taking an integrated approach.

All in all it was a tremendous day of insight and revelation at SHREC2019 – perhaps the most inspiring edition of the 10 so far.

And as the speakers and delegates exited, the conference room was already being transformed into the venue for the very first Highland and Island Renewable Energy Awards, being organised by SPP Media and headline sponsors Harper Macleod.

A Snap of the Day and Night's action 

You can view all the pictures from the conference and the awards online here.