There is a vivid passage in Fiona MacInnes’s brilliant novel “Iss”* where she describes the physical nature of the sea the fishermen have to face off the west coast of Orkney,
“The swell under the Craig was bad because you never got a true wave. The Atlantic came in, hitting the cliffs with all the power of the entire ocean, then rebounded. It was all over the place like drunken dancing bears.”
Energy policy in the UK since 1945 to the present has also been “all over the place like drunken dancing bears”. In the Far North of Scotland, however, this may be about to change. The single marine turbine in Bluemull Sound in Shetland was joined last month by a second and now produces electricity for the Shetland grid and is the world’s first tidal array to deliver power on a commercial basis. This has been hailed by both the renewable energy sector and by environmentalists as a “turning point in the development of marine power”. The company responsible for the two turbine installation, Nova Innovation of Edinburgh, have finally shown that alternative energy sources to both fossil fuel and nuclear can be both renewable and reliable and the only downside to this is that it has taken so long to get here. In the mid 1970’s Professor Colin Salter was advocating his “Nodding Duck” wave generator and getting laughed at by both the energy industry and Westminster. Now, at last, we have the beginning of a new energy reality: one that is clean, green and entirely predictable. A marine energy insider informed the press last week that there would be tidal power available “as long as the Moon is in the sky”.
This development in Shetland puts Scotland in the position of leading the way in developing the massive potential of marine energy. In financial terms this has been estimated at some £120 billion and Scotland could, if the political will is there, capture a significant proportion of that market. In the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) in Orkney the country already hosts a world leader in research and development in renewable energy. That this could be a casualty of Brexit is unthinkable but for forty years successive UK governments have deliberately downplayed the importance and practicality of renewable marine energy, especially in the Highlands and Islands, because of their economic addiction to North Sea oil and their religious conviction in nuclear power which they assumed, falsely, gave them political influence in the world. As the dog dance of Trident renewal illustrates the UK government hangs on to this expensive illusion still.
On the other hand Scotland is in the fortunate position of having the largest tidal resource in Europe. A tidal turbine, Europe’s most powerful, is beginning tests at EMEC’s test side west of Eday in Orkney. In the Pentland Firth, north of Caithness, MayGen, are already at work installing the first of their seabed tidal generators. The latter is seen by the renewable energy sector as a “game changer”. The wonderfully named Lang Banks, director of WWF Scotland, told the press last week,
“News that power has been exported to grid for the first time by a pair of tidal devices marks yet another major milestone on Scotland’s journey to becoming a fully renewable nation. With some of the most powerful tides in Europe, Scotland is well placed to lead in developing this promising technology, which will help cut climate emissions and create green jobs right across the country.”
As Fiona MacInnes so lyrically put it in “Iss” we have “all the power of the entire ocean” at our disposal which brings with it an equal measure of responsibility. As Jenny Hogan, Director of Policy at Scottish Renewables, has written in The National (30th August),
“According to the International Energy Agency, marine energy could generate 20 to 80,000 Terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity from tides, currents and waves as well as changes in temperature and salt content. To put that into perspective, current global electricity demand is rated at around 17,500TWh. Harnessing that potential presents an enormous opportunity for Scotland. Get it right, and skills and technology honed here would be in demand across the world, with all the economic and social benefits that would bring.”
If we “get it wrong” then the “enormous opportunity” becomes profit for one of the big five energy providers. There is, as always, an alternative. The electricity currently boiling kettles in Shetland and generated by the Bluemull Sound Tidal array is connected to the Shetland power grid which itself is NOT connected to the UK National Grid. This is important because the marine generated energy has to be used locally and cannot be sold to consumers in the south. The production and consumption paradigm in Shetland is entirely local: this is its strength. The power which will be generated from the Pentland Firth will enter the UK National Grid and be transmitted (and sold) to the Central Belt and further on to population centre in England: this is its weakness. Energy is treated as yet another tradable commodity and if MayGen become successful they will become vulnerable to being taken over by a major energy utility provider and any local benefit will be lost. To view marine generated energy as a regenerator of human society and to make all electrical grids local so that struggling economies can be rebooted and declining population trends reversed would take such an unprecedented realignment of the current supply and demand power paradigm that it may seem to many that it is impossible to comprehend. But it can be done. We have to begin to view energy as part of our democracy: we harness energy from nature so that we may live and we create democracy out of society in order to live better lives – this duality must become a singularity.
But in Scotland the history of coal, oil and gas has proven that if we do things in the same old way we will get the same old results. Shetland needs to look to a post-oil future. Orkney likewise has to consider how fishing and farming can be developed economically and evvironmentally to counter an over-dependency on tourism. In Caithness the 60 year old nuclear dream is a pile of radio active rust so we look with optimism to the Pentland Firth to form part of our future social and economic stability. None of these things will be achieved if the energy created locally literally goes down the line and all the benefit lines the pockets of a few companies. To ensure local benefit as opposed to multi-national profit we have to create a new paradigm of local power grids and as Fiona MacInnes so eloquently charts in her novel “Iss”, local cultural grids as well.
In as much as energy and democracy have to be symbiotic so too must the grids that transmit them be redefined. Energy should be generated and used locally in order to make communities less vulnerable and more autonomous politically. So too should societies create local cultural grids where creativity can be generated and transmitted locally in order to counter centuries of creative alienation, lack of expressive self-confidence and cultural inferiorism.
Most of Fiona MacInnes’s novel “Iss” is set in Stromness, where EMEC, the marine energy research and development centre is also based. As Shetland is beginning to enjoy the fruits of EMEC’s labours entering their electrical grid there are two telling and powerful passages in “Iss” which foreground the need for a parallel cultural grid. Seadhna and Cammy are walking down the main street in Stromness. They were at art school together and Cammy has come to visit her now that Seadhna has come home. A new art centre has been opened,
“Seadhna allowed her eyes to glaze past the gallery, thinking I’m not an artist. It’s all a mirage.
‘Fine big fancy gallery. No ma kinda thing though,’ said Cammy.
‘I can’t do it,’ said Seadhna, ‘I mean cheat people. It’s all a sleight of hand… Trickery. Once I thought it was all about something and I had something to say but I can’t find a way to say it.”
Later on in the narrative Seadhna is working in the town’s only bistro which is full of tourists, but no locals. One day when the place is heaving she looks at it as if for the first time,
“We’re almost invisible here, she thought. We’re getting rubbed out, the way every tourist is rubbing out the soul of the place with every snapshot they take. Peeling away our souls. Each one thinking they are the very first to discover the place, when really they are all just following a disintegrating path.”
In order to get off the “disintegrating path” a strong local cultural grid is as important as an active local power grid because they will enable material change on one hand and generate creative confidence and growth on the other. Both culture and electricity are forms of energy and as Fiona MacInnes’s fine novel corroborates: both are generated by the sea. It is human energy which is at the poetic heart of “Iss”, both kinetic and potential. The ancient Greeks valued poetry above all other art forms and the quality they looked for more than any other in all poetry was “energia”, which like most Bronze Age Greek has no literal translation but means more or less “spirit, movement, heat”: in other words – life.
The society which produced Sophocles and Euripides knew the value of a strong local cultural power grid. It is one of the reasons why after 2,500 year we still read and perform their work and find something new in them every time. The Greeks knew that their local grid was part of the grid of the world. Their culture, as a result, has become “multi-national” in the true sense of that over used hybrid phrase. They have made us all rich.
What will happen if multi-national energy companies get their diabolical hands on the power generation capacity currently being developed in the seas off Shetland, Orkney and Caithness is that we will all get poorer. Findings by Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) have shown that power utility companies are breeding poverty by charging poorer people more for their services than better off “customers”. More than 27% of poor people use costly pre-payment energy metres, most accumulating over £100 a month. Only about 12% of middle earners use these blood sucking devices and less than 1% of high earners. CAS has also found that almost half of low earners use the expensive “pay as you go” mobile phones in contrast to 40% of middle earners. The same racket applies to loans and credit deals as well as insurance so that people at the poorer end of the economic ladder end up repaying much more than they can afford or that their homes and contents go uninsured as they just can’t afford it. This is the poverty grid a cabal of utility companies create in order to maximise profit. As CAS spokesman Patrick Hogan has said,
“So, if you are poor in Scotland today you pay more for basic services, and so become poorer. This cannot be right and needs to be addressed. Poverty should not breed even more poverty.”
This is the paradigm of premature death for the poor and is the reality behind the veneer of privatisation where everything is the opposite of what it seems, where lawless capital can accumulate its resources in central banks such as the US Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank because the “free market” in financial trading is no longer free, it is stagnant, and then release that capital without fear of regulation to favoured clients such as Spanish energy providers and the French giant EDF who then set about their pet projects such as Hinckley Point nuclear power station or buying up the competition.
This “lawless” capitalism, however, is slowly suffering heat death as it heads for the cliff it has carved out for itself from the great plain of possible equality. We can in Scotland create a working alternative, if the political will is there, of local capital created by local power grids and local cultural grids: each local grid interconnecting with its neighbour to create a strong base for our nation’s future to be built upon. The alternative is the chaos of the “market” in its death throes. Strange, you may think, as the UK beats itself to bits over Brexit, that we in Scotland can look to the sea for our future?
At the end of “Iss” Seadhna and her man Michael, a fisherman, are settling into their new home.
“Between them everything was wiped afresh. There was no longer any past, only the present and the new story they might create.”
As long as the Moon is in the sky there is the potential to create anything, even a new country fit to live in.
©George Gunn 2016
*Iss by Fiona MacInnes (2013), Stromness Books and Prints, £10.00 ISBN 978-0-9927240-0-9 www.fionamacinnes.co.uk