Scotland's 'remarkable' renewables model should be spread to world, says US professor

George Busenberg a the summit of Mt Elbert, Colorado
George Busenberg a the summit of Mt Elbert, Colorado

Sometimes it takes an outsider’s eye to see what a country is doing well, someone, for instance, such as George Busenberg, Associate Professor of Environmental Management and Policy at Soka University of America, a man now on sabbatical in Scotland researching the country’s wind, solar, wave, tidal and hydroelectric projects.

The American academic has come to study what he has described as a ”remarkable progress” in renewables. His research plan is to chronicle what he calls “the renewable accomplishments of Scotland, its achievement in wind, solar, tidal, wave, hydroelectric, and pumped hydroelectric storage” and to make those accomplishments better known to the world.

Professor Busenberg sees renewable energy deployment as “the leading global strategy for climate change mitigation”.

“But,” he said, “this is a long road and to travel it you have to work out the political, financial and practical issues along the way and the best way to do that is experience. And Scotland is building that experience.”

His views allow a glimpse of Scotland as others see us – from a perspective of a climate expert living in California, where US President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act is now driving a catch-up in development of green technologies following neglect by former president Donald Trump.

Professor Busenberg, who has already developed an online hub of resources for teaching and learning about global climate change, had looked out across the globe from a country where individual states such as his home, California, were setting goals for renewables that he felt were years away. What he saw, in Scotland, was “a place that is already there”.

There is certainly plenty to shout about: 57 per cent of all electricity generated in 2021 in Scotland was from renewable sources and the coming years will see a rapid expansion of offshore wind, tidal, solar and other renewables.

According to Scottish Renewables, Scotland has more than 17 gigawatts (GW) of planned renewable capacity in development, including 11.24GW of onshore wind; 3.93GW offshore wind; 958MW of solar; and 317MW of wave and tidal.

READ MORE: How much power is Scotland's offshore wind set to deliver?

“Scotland,” Professor Busenberg said, “has an extraordinarily diverse set of renewable energy sources that could be scaled up not only within Scotland, but in many other countries across the world. This makes Scotland an important example of renewable energy progress for the world community.”

As part of his tour, he attended a Scottish Renewables planning conference in Glasgow last month, and also visited Whitelee Windfarm – the largest onshore wind farm in the United Kingdom – on Eaglesham Moor, East Renfrewshire. “Remarkable” is a word he used a lot in describing what he has witnessed here.

HeraldScotland: Whitelee Wind Farm (Image: Scottish Power)
HeraldScotland: Whitelee Wind Farm (Image: Scottish Power)

Whitelee windfarm

At Whitelee, he stood under the wind towers to get that “sense of the sheer power involved”.

“It was striking,” he said. “These are immense structures. The wind they are picking up has great power in it, and this is really where you can see it in action. But it’s interesting in being a recreational area and that’s something I had never considered before I came to Scotland, that you would turn a moor into a wind farm, and then also a recreational area at the same time.”

Professor Busenberg also described a recent visit he had made to the National Museum of Scotland with his family, in which he stopped to look at the early steam engines. Among them was the Boulton & Watt engine, part-designed by James Watt.

“These innovators,” he said, “started with a steam engine that was huge and inefficient. and then Watt and his partner developed something that was much more efficient. The museum chronicles a whole series of experiments that effectively launch the industrial age.”

We are living, the professor said, in a similarly experimental age.

“The process,” he added, “of developing a new kind of economy that reduces our carbon emissions into the atmosphere will involve many experiments as we scale it up. The way to learn is to plan, implement and observe what happens, and then you adjust as you go, and it’s valuable to have a pragmatic successful example in operation. That is why I came to Scotland. It is ideal for the purpose of studying the reality of an increasingly renewable society”.

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What is happening in Scotland, and across the world, is, according to the professor, no small matter. “I think we are speaking of the re-engineering of industrial civilisation away from the legacy of fossil fuels – slowly, not quickly – into a new kind of civilisation that will depend on other sources of power that do not emit as much carbon and this will be a long road in the same way the industrial age, driven by fossil fuels, was a long road.”

Could it be that Scotland, which played such a key role in kicking off the industrial revolution and the fossil fuel age, now plays a key role in engineering our way out of it?

Professor Busenberg is not interested in blame or credit when it comes to such shifts. “If the steam engine hadn’t been invented in the British Isles,” he said, “it would have been invented somewhere else. The global civilisation powered by fossil fuels was built in many different countries around the world. Blame does not mitigate climate change, That is not my focus. My focus is on progress for a better world.”

When his visit is over, he plans to publish what he finds here, making this information as accessible as possible to anyone who might want to know “how renewable energy works in practice”.

“I want,” he said, “to document the experience of Scotland in renewables both in words, but also pictures, and I want to stay in touch with experts in Scotland.”

He added: “I think if the world community wants to mitigate climate change, this clearly requires a heavy lift. Examples of experience are very valuable for diffusing those lessons worldwide. The more people know what does work and what does not work, the better. Scotland is important for the world community, because Scotland has been working on the problem.”

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There is still, he acknowledged, the technological challenge for the world community of developing bulk energy storage. But even on this, he marvelled at Scotland’s progress, an example of which he plans to visit at the Cruachan pumped hydro power station. “With pumped hydroelectric storage,” he said, “essentially, you are using electricity to pump water up in a reservoir, and then the descent of water through a turbine creates electricity – making a very reliable water gravity battery.”

He also observed that one of the challenges will be the development of a wider infrastructure of energy supply. He said: “Grid reinforcement, bulk energy storage, transportation, and heating are critical elements of decarbonisation. This will be a system-wide re-engineering of civilisation. That does not happen quickly. And it is not simple.”

Professor Busenberg has long been an advocate for renewables. As a student at Rice University in Texas he was interviewed by the student newspaper, about what he thought would be the key energies of the future, and his answer then was the same as now.

The big shift he has seen in the years since, however, is the rapid decline in the price of wind and solar. “That is amazing, and this in turn inspires policy because, decades ago, when wind and solar were uncommon and expensive, it was hard to make an argument for them. Now that key renewable energy sources have become economical the argument becomes less focused on cost and more on climate change mitigation and energy security.”

That price decline in renewable energy has been crucial and was timely.

HeraldScotland: Beatrice offshore wind farm
HeraldScotland: Beatrice offshore wind farm

Offshore wind farm at Beatrice in the Moray Firth

He said: “I think what has happened in recent years is that the science of climate change has revealed dangers to the global community that are sufficiently severe to cause countries to change the energy course and that happened about around the same time that the price of wind and solar dropped to the point where they became economically highly advantageous.”

Professor Busenberg, however, is not at all Pollyannaish in his appraisal of where Scotland and the world are at. As a professor teaching not just climate mitigation, but also disaster and emergency management, he has long been aware of the scale of the challenge, and of the damage that will happen if the world does not decarbonise quickly.

“In essence, in our time we have learned the full implications of a civilisation based on fossil energy of moving carbon out of the earth and into the sky and the surface waters of this world because some of the carbon that we emit from the burning of fossil fuels does not remain in the atmosphere, but is instead dissolved into the waters of our world, acidifying the ocean.”

These implications, he said, are vast. “What we have learned about climate change indicates danger ahead and the need to consider a new way of civilisation. And Scotland is doing that and it makes Scotland a very important example, both because it’s such a concerted effort with many elements, but also because it could be scaled up.”