Hot Air

Published: Oct 14 , 2011
Author: Robin Copland

Moses. Lad! Hill walker; leader of men; stone carrier and, when it came to water, he surpassed even his own ambitious targets. Had he been born in Scotland in the twentieth century, he would have been a natural hydro-electric engineer. He would have found the twenty-first century quite interesting as well as we Scots have an Eleventh commandment to add to his original Ten. Thirty one per cent of our energy needs will be supplied by renewable resources in 2011 and 100% is the target by 2020. This has led to a huge wind turbine building programme all around the country.

I recently drove past the biggest wind farm in Europe. As far as the eye can see, 140 giant wind turbines face west to pick up the wind from the Atlantic Ocean and turn it into electricity. A further 75 of these turbines are being built so that the farm will be able to supply a city of 150,000. There the turbines stood - motionless; remarkable. There was plenty of wind - those of you who have visited Scotland will know that we have plenty of wind - but none of the turbines was moving. I did some research.

It turns out that there is a scheme in Scotland whereby landowners can apply for a grant to build wind turbines on their land. Once the turbines are built, there is a guarantee in place that the electricity distribution companies will buy their electricity. In the event of strong winds the wind farms can produce more power than the distribution grid can handle. In this situation the turbine owners receive compensation for switching them off.

I wondered what would happen if the distributors needed the electricity but, due to calm weather, the wind farm failed to produce any. I know that it might surprise you that, in what is officially Europe's windiest country, Scotland enjoys many sunny, windless and bitterly cold days in the depth of winter when we most need the power for heating.

Good negotiators have a tactic that can help. It is called "Over and Under". Basically, if the company does not need the supplier's electricity, then it pays a fine. If the company, on the other hand, needs the electricity and the supplier cannot supply, then the supplier pays exactly the same fine.

This is a government-led scheme however and its rules were drawn up by the government. In this case it was driven by its determination to meet self-imposed targets and not by the need to negotiate a commercially sensible agreement. Perhaps the real lesson is that politicians should leave negotiating to the experts. Next month's topic "Edinburgh TIEs itself in noughts"

Robin Copland


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