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We must be smarter with renewable energy options

As more wind farms stride across the hills and moors, it is difficult to believe the total amount of electricity generated by wind and hydro power schemes in Scotland fell last year.

Figures from the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) show the extra turbines did increase power but only 6% more than in 2009. The drop was due to a reduction in hydro power as a result of exceptionally dry weather. This is the real shock in a country which has regarded hydro electricity as a stable source of energy since it famously brought power from the glens in the 1940s.

This underlines the variable nature of generation from all renewable natural resources. In 2010 the number of sites producing energy from wind or wave power more than doubled from 135 to 339 but the figures confirm that the number of turbines does not always equate to the amount of power.

Business leaders and conservationists are increasingly united in supporting a mix of energy sources including renewables. The industrial and commercial priority is security of supply while conservationists and guardians want to restrict the proliferation of wind farms intruding on the landscape. In areas where tourism is the main business, the two coincide.

The warning earlier this week from Mike Salter, chairman of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, that the cost base for renewable energy must be right if it is not to become an unsupportable burden on other businesses should not fall on deaf ears. Part of the reason for the rise in the cost of electricity is the Westminster Government’s renewables obligation, a charge through which consumers subsidise the start-up costs of green energy generation.

There is a consensus that the best way to stabilise production and guarantee renewable energy supply is to diversify the mix of technologies installed and develop storage capacity. At present, most renewables developments are wind farms because that technology is furthest advanced, yet the potential for wave and tide power is enormous and it would provide a more predictable and stable supply. It is time to consider slanting the renewables obligation towards marine technologies.

Plans for electricity connectors between the National Grid and other European countries offer the prospect of a back-up supply, by which Scotland could export surplus wind power on gusty days and import hydro or solar power on calm ones.

In the meantime, the requirement for constant, reliable and affordable electricity for homes and businesses means the energy mix must continue to include nuclear until the technology to take advantage of a greater variety of natural resources has been sufficiently developed to guarantee that the lights will not go out.