Wind turbines have become hopeful symbols of Scotland’s present and future. The distinctive tri-bladed structure is a common sight across much of Scotland’s landscape, and a growing number of them are now springing up in the arduous but bountiful blustery conditions off the coast.
These developments have been part of a massive change in electricity generation. The Scottish Government set a target
to generate the equivalent of 100% of Scotland’s electricity demand from renewable sources by 2020, and very narrowly missed this target, with 98.1% of Scotland’s gross electricity consumption coming from renewable sources. Indeed, in 2000 renewables generated less than 5,000 gigawatt hours but by 2020 they produced over 32,000, amounting to approximately the equivalent
of Scotland’s entire electricity consumption. More than half of Scotland’s electricity needs are now generated from onshore windfarms alone, with a growing proportion also coming from offshore wind.
Scotland stands at the forefront of offshore wind
, accounting for around double its per capita share of the UK offshore sector, which pioneered large-scale generation. The United Kingdom was only recently displaced
by China as the country with the largest capacity of offshore wind turbines in operation and under construction.
Deep water offshore oil and gas drilling was pioneered in the North Sea during the 1970s, bringing tens of thousands of jobs and moving the centre of Scottish economic gravity North and East. The hope of successive devolved Scottish administrations has been first that offshore wind could supplement and more recently replace employment in the oil and gas sector. These ambitions have shaped Scottish aspirations for a ‘Just Transition’
While renewable expansion has been seismic in Scotland, the economic reality has dashed the hopes for scaling up wind employment. The story has been one of prolonged disappointment now stretching over a decade and a half. Why then has Scotland failed to compete with some of its North Sea neighbours - most notably Denmark - who have succeeded in matching renewable project growth with renewable job growth? The answers primarily lie in the structures of control and ownership which characterise the privatised British electricity system as well as UK energy policy inconsistencies and the competition facing domestic engineering firms.
Power without jobs
In 2021, just 3,100
Scottish workers were estimated to be employed in offshore wind, dashing earlier Scottish government hopes for around ten times this level of employment by the early 2020s. 8,430
Scots were directly employed in the renewables sector as a whole in 2020. Only a relatively small proportion of this total, 1,575, were employed in manufacturing whilst a greater number, 2,450, worked in construction.
The Fraser of Allander Institute
estimates a considerable gap between turnover in both onshore and offshore wind, which was more than double gross value-added in Scotland. In effect, this means that the Scottish wind sector is heavily dependent on imported material.
Typically, a UK offshore windfarm turbine has more than three times as much material content
in it from abroad as it does from domestic manufacturers. At the level of supporting and auxiliary components this further rises to five times the value.
Scotland is at a further disadvantage
here. The turbine manufacturer, South Korean-owned CS Wind, closed
their Campbeltown operation in 2021, which was the only tower building site in Scotland. Within the UK, blades are currently manufactured at the Isle of Wight by the Danish wind corporate giant Vestas, and their German-Spanish competitor, Siemens Gamesa, opened a plant in Hull in 2016.
Hopes for further Scottish industrial developments from wind remain, particularly around the strategically placed Cromarty Firth. Cromarty has a heritage in oil rig construction and the Nigg-based Global Energy Group
have proposed expanding their existing business in storing wind turbine parts towards manufacturing. Japanese multinational, Sumitomo
, have also announced plans for a heavy cable factory in the area.
Germany and Denmark are the world’s leading wind energy equipment producers and export earners. Together with Spain and the Netherlands, they accounted for more than three-quarters
of global exports in 2020. Denmark alone, a country with a population comparable to Scotland, took over a quarter of global wind exports and recorded a net trade balance of more than one and a half billion euros. By contrast, the UK was the world’s second largest deficit in wind energy trade, confirming a dependency on imported technology.
The simple answer to the question of why more Scots don’t work in wind power is therefore that it is a capital-intensive industry when it comes to generation. Prospects for jobs and exports in the sector lie in manufacturing. That explains why more than
34,000 Danes are employed in the wind industry.
The modern wind industry can trace its history
back to Denmark during the 1970s oil crisis and following a decision to turn against nuclear power. Governments of the left and right in the late twentieth century maintained a consensus behind wind power when it was an infant sector, which enabled companies like Vestas to grow into global competitors.
The state-owned energy company Danish Oil and Natural Gas (DONG) - which later became Ørsted - was a strategic customer, investing in early large windfarms and the world’s first offshore windfarm in the early 1990s. Both Vestas and Ørsted are now players in the UK wind industry through turbine production and windfarm ownership respectively. Ørsted owns a majority stake in the innovative Salamander
floating windfarm off the Aberdeenshire coast.
Britain’s publicly owned electricity sector prioritised developing nuclear power into the 1980s and, following privatisation, the ‘dash for gas’ eclipsed large-scale renewables efforts in the 1990s. It was only in the 2000s that a more consistently pro-renewables policy was followed but that too has been subject to destabilisation such as the UK Government’s withdrawal
of onshore wind subsidies in 2015.
Moreover, ownership matters in terms of building relationships between manufacturers and generators. The domination of Britain’s wind industry by large multinationals often headquartered in other countries is a disadvantage in developing turbine or component making jobs. Scottish firms have lost out
on contracts to firms with government guarantees in the recent past.
Scotland has experienced a world-leading transformation in wind generation over the last decade and a half. However, this has not been matched in terms of the expected industrial benefits, primarily in disappointing levels of manufacturing job creation. Wind electricity generation is capital-intensive, meaning that the main potential economic advantages of the sector lie in production.
A more active and consistent green industrial strategy at UK and Scottish levels would be required to reverse these disappointments. Trade unions have called for local content requirements
to be imposed on new wind farm developments to ensure jobs are created in the UK and that the energy transition is a just one for communities and workforces experiencing the shift from oil and gas to renewables.
About the author
This guest blog was written by Dr Ewan Gibbs, an academic historian specialising in areas such as energy and industry. Ewan lectures in economic and social history at the University of Glasgow, and is the author of Coal Country: The Meaning and Memory of Deindustrialization in Postwar Scotland.