by Luis de Sousa
Mon Nov 21st, 2011 at 04:49:55 PM EST
One of the projects I'm working on in my new job lead me to a 3 day visit to Aberdeen for a regular biannual partner meeting. It was my first time in Scotland, hence there was much learn. I also had the time for a swift visit to a good friend of mine, Euan, whom lives in the city and I get to see once a year or so.
With the due apologies for the lousy cell phone photos, the camera didn't make it there.
If I had to describe Aberdeen in one word it would be grey. The sun is feeble at this of the year and the sky is mostly overcast; besides that, less than 9 hours span between sun rise and sun set, light is a scarce commodity. But this feeble diffuse light shines mostly on granite surfaces, that shape the vast majority of the buildings and homes in Aberdeen. There aren't many trees in Scotland and the local granite is high quality enough to have been an important export in the old days; it is one of the distinctive marks of the city and the region. Granite is also a common construction material in northern Portugal and Spain, but here the mortar that glues the stones together is painted in white, window frames are also coloured: red, blue, green and the roofs are either made of straw (old way) or covered with clay tiles. There's nothing like this in Aberdeen, window frames are invariably white and rooftops are dark; you can go on end without seeing a single drop of colour in this urban landscape.
To this lack of colour contrasts the radiance of the Aberdeen folk, lively and amicable. In the streets, at restaurant and stores, at the City Council, where the working sessions took place, there is an natural warmth towards strangers that feels quite comfortable. Far from ever guessing it on my own, I learnt these folk are called Aberdonians. It may take some time to get used to their accent, but they actually speak English; my contact with Euan the past years has made it easier for me. There's also another very nice aspect about Aberdeen: waking up to the cries of seagulls. But that bit of home-sickness is not for everyone, I guess.
Just 50 years ago Aberdeen was a poor fishing village, facing severe declines in the main stocks of its resource. Then came the North Sea Oil rush that transformed everything, creating what is today the Oil capital of Europe. It brought many new jobs both for highly skilled as for less skilled workers. A golden generation of Aberdonians was presented with opportunities that never had existed before. Today Aberdeen's harbour remains packed, but with huge offshore platform service vessels, that one one side lend a bit of life to city with their multitude colours but one the other hand scare by their sheer size, remind the sort of seas they must fare. The fishing fleet, or what may be left of it, has moved to Peterhead, a small city just a bit north.
Strikingly, Aberdeen hosts some poor neighbourhoods, where the Oil rush never made it. It seems that a section of the population that couldn't access the Oil Industry has been left at the margin of a society otherwise relatively wealthy. Energy poverty mitigation is one of the topics of the project I'm working on and it has become a great concern in recent years for the City Council, again strangely more so than in the other European cities that are project partners. Mechanisms for a proper distribution of opportunities are either lacking or not working properly.
In the 3 days I spent in Aberdeen I could get a good sense of what concerns Scots at the moment. First of all fuel prices, diesel and petrol sell for really high prices, possibly the highest in Europe. One can hear daily cries on this issue on the TV and newspapers, the pressure on the UK government seems huge at the moment. And the other big concern is unemployment, while there the number of unemployed youths in the UK went over the historical mark of 1 million. Aberdonians seem to understand that this is not a simple crisis, the tide is changing and opportunities are getting scarce. The folk I spoke to seem to blame this primarily on the Education system, that for too long concentrated on the brewing up of high skilled workers, perhaps with too lax evaluation rules. The future isn't bright for Aberdeen or the UK in general, but for the most part Aberdonians are yet to come to terms with the real causes of their aches.
Apart from Euan, none other of the folk I spoke to seems to grasp that the North Sea Oil rush is going away, at least as fast as it came. For all matters and purposes, Oil production will be down to zero in 2050. There won't be any service vessels at the harbour, no oil rigs deployed offshore, no hotels filled with businessmen, engineers and scientists, no flights to and from Amsterdam packed with rough-necks. Predicting the future is a risky business, certainly there could still be some oil production in the North Sea 30 or 40 years from now, but it will be residual. The Oil Industry can remain present in the city, possibly retaining technical expertise head-quartered there and providing services worldwide, but this won't save the majority of direct jobs it presently supports in Aberdeen (about 40%) much less those indirect, which could be as much. Basing any sort of long term policy in a different assumption will be in the least irresponsible.
Apparently the Scottish government seems aware of this and plans to turn Scotland into a 100% renewable energy country in a decade and a half. Aberdonians immediately flag this campaign as a political move to quell independence cries. All the exploration fees paid by oil companies operating in the North Sea feed directly into the Kingdom's budget, and although special flows from this budget to Scotland exist, the Scottish government intends to create a new industry that can provide direct revenues. The ideal is an industry that builds and services energy (mostly Wind) harvesting machinery deployed at the North Sea, with an eye on exports.
The resource is there and the technology exists, if the Scottish government can summon the required financial investment this ideal can certainly come to be. But the implications such policy will have are far from being realised, much less accounted for. For starters, any country/region set to have all its power generated from intermittent sources should make sure that the required load balancing mechanisms are set in place, either by creating transmission links with bordering regions with the capacity to do so, or by the providing them internally. As it happens today, the only large-scale energy storage mature technology is hydro-power. Though being the most mountainous region of Britain, Scotland's mountains are concentrated to the West, away from the North Sea, and are much lower than those that provided the backbone for the Wind industry expansion in Portugal and Spain. Scotland had an Hydro-power programme in the 1950s and 1960s that installed about 1.3 GW of generation capacity, a recent assessment indicates that unused potential can hike this figure up to 2 GW. If this system ran at 100% load would generate some 17 TWh in a year, about 10% of Scotland's present energy use. But after dealing with the load balancing issue Scotland will still have to totally reform its Transport sector, a task than could prove more challenging than everything else, after 4 of 5 decades of increasing dependence on Oil. Just linking the West and East coasts solely with electrical transport could prove gruesome, at least in terms of financial investment. When these challenges are considered together the Scottish government's ambitious vision starts looking terribly outlandish.
But Scotland is not just about the sea and I was lucky to get a glimpse of the countryside, with a walk into a pine forest. Midway through, the sun granted the party with some of its rays, unveiling Scotland in all its beauty. There is a Scottish song that describes it in just two words: Velvet Green. Maybe it was because of the lack of colour in the city, the fact is that the green of Scotland's fields and trees seems greener than anywhere else. And the landscape is quite lively too, with the traditional Angus cattle and the sheep and plenty of wild animals too. For the first time I saw pheasants in the wild. The blue skies lasted up to night fall, also providing a nice view of Aberdeen's beach, where close by the working sessions resumed. A tiring day, though not tiring enough to prevent the group from having a good time after diner dancing to local folk music.
Aberdeen is a very particular city, I can't help seeing it as an addict, struggling to set its way straight. It'll be a very different place in a few decades from now, rest to know how. While the ideals vented by First Minister Salmond seem somewhat esoteric, the truth is Aberdeen already has today part of the expertise and infrastructure required to harvest the wind resource in the North Sea, especially regarding the building, maintenance and servicing in high seas. A new Wind industry seeded in Aberdeen may not provide all of Scotland's energy needs, but it can certainly provide the economic activity to maintain many jobs. It won't be a start from scratch and may be the only path for the city to avoid a slow regression back to a poor fishing harbour.