What just transition? Communities get pennies as offshore wind bonanza begins

·4-min read
Offshore wind farm gets go-ahead amid ‘pressing need’ for renewable energy
Offshore wind farm gets go-ahead amid ‘pressing need’ for renewable energy

“Measly” was the word Scottish Labour MSP Monica Lennon used, quoted in an article in the Ferret and this paper, to the revelation that Scotland’s six offshore wind farms had paid just £150,000 to nearby communities in the last 12 months. There are many other words you could use. Paltry. Stingy. Unfair. Predictable.

Scotland’s marine and rural landscape, along with our means of gaining resources and energy from it, is changing around us. It needs to change – and we can only greet the renewables boom with enthusiasm. Without it there is only doom and rising temperatures. But with the change comes serious questions, and one of them lies in the issue of who profits, and whether we can escape a system propelled by greed rather than need.

One issue keeps coming up repeatedly, whether it be on land, around reforesting and carbon offsetting or at sea, and that is whether the age of net zero is going to be any different from the fossil fuel extractivist capitalism that preceded it.

READ MORE: Offshore windfarms pay out just £150k to local coastal communities

As we turn our world away from burning things and chopping them down, can we also become a society that both cares more for the world that supports us, and is more fair.

The renewables transition is a vital part of that question. As it stands, the article on the investigative website the Ferret notes, one of the ways offshore windfarms differ from onshore is that, whilst the Scottish Government expects the latter to provide community benefits “of the value equivalent to £5,000 per installed megawatt per annum,” there’s as yet no similar expectation around offshore. The mood on that, however, is changing, and many would like to see offshore wind become as community-connected and beneficial as onshore.

Some might see concerns as premature. Offshore wind is still in its early days, with just these six windfarms already up and running, and 17 more likely to be built over the coming years following ScotWind’s sell off of licences this year. The question revolves more around what is to come. In Paul Dobson's Ferret article, Charlotte Stamper of Scottish Renewables, observes that the “£20-30bn of investment” delivered by the ScotWind projects is “about to transform Scotland’s coasts”.

But is it? Or is it enough? This feels like an amber light warning us of coming disappointment, a reminder that getting any kind of “just” into this transition is going to take a fight.

It’s a reminder, too, that we need to push community benefit harder. A recent report on Scotland’s land market for Community Land Scotland by Miriam Brett and Laurie Macfarlane advocates, amongst other things, for a scaling up of a Community Wealth Building approach. This, it notes, could “help deliver on a number of the Scottish Government’s policy objectives, including delivering a just transition to net zero, promoting a wellbeing economy, and tackling the cost of living crisis.” Many of its ideas relate to or are cross-applicable to the renewables market.

We might also want to look at what we’ve already learned from onshore wind. There, the situation may be better in terms of community benefits, but not by much. Two months ago, the Ferret published a report which found the owners of Scotland’s onshore wind farms would only pay “loose change” to communities this year, “despite producing electricity with a market value in excess of £3bn and soaring rates of fuel poverty in the country”.

We know what works for communities – a report commissioned by Point and Sandwick Trust found that community ownership of windfarms generates 34 more times benefit to the community than commercially operated schemes – we just need much more of it.

And it’s not just about where funds go, but who gets the jobs and whether they too are offshored. Last month GMB organiser Garry Cook railed against the handing of a huge floating windfarm contract for Cerulean Winds’ three 1GW floating windfarms (located off the West of Shetland and in the Central North Sea) to Middle Eastern contractor, Dubai-based Lamprell.

He said: “It’s a national scandal that UK workers and communities are being forced to watch as multi-million pound contracts for these industries of the future are sent overseas to companies based in authoritarian regimes, including those linked to the disgraced DP World. If we are to secure our energy future, we need to bring these vital jobs and skills home.”

It’s not the first contract Lamprell has secured in Scotland, but one of many attached to our wind farms which bring manufacturing work to Lamprell’s Hamriyah and Sharjah yards in the UAE, to be later shipped to their final destinations in British waters on, as the GMB puts it “diesel burning barges”.

What happens offshore matters. It has, of course, always mattered – but, in an era of fuel poverty, climate change, and biodiversity crises, it matters all the more.

It matters for community wealth, it matters for jobs, and it matters for the health of the waters that surround our coasts and connect up with the rest of the world.

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