A lot has changed in the Scottish energy landscape in the last decade or so.

Whilst the roots of SSE can be traced back to the hydro revolution that brought electricity to the Highlands, for years we were primarily known for our energy retail business.

Fast forward to 2022 and we are fast becoming famous for something else: building low-carbon infrastructure needed for net zero.

SSE is building more offshore wind than anyone on the planet right now. And, as a business proud of its Scottish heritage, it’s fitting that a significant chunk of that is being built in Scottish waters.

HeraldScotland: Scotland's Future

Scotland is already a world leader on offshore wind and is set to tap into even more of its bountiful wind resource following the recent ScotWind auctions.

We were delighted to be successful in the recent ScotWind leasing round with our pioneering floating wind project off the East coast of Scotland. Projects like this one, along with our existing Berwick Bank development which could eclipse even our Dogger Bank offshore wind farm in scale, will help us deliver our ambitious company target of a five-fold increase in renewables by 2030.

Both form part of our £12.5bn Net Zero Acceleration Programme, which will see us invest around £7m a day, and create around 1,000 new jobs a year in the move to net zero.

The renewables boom has certainly taken root in Scotland. And of course others have targets too.

The UK Government is aiming for 40GW of offshore wind by 2030 and has committed to decarbonising the power sector by 2035. Meanwhile the Scottish Government is targeting 11GW of offshore wind and a 75% emissions reduction by 2030.

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The renewables projects that will underpin these targets can deliver huge benefits for the economy – delivering jobs, supply chain opportunities and investment in communities up and down the country. Our activity and prospective investment in a new wind turbine tower factory at the Port of Nigg was recent welcome news in this area.

Renewables can also work to protect UK consumers from our reliance on volatile imported gas markets and the impact that can have on bills. They’ll actually pay money back to consumers when wholesale prices are high – saving hundreds of millions this winter and potentially even more in the future.

But there is a very real risk to our ability to realise these benefits. Put simply, there is no point building these projects if we can’t plug them in.

For Scotland’s incredible pipeline of renewable energy projects to be delivered, we need to bring forward and accelerate urgent investment in transmission infrastructure to link them up.

The motorways of the electricity networks will be critical in transporting this new wind energy longer distances to population centres where it is needed.

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To enable the forecast growth in renewables across the north Scotland, our electricity transmission business, SSEN Transmission, is progressing the delivery of two subsea high-voltage direct current (HVDC) links from Peterhead to England, a second HVDC link from Spittal in Caithness, connecting to Peterhead and a series of onshore reinforcements to the north of Inverness and between Inverness and Peterhead.

Taken in isolation these are some huge infrastructure projects. But when you consider them in terms of the renewables developments they’ll connect – Scotland’s largest offshore wind farm in Seagreen, off the coast of Angus, Europe’s most productive onshore wind farm in Viking on the Shetland Islands, which will also see Shetland connected to the GB energy system for the first time ever; the mega Berwick Bank project off the east coast and the trailblazing ScotWind projects – they present an unrivalled economic opportunity for Scotland.

Together they’d support thousands of skilled jobs in the development and construction phases and create a real opportunity for governments and industry to work together to encourage inward investment in UK supply chain, manufacturing and skills development.

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But that’s only one part of the picture.

A mix of technologies is needed to balance the electricity system. Historically this has been achieved through coal and gas-fired power stations. Coal has been consigned to history, but gas will have a transitional role to play for some time yet.

And in order to transition away from unabated gas and deliver net zero, we firmly believe the answer is to invest in flexible generation solutions like pumped storage hydro, carbon capture and storage, which can remove over 90% of emissions from gas generation, and hydrogen technologies.

Together with Equinor we are developing several low-carbon power stations using these technologies, one of which is Peterhead Power Station in the north of Scotland.

As Scotland’s only major thermal power station, Peterhead provides critical flexibility to the electricity system, supporting increased renewable generation while maintaining security of supply. But its future must be low carbon.

Peterhead Carbon Capture Power Station, as a new decarbonised power station at the site, would continue to provide this essential flexible and efficient power.

However, in the UK, no developer of CCS or hydrogen power stations has reached an investment decision yet. The current UK Government’s commitment is to deliver at least one CCS equipped power station by the mid-2020s.

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That’s not enough. We want to see a future for Peterhead, which has been a part of the energy landscape in Scotland for decades, in a net zero UK energy system alongside other new low-carbon power stations to support renewables and underpin economic growth.

And this is a two-way street: as well as balancing the system when the wind doesn’t blow, when it does blow and demand is low, pumped storage and hydrogen technologies can better utilise excess wind – lowering emissions and keeping costs down for customers.

Projects like Coire Glas pumped storage, which we are developing in the Scottish Highlands, would take excess energy on the grid and use it to pump water up a hill into the reservoir, where it could be stored before being released to power the grid when wind output is low and demand is high.

Equally electrolyser technology can use surplus wind power to split water into oxygen and hydrogen, which can then be stored and used as a zero-carbon fuel for vehicles, or for hydrogen-fired power stations like the one we are developing at Keadby in Lincolnshire.

And discussing how flexible technologies can support renewables in the transition to net zero brings me on to how wind and the wider industry must also support another key element of the transition; people.

Fundamentally the scaling up of renewables is about transitioning from a high-carbon energy sector to a low-carbon one – and that will inevitably have implications for people and communities that we must pre-empt and manage fairly.

At SSE we’ve been at the forefront helping people make the switch to low-carbon roles. A recent survey of our employees found one in five had previously worked in a high-carbon sector role.

This workforce brings skills that are highly relevant for renewables; they also keep jobs in the communities around our assets. Two-thirds of control room operatives at our Beatrice wind farm control room in Wick, for example, came from oil and gas jobs.

Ultimately, wind will end up generating most of the energy the UK needs; but if we can unlock its full potential with supportive investments in network infrastructure and flexibility, it can deliver so much more.

It’s wind that will minimise our reliance on volatile international gas markets; it’s wind that will form the backbone of the electrification of the wider economy; it’s wind that will open up opportunity for innovation and the supply chain across industry; it’s wind that will secure a just transition and jobs for communities up and down the country and it’s wind that will see Scotland lead the way to Net Zero in 2045.

But in order to accommodate those ambitions and enable the huge growth of renewable electricity in Scotland, investment must be made in the right places, and sooner rather than later. Against a backdrop of rising energy prices, there are those who would question whether this is a transition we can afford to make – I say we can’t afford not to. Net zero is not just an environmental decision; increasingly it is a rational economic one as it builds our energy security, keeps costs down and creates jobs. Now’s the time to drive it forward.

Alistair Phillips-Davies is chief executive of SSE