Basically, Scotland is turning all of the things that are miserable about living in Scotland into strengths. When life hands you lemons.
Where I live in the States it’s so windy the Native Americans used to stay away from here during the spring and fall because they said the wind made them go insane.
Even by the blustery standards of this notoriously squall-swept land, Aug. 7 was a particularly gusty day.
Bursts of rushing air swept across the green expanse of the Highlands, felling trees, submerging boats and forcing wind-whipped organizers to cancel food festivals and concerts.
But amid the gale-force havoc, the day also brought a critical milestone in a quiet energy revolution: For the first time ever, the army of spinning white turbines that has sprouted across the lush countryside generated enough electricity to power all of Scotland.
The exceptional output brought the country membership in a small but growing club of nations proving that the vision of a world powered by renewable fuels is closer than many realize. Long derided as a fantasy, a day’s worth of energy harvested purely from the sun and the wind has lately become reality in nations such as Portugal, Denmark and Costa Rica.
In those countries, and others, the gains in renewable production have come quickly and unexpectedly, offering a ray of hope amid dire predictions from scientists about the impact of carbon emissions on the planet.
Scotland over the past decade has set a series of increasingly ambitious renewable-energy targets and has surpassed every one. More than half the country’s electricity now comes from zero-carbon sources such as wind, hydro and solar, and the latest target of 100 percent by 2020 may be within reach.
The United States — with a population 60 times as large and a land mass 120 times greater — is nowhere near that level, hovering at around 13 percent.
But Scotland’s experience with renewables is instructive. For decades, this nation within the United Kingdom floated on a sea of lucrative oil and gas. With those supplies dwindling, however, Scots from across the political spectrum launched a concerted effort to tap another rich vein of energy, one far more obvious than the fossil fuels buried deep offshore.
“We have a great resource,” said Niall Stuart, chief executive of Scottish Renewables, an industry association. “It’s Scotland’s terrible weather.”
The struggle to harness Scotland’s desultory climate and turn it into the keystone of the country’s 21st-century energy strategy has been marked by unusually broad agreement about the virtue of renewables.
Unlike in other countries, there was no debate in Scotland over whether human-made climate change is real. Across the political spectrum, parties have lined up to back a shift toward cleaner fuels. As the country’s last coal-fired plants shuttered, authorities sped the approval process for clean-energy projects and enabled a boom in installation that led to a tripling of renewable energy capacity in less than a decade.
“So many issues suffer from interparty tribalism,” said Patrick Harvie, the Green Party’s co-leader in the Scottish Parliament. “This wasn’t one of them.”
The success of Scotland’s strategy can be seen at the Whitelee Wind Farm, the U.K.’s largest, where 215 turbines spin gracefully over 15 square miles of rolling scrubland.
The farm, just a half-hour’s drive from Glasgow, is open to the public; schoolchildren tour it daily and are encouraged by friendly guides to step right up to the giant turbines and “give them a little cuddle.”
“It’s visible from so many places in the city,” said Harvie, who represents Glasgow. “It’s come to be seen as an icon for Glasgow, almost in the way ship building has been historically.”