Congratulations to Dr. David Caldwell, one of the regular contributors to the Scotia News on the publication of his new book Mull and Iona A Historical Guide. published by Birlinn Ltd.


Some years ago, the Scottish Power Pipe Band came to New York and many here cheered the band for asserting its ethnic identity bit realizing that Scottish Power was the power company. It was an easy mistake since America has been in the “assertion of ethnic identity mode” for some time now. However, the question of “power” in the sense of energy has become a much more crucial and interesting problem.

Some of the discussion of environmental problems has been alarmist and or denial – especially when it comes to climate change. People have correctly, pointed out that the world’s climate has changed in the past and is likely to do so in the future. The ice ages have come and gone and come and gone and come and gone. The earth went through a phase called “snowball earth” when virtually the whole planet was encased in snow and ice. There are few if any scientists who would argue that.

There are those who point to three days over 90 degrees in New York City as proof of climate change are also not quite on the right track. A few days means very little in the scheme of things.

The issue really revolves not simply around whether the climate is changing, but how fast it is changing and how it is likely to change in different areas of the globe. The ice ages took thousands of years to come and go, but the current rate of change is much, much faster. In the past, the rather slow changes allowed living things to adapt to the changes over time, but rapid changes pose far greater problems to life forms.

Another question has to do with how much of the change is “anthropogenic” – a big word meaning “caused by humans”. Given the fact that one of the causes of the change is an increased amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, one can readily see that just by humans breathing, the increase of people in the world to several billion is going to produce more carbon dioxide.

The ocean, absorbs carbon dioxide, but not without a price. As carbon dioxide increases in the atmosphere, the ocean absorbs more and more. The price however is that the ocean becomes more acidic and this causes many problems. Another problem is that as a result of the increased carbon, shell fish begin to have weaker shells. This coupled with the increasing acidity spells serious trouble for many of the shelled organisms that serve as food for people.

Questioning the causes of the rapid changes is important because once we know where some of the problem comes from, we can make an attempt to reduce the problematic chemicals we have control of that are going into the air and ocean. Volcanoes can produce huge amounts of greenhouse gasses, but there is little we can do about that.

Generating energy for an ever increasing world population uses a great deal of fossil fuel, the burning of which produces the very emissions we would like to control and reduce. Organic material that decays releases both energy and pollutants slowly. Burning the same organic material releases the pollutant much faster. This is another example of the fact that time is a crucial element.

So the production of energy from fossil fuels become a high priority in the attempt to control what could be a “runaway greenhouse” problem.

Some of the attempts to find new ways of generating energy without resorting to burning fossil fuels have been through the use of solar energy, nuclear energy, water power, biofuels, geothermal power, wind power and tidal power.

Solar energy is certainly useful and people have put solar panels on their roofs and generated current in this way. In some cases a house covered with panels can more than supply the energy for the house. In that case, the energy company buys the power from the home owner (at wholesale) and sells it off to others (at retail). For people who live in areas where winters are long and dark, solar power may be helpful in the summer, but the amount of sunlight in the winter limits how much power you can generate.

Nuclear energy is another source which is clearly not dependent on burning fossil fuels or how much sunlight exists in the area where a nuclear power plant might be located. There is a great deal of tension however about such power and the danger of nuclear accidents as happened for example in Chernobyl and with the Dai Ichi power plant in Fukushima Japan which was inundated with a tsunami resulting for an 9.+ earthquake off the coast of Japan.

Biofuels are fuel made from organisms which have not fossilized. Some scientists have been working on using organisms like algae which can be grown in places where normally food is not grown, so arable land is not being used. As the population increases, arable land is at a premium because people need to eat. The more people, the more food they need. The more food the more land is need to grow it, or else the land needs to be made more productive, This often means the increasing use of fertilizers which have their own problems!

Geothermal power has to do with using the heat of the molten parts of the earth to generate power. A nice idea, but rather difficult. Iceland is known for its use of this kind of power, but the power stations would need to be where geothermal energy is readily available.

Wind power and tidal power are two that have been seen as fairly viable approaches as well. Wind farms have been springing up like wild flowers with much approval and also hostility. There have been arguments that beautiful view of the country side are destroyed by endless rows of windmills and that this destroys the view and hence tourism falls down and the economy is damaged. Other have argued that tourists come to see the wind farms and so tourism goes up! Some birders have been upset by the fact that birds are pulled into the huge rotating blades and are killed. Some argue that much of the time they are not working (no wind) and when they do they are noisy. Clearly some research needs to be done on this! Recently a large wind farm in the ocean was scrapped because people living on nearby islands felt it ruined their view of the ocean. Once suspects this is akin to the “not in my backyard you don’t” syndrome, which was noted early in the building of prisons. “Yes”, they said “we need more prisons, but don’t build them in my neighborhood!”

Well, wind farms are appearing all around Scotland and Scotland is making a fair size effort to get free of fossil fuels as a source of energy. However Scotland has another resource relative to energy. While the North Sea was an early battle ground with the saying “North Sea oil is Scottish Oil”, the waters around Scotland again are becoming of great interest in the last form of energy we are going to mention – tidal power.

This last form of energy production has to do with the fact that as huge amount of water move every day as a result of tides and currents, this movement can be used to generate power much the way part of the Northeastern US gets hydro-electric from Niagara Falls. Unlike the Falls, however, tidal power does not use water that is dropping from a great height or a fast flowing river (which may freeze in the winter), but rather from the movement of great bodies of water as the moon and sun cause the tides to ebb and flow.

Water is much denser than air and so the movement of the water generates much more power than a similar amount of air.

A number of site in the waters around Scotland seem admirably suited for generating power.

The BBC News reported on 21 August 2018 “Orkney tidal turbine generating 'phenomenal result'”

The Pentland Firth in Northern Scotland some 269 turbines will be placed on the sea bed. This array should be able to power over 200,000 homes.

Scotland has hopes of being completely of fossil fuel by 2020. This will be a major accomplishment even if it falls somewhat short of the mark.

With about 71% of the earth covered with water, the seas, in their endless motion seem to hold a promise for a great deal of fossil free energy, and Scotland may well be able to play a huge role in this area.


Image: Marine Scotland