David Millar, a senior scientist at the James Hutton Institute talks about navigating through the renewable energy policy landscape.

Scotland’s rural land and its managers have been at the forefront of the transition to using renewable energy systems. Over the 20 years up to 2023, they’ve played a significant role in increasing the generation of renewable electricity in Scotland from 3.3GW installed capacity 14.2GW. There is likely to be no let-up given the renewable energy pledge at COP28 to triple the world’s renewable energy capacity by 2030.

During that time, this has seen changes in land uses and landscapes of in many areas of Scotland as investment has been made in renewable electricity generation.

For some businesses and communities the change has been transformational, enabling diversification and new income streams.

But what next? To achieve targets in the Scottish Government’s Draft Energy Strategy and Just Transition Plan of net zero by 2045, and a further 12 GW onshore wind installed by 2030, will require enhanced investment, innovation and buy-in.

While there is now a suite of government policies around renewable energy, they’re not necessarily all operating coherently.

The current discussion paper on Just Transition, Land Use and Agriculture is the latest space for debate.

Yet, over the coming years, increasing renewable energy generation in rural Scotland will have to tackle multiple challenges, technical, social and environmental.

One will be around existing infrastructure. Those who invested in wind energy through the 1990s and 2000s will need to plan for repowering – renovating or replacing their aged energy generators. Early adopters may evaluate whether their risk was rewarded while new entrants may have more options, including choices between the maturity of wind energy and the increasing profile of solar photovoltaic and hydrogen within agricultural energy systems.

Overall, public attitudes are positive. Based on the UK Government Public Attitudes Tracker, overall support for biomass (90% support), onshore wind (80%) and solar energy (72%) have all increased over the last 20 years.

Reactions to recent plans for the planned 400kV pylon line in the Mearns and Angus are a reminder that solutions are required which meet investor needs, as well as those impacted by the energy generation, its transmission and use. However, the time required to find and implement solutions, whilst still ensuring appropriate protection of the environment and social interests, requires to be ever shorter.

Since 2010, Scottish Planning Policy has required an assessment of likely impacts of developments on carbon rich soils. As of 2023, the National Planning Framework 4 has sought to balance increasing the protection of carbon in soils with providing more flexibility for renewable energy generation.

It’s soil “Policy Intent” is to protect carbon-rich soils, restoring peatlands and minimising disturbance to soils from development. It means Local Development Plans are obliged to protect locally, regionally, nationally and internationally valued soils, including land locally important for agriculture.

A new requirement in National Planning Framework 4 is that where development is proposed on peatland, carbon-rich soils or priority peatland habitat, detailed site assessments have to include the “likely net effects of the development on climate emissions and loss of carbon”.

Renewable energy generation that optimises the contribution of an area to emissions reduction is an exception to development on peatland, carbon-rich soils and priority peatland habitat, but could be an issue for repowering proposals, despite much of the infrastructure being in place, and discussion around what constitutes a baseline assessment.

More broadly, National Planning Framework 4 constrains development on prime agricultural land and “land of lesser quality that is culturally or locally important for primary use”. But exceptions are allowed for renewable energy projects.

These decision points around existing renewable energy developments could be an opportunity for new developments, previously restricted due to potential cumulative impacts when considered along with other local sites.

More broadly, how different opportunities for renewable energy generation play out across Scotland remains to be seen. What we do know is that pressures for mitigating climate change will not abate and Scotland’s farmers will remain at the forefront of Scotland’s energy transition, but possibly in different places and ways to those earlier projects.