When Will Scotland Sell More Wind Than Whisky?

Here’s something unexpected – there is actually an advantage to living on a storm-swept rock in the North Atlantic:

A floating offshore turbine off the northeast coast of Scotland, part of the Hywind Farm

Scotland now has more wind power per person than any other country! They’re now up to 1900 W/person of capacity for onshore and offshore wind (10.36 GW among 5.5M people), well ahead of second place Denmark at 1100 W/person. The US is at about 400 W/person. To put that in perspective, one of the old many-bladed wind pumps that used to be all over the prairies had a capacity of about 500 watts. Scotland now has the equivalent of four of those for every person in the country!

They generated 27 TWh of electricity from wind in 2022, which averages out to 570 watts continuously per person. That’s a lot of light bulbs burning all the time. That would be enough to entirely power Connecticut. That’s more than their total consumption of 25 TWh. They sell the excess to England and Northern Ireland. Scotland also has a nuclear plant, and sells most of that to the south as well. In 2022 it had net exports of 19 TWh to England. That was worth about 4 billion £ at the typical wholesale price of 200 £/MWh. It still does burn some natural gas for power, about 15% of the total, but coal has been gone for 15 years. Its electricity usage has actually dropped by about 15% over the last ten years due to more efficient lighting, appliances, and industrial processes. Yet usage is likely to increase as more people drive electric cars, and use heat pumps instead of gas furnaces.

So electricity is now a major export of this small country. How does it compare to its much better-known export, whisky?

Sources: Scottish Energy Statistics Hub and the Scotch Whisky Association

They actually sold more wind than whisky in 2020! That was probably because everyone stopped importing whisky during the height of the pandemic. It had been growing steadily in the 2010s, and then surged in 2021 and 2022 after people started eating out again. Wind has been growing at a slightly faster pace, but had bad years in 2016 and 2021 because of mild weather. The linear estimates of the dashed lines shows that wind will pass whisky in about 2026.

There are plans for vastly more wind power in Scotland – about 40 GW worth. That’s 5X what they have now. Most of it will be offshore. Those turbines give more useful power for a given capacity than onshore ones since the wind blows more steadily and faster at sea. They’ll be able to power about a third of England with that! They could also sell to other countries with more undersea power cables. England already has ones to Norway, Belgium, and France, and Scotland could build some too.

The upshot is that Scotland has already nearly stopped emitting CO2 for electricity, and is actually exporting lots of clean power. The UK as a whole is not far behind. If it can be done there now, it can be done in the rest of the world in the next 20 years. In fact, wind engineering expertise could become another export of the country. Scotland supplied a lot of the mechanical talent for the First Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s, and could be important for the Fourth Revolution in the 2020s and 2030s.

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