Scotland meets Iceland at COP21 Sustainable Innovation Summit

Paris – Monday 7th December 2015. Day one of the 6th Sustainable Innovation Forum, the largest business focussed side event to the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP), which only days later lead to the first global agreement to tackle climate change. This was an epic moment for the world. However this day – half way through and to the side of the official COP negotiations – was for me the most epic culmination of my career so far, which for the past 3 years has focussed almost entirely on facilitating geothermal energy projects in Scotland.

My excitement for the event had been growing for many weeks, primarily due to two speakers I knew were going to be attending the event: The President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson; and the First Minister of Scotland; Nicola Sturgeon. There were many high-profile speakers I was looking forward to, but these two particularly so, given what they both represent. Fortune had it that they were both making an appearance in back-to-back afternoon sessions, and so would undoubtedly cross paths. Taking a seat in the second row from the front, being careful to scoop my kilt under me as I sat down, I waited with anticipation comparable to that of a six-year-old on Christmas eve.

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The President gave a perfect pitch for geothermal energy – ten minutes of charm, jokes, inspiring case studies, and optimism for the future. His most memorable line to me was, and I paraphrase as I unfortunately did not record his speech, “we will develop geothermal energy house by house, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, town by town, city by city, country by country, until everybody is benefitting from low-carbon sustainable heat like Iceland is today”. He emphasised a particular case study by showing a picture of a small city sat among rolling green fields with blue skies, asking the audience “do you believe this is a Chinese city? Where is the smog? Well this is the first Chinese city we have helped become entirely heated by geothermal energy, and there are many more to come”. The President then showed a promotional video of Iceland, always good, and left the stage to the one and only standing ovation of the Summit.

The First Minister then took the stage with a selection of other panellists. She launched by complimenting the President’s speech by reiterating that “he said very powerfully and very eloquently that small countries don’t have to be inhibited by size. Small countries can – if they have vision and the skill and the ambition – punch well above their weight”.

She went on with the classic “Scotland is a country with a long and very celebrated history of innovation. We’re a country of inventors and innovators and entrepreneurs.” She continued to parallel Scotland’s lead of the industrial revolution with our position now as demonstrating leadership and expertise in wind and marine power.

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Gesturing to the President she mentioned “We are not doing anything near as much as Iceland in geothermal, but we are also looking now at greater research and development in geothermal, and think we have a great deal to learn from the Iceland experience”.

Yes, First Minister, we are making a good start, but as the President said, geothermal takes a long time, and we must not lose momentum or faith despite the long development timescale of projects as the long term paybacks are immense, both for the environment and for energy security and affordability.

The First Minister finished with “I am only here in COP for a day, but am full of optimism for the opportunity that the world now has”.  Her speech was applauded enthusiastically.

With the official climate change negotiations of COP21 demanding her immediate presence, the First Minister whisked herself away well before the discussion panel ended, but on leaving the stage she took the time to extend the President a very warm handshake and smile. This was a picture perfect moment, but alas I was too awestruck at the two paradigms that form the foundation of my company’s mission strategy – Scotland and geothermal – coming together so powerfully, to think of reaching for my phone. I was however fortunate enough to grab a quick selfie with the President of Iceland and hand him my card as he was making his way out of the room. Win!

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Now of course I’ll be the first to admit that the geology of Scotland is very unlike that of Iceland’s. We are not fortunate enough to sit on top of an active volcanic hot spot. However we do still have abundant geothermal resources that are well worth exploiting, primarily in the form of abandoned and flooded coal mines and deep aquifers in the Central Belt and Fife, as well as hot granites in the Highlands. They may be lower temperature than Iceland’s and not suited for electricity generation, but you only have to go down 1km to reach temperatures exceeding 35°C, and with a minimal electrical input heat pumps can take that up to a toasty 65°C or more.

The flooded coal mines have a particular attraction in that they lie beneath ex-mining communities, many of which suffer from fuel poverty. Geothermal heat produced from them will therefore not only be renewable and very-low carbon, but also warming those who need it the most on these frosty winter nights.

With winter kicking in, and climate change only due to make the winters more unpredictable and potentially far colder, there is no time to waste in developing Scotland’s geothermal resources. Let’s tap in to that much talked about innovative spirit, consult with experts in Iceland and Denmark, and get on with it before the demand for UK gas gets so high we are forced to go unconventional.

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