If anyone is emerging as the figurehead of Scotland’s energy revolution, it is Claire Mack. We find out what drives the chief executive of Scottish Renewables.

In the teeth of a revolution, it is bold leaders who define the direction, and the ultimate success or failure of change. Scotland is now in the foothills of an offshore energy revolution that has the power to transform and electrify our nation.

At several recent events in Glasgow, a confident standard bearer stood head and shoulders above others with her knowledge, clear articulation and passion for Scotland’s net-zero future. This was the voice of Claire Mack, the chief executive of Scottish Renewables, the trade organisation representing companies in the process of transforming Scotland’s – and the UK’s – offshore green energy system.

She chaired several roundtable sessions in front of up to 1,000 delegates with aplomb, warmth and humour. Her organisation’s membership includes developers, such as RWE Renewables, EDF Renewables, SSE Renewables, Scottish Power Renewables, Statkraft, Ocean Winds and Blue Float Energy, plus the subcontractors, manufacturers, and the myriad legal firms required to write the contracts. So, Mack speaks with authority.

Such leadership is vital in a UK General Election year and at a critical juncture when there is flip-flopping political debate about the energy transition and how best to deploy the skills and experience of Scotland’s North Sea oil and gas industry to fulfil a greener purpose.

Energy policy in the UK has been characterised as a ‘trilemma’ of affordability for energy consumers, achieving climate goals of carbon reduction, and ensuring national security of supply in an increasingly volatile and fragile world. In short, it will define how everyone must have the chance of staying warm and living comfortably in the next 50 years.

Since 2017, Mack has developed as a consistent voice for a disparate sector which faces the complex task of delivering many billions of pounds of green investment. Her organisation recently coined the aphorism: ‘No Transition without Transmission’, which refers directly to the importance of upgrading and re-aligning the archaic National Grid.

It is a t-shirt phrase which resonates with both Scottish and UK government ministers, who speak about a ‘just transition’ which will benefit consumers and those seeking work opportunities as much as the international sovereign wealth funds and pension fund managers now looking for safe, long-term returns in Scotland. There is just so much to play for in this industrial landscape which will change the environment and the public’s perception of green energy.

“We’re a business-to-business organisation and my focus until now has always been on the generation of renewable energy. Everything we’d done so far has been behind the curtain, a bit like the Wizard of Oz,” she laughs.

“Now we are moving more closely into the lives of the wider public, and therefore the discussions and the type of communication do have to change. The aim is to decarbonise heat, and this will touch everybody’s daily existence.”

While public support for renewable green energy has never been higher, resistance to the grid infrastructure, with its ugly pylons and humming substations are a minefield of local consultation and planning delay. Many unspoilt coastal viewpoints around Scotland will have an array of wind turbines on the near horizon, with subsea links to a grid system taking excess electricity to the south of the UK.

“On-shore wind has been hugely visible, and many Scots are now fully well aware of that. However, if you live in the middle of Glasgow offshore renewables might not mean a lot to you. The question is: whose job is it to start explaining this?”

During Cop26 in Glasgow, Scottish Renewables and the Scottish Government were at the forefront of explaining why Scotland was emerging as a world leader in terms of net-zero electricity generation. The power companies are also spending time and resources on this engagement.

“It was then that we realised that the public have a lot of interest in renewables, and they also have questions that need to be answered,” Mack says. “When we start to head down the path of disrupting people a little on the way to building this energy system for the future, then we face tougher discussions in some communities where the impacts are most felt.”

Two years ago, the ScotWind round was a big-ticket event for the country. Some critics wondered if putting all of Scotland’s 20 offshore wind projects, totalling more than 30GW of electricity, plus 13 INTOG [innovation and targeted oil and gas] projects up for grabs in one set of auctions was a wise decision.

“I believe that it was right for Scotland and to show this level of ambition. The ScotWind auction made the international community sit up and take note of what was going on in Scottish coastal waters. We are on the world offshore renewables map in a major way,” she says.

Scotland’s more positive position contrasts with the rest of the UK, where AR5, the most recent offshore wind auction, failed to attract bidders.

In truth, the UK Department of Energy Security and Net Zero got it wrong. It has been too blasé about investment funding, and too heavy on the pricing of Contracts for Difference (CfD), the vital equation needed to work out the cost of each unit of electricity and the investment return that could be calculated. This also sits alongside the Power Purchase Agreement (PPA), which is a long-term contract to purchase electricity directly from a renewable generator. The international investors turned their back and started to look elsewhere. The UK Government, which deserved this painful kick up the backside, has been on a charm offensive to recoup lost ground.

Dr Sarah Redwood, director of renewable electricity, Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, speaking at the Scottish Renewables conference in Glasgow, confirmed harsh lessons have been learned from AR5 and these lessons are being implemented quickly, at her minister’s request.

Designing a fair auction has become a delicate industry topic, balancing returns, and avoiding the ‘winner’s curse’, where the winning company is hit by multiple levels of cost inflation on the construction and development and pre-set cost of energy for the consumer. The UK Government is now consulting on changes to CfDs for AR6 and AR7, which require around 20GWs of wind.

The UK now has five of the largest windfarms in the world fully operational: Hornsea 1 (1218 MW), Hornsea 2 (1386 MW), Moray East (950 MW), Triton Knoll (857 MW), London Array, Phase One, (630 MW). So, there is a proven ability to deliver. The offshore energy companies are preparing to invest a massive £200 billion by the end of this decade. However, half of this awaits final approval and a stable political and investment environment.

The ScotWind round avoided the experience south of the Border, and it proved to be a catalyst for all the projects, now at various stages of planning and consent. Green electricity producers need access to the UK grid, now National Grid ESO [Energy Systems Operator], so they will be able to distribute around the UK.

By 2030, Scotland will be producing green electricity far in excess of its domestic needs, and much of this will be exported south of the Border to England.

One major cluster that is ahead of the game is in the Moray Firth, where Ocean Winds, a 50-50 consortium of EDF Renewables-ENGIE set up only four years ago, is already operating the Moray East wind farm, near to the Beatrice wind turbines. Ocean Winds has Moray West (882MW) under construction and is planning the 2GW Caledonia, in the north of Scotland, and the 2.3GW Arven floating wind project east of the Shetlands. The electricity comes in at Whitehills, near Banff, and is transferred to an electricity sub-station at New Deer. The company has operations and maintenance bases in Buckie and Fraserburgh, and has longterm engagements with Nigg, Invergordon and the Port of Cromarty Firth green freeport.

Further south, Seagreen, off the Angus coast, is under construction with 1,075MW and there is massive expansion planned further out with Bowdun, Morven, Ossian, Bellrock east of Aberdeen and Dundee, running down to Neart na Gaoithe, and Berwick Bank, off Eyemouth, while the Orkney islands, the Outer Hebrides and those east of Islay are all going through their scoping and out to public consultation. The key will be grid connectivity.

Mack explains: “The ‘Great Grid upgrade’ as it is now being called is a national endeavour that needs to be properly explained. It is going to have a visual impact on communities, it is going to cause temporary disruption as we move pylons and sub-stations around the country, but on the balancing side, it is one of the biggest economic opportunities that Scotland has ever seen.”

Mack is clear that there will be long-term employment prospects for tens of thousands of Scots. “We need to have a pipeline with good foresight over the next ten or 15 years for the infrastructure that is required. There needs to be a bankable and steady flow of projects with the UK Government looking at the ‘strike price’ of the wind and the overall budgets for building,” she says. “Policy uncertainty increases the risk premium, which puts up the cost of capital.”

Overall, Claire Mack believes her industry must deliver a fairer energy system to the consumer – because in the end it will be the consumer who picks up the tab.

“I really wanted this job and believed I could make a change. I had a vision of what we could be doing”

Claire Mack, a graduate of Glasgow Caledonian University, was born and brought up in Falkirk. She spent 20 years in regulation, initially when regional television licences were the subject of a rapid series of mergers reshaping the ITV map.

She then moved to the SCDI, now Prosper, under the leadership of chairman Brendan Dick of BT. This was an all-economy membership body searching for the answers for building a successful future for Scotland.

“We were looking indepth at what had driven the Scottish economy, examining the likes of the Cairncross Report [Scottish-born Sir Alec Cairncross, the former senior UK economist, was an influential figure in the 1960s and 1970s] and other economic papers and books, including Graeme Roy’s more recent fiscal publications. Everything pointed to renewables.

“So when this job came up, I did not expect to get it. However, I never approach things half-heartedly and did a great deal of preparation. I really wanted this job and believed I could make a change. I had a vision of what we could be doing, drawing a lot of experience from other sectors.”

During her time in regulation Mack worked with Brian Marjoribanks, the doyen of Scottish broadcasting regulation and a BBC sports presenter, when regional television licences were being auctioned. She describes him as an early mentor.

“Brian was an incredible person to work with. He was the master of his brief, and therefore exuded a great sense of calm. He was incredibly astute. With this kind of consideration, thoughtful decisions could be made. I learned a great deal working alongside him.”

Marjoribanks encouraged diversity and younger talent and gave Mack a major role within the regulation to understand the changes from analogue to a multi-channel digital future.

“There were clear parallels between what was happening in the auctions for digital infrastructure and what has been happening over offshore wind in the UK,” she says.

While her passion for the industry is undimmed, she heads home to two teenagers, both contemplating their futures, and a dog, at her house outside Falkirk. She enjoys the great outdoors and Scotland’s natural beauty and relaxes by cooking for friends and family