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Scotland – isolated or leading?

By Dave Elliott

It has been claimed that if Scotland goes independent of the UK it will find it hard to sustain its ambitious renewable energy programme, which aims to match 100% of Scottish electricity use from renewables by 2020. It already gets over 36%, but that expansion has partly been due to the support of the UK-wide Renewables Obligation, which passes on the cost to all UK electricity consumers. The income from just Scottish consumers (10% of the UK) would clearly be much less. A report by Dave Toke and others, “Delivering renewable energy under devolution”, published in Political Quarterly, says that “funding a significant expansion of Scottish-based offshore renewables under independence would lead to considerable increases in Scottish electricity prices, something that a Scottish government would find hard to sustain politically”.

However it is not clear whether, after independence, it would come to that. The new (lesser!) UK would need the Scottish projects to meet its renewable-energy targets, if they were still to be retained, so the new UK would have to continue to support Scottish projects, new and old. The Scottish government said that it “believes the current, integrated GB electricity market should continue post-independence, as it’s in our mutual interests. Given Scotland’s vast renewable resources, with independence, it will be in the rest of the UK’s overwhelming interests to ensure support arrangements are in place to secure Scottish renewable energy”:

At present, Scotland supplies around half of the UK’s renewable electricity. But the next phase of expansion in Scotland might cost more, since, given the geomorphic differences, offshore wind sites there are less easy to develop. Would UK consumers be happy to fund that?

Scotland’s targets – not enough?

It would be tragic if the inspiring Scottish plans came unstuck, but then again, while some think they are unrealistic or too radical, some think they are actually too limited. The Scottish government’s new Report on Climate Proposals and Policies got a bit of flak for not being sufficiently bold across the board. The Scottish Green Party, said “This is clearly a government in denial about the problem. It needs to start putting its money where its mouth is. Ministers continue to pin hopes on unpopular ideas like electric vehicles and unproven technology like carbon capture.” Scotland has got emissions down by 24.3% since 1990, but partly it seems by carbon trading, and some say it is falling behind and won’t reach its admittedly ambitious 42% cut by 2020 target:

Part of the problem is that the SNP has focused mainly on renewable electricity, with high-profile targets. As noted above, Scotland already gets over 36% of its annual electricity needs matched by renewables, mainly wind so far, plus existing hydro. With more projects coming on line, it is now aiming to get 50% of its electricity from renewables by 2015. And its 100% by 2020 target is way ahead of any other country, Denmark apart, certainly including the UK as a whole, and all with no new nuclear.

However, Scotland is still exporting power from fossil and nuclear plants, and the picture in terms of heat and transport demand is not so impressive. Overall, it plans to obtain 30% of its total energy from renewables by 2020, with renewables supplying 11% of heat by then, mainly from biomass-fired CHP. Its forecasts for demand reduction are quite challenging, but not dramatic – 12% by 2020. Even so, by 2030 it aims to be “largely decarbonized”, and to have phased out nuclear generation. To complete the decarbonization process in the years following 2030, it will presumably seek to expand renewable heat supply, as well as developing strategies for transport fuel. But to judge by the new climate policy report, it’s only just starting out on all that. Apart from some welcome support for CHP/district heating, it looks very similar to the DECC’s efforts, such as they are:

Using its devolved powers, Scotland has been able to develop a challenging energy plan for electricity. Some say that if it gained full political independence, it might be able to do even better, but for a viable sustainable-energy system, continued and indeed upgraded links with the UK, and also with other EU countries, are essential e.g. via the proposed north sea supergrid. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out in the debate over independence.

Denmark provides an example

It is not impossible to combine independence in a small country with integration: like Scotland, Denmark is aiming to get 100% of its electricity matched from renewables by 2020, mostly wind, with gross energy consumption reduced by 7.6% in 2020 compared with 2010. Renewables would then be providing 35% of total energy, with, as now, some export and import of electricity to balance the system.

And then it plans to move on to be totally carbon-free by 2050, with the use of all fossil fuels being phased out, including for transport, and renewables taking over.

The Danish Heat Plan is worth a look. There will be a ban on installing oil- and gas-fired installations in new buildings from 2013. And from 2016, there will be a ban on installing oil-fired installations in existing buildings in areas with district heating or natural gas as alternatives. District heating networks currently supply about 60% of Denmark’s domestic and commercial heat, and it has been suggested that by 2050 around 40% of the district heating load, at present partly met by biomass fuel, could be met by solar combined with interseasonal heat stores:

Solar and biomass aren’t the only options. Denmark already has some heating provided by wind energy – with immersion heaters in a large heat store linked to a district heating network, using excess wind derived electricity. Scotland also has a version of this idea running in the Shetlands, with plans for expansion. Denmark meanwhile is looking to the use of large heat pumps driven by wind electricity, upgrading heat from CHP plants, to feed district heating networks. The Danish District Heating Association claims the initiative could make the Danish heating sector CO2-neutral by 2030:

It could be that Scotland and Denmark could co-evolve viable sustainable energy systems which the rest of us can copy.

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