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Scotland shows the way forward

By Dave Elliott

Scotland is now generating the equivalent of around 60% of its annual electricity needs from renewables, mostly wind, and is aiming for 100%, with new nuclear blocked unilaterally. So it is a little surprising that there have not been more studies of this unique initiative. That’s soon to change with a new book, ‘A critical review of Scottish Energy Policy’ by a group of Scottish academics edited by Geoff Wood and Keith Baker, to be published by Palgrave next month. It focuses on renewables and low carbon options and related policy, planning, legislation and regulation issues.

It is a very timely publication, given that, after Brexit, Scotland may vote to go fully independent. It is already quite independent, with its own devolved government and a clearly different and very progressive energy policy. What’s not to like? Well not everything is ideal, as this new book explains. But the overwhelming message is that, despite the endless debate about whether renewables can work large-scale, here’s a country actually doing it.

It’s often the case that Denmark or Germany are used as exemplars of how it should be done. Scotland has some things in common with both: it’s a small country like Denmark, but also has an existing nuclear component like Germany. However, its renewables potential is larger than either and it is making better progress. Given how much government support has been provided for renewables in Germany and (until recently) Denmark, that’s quite surprising. It makes the situation in the rest of the UK look rather pathetic.

That’s not to say there are no critics of Scotland’s renewable energy programme: they often depict it as foolish or at least of limited value. Some of the criticisms are simply due to disbelief that renewables like wind energy (now the dominant renewable in Scotland) can work on a large scale, without massive backup, beyond what is likely to be available. It is certainly true that the UK government’s decision to abandon the £1bn Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) programme (including the Peterhead project) removes the potential for a lower carbon approach to continued fossil fuel use, and arguably would make the use of gas plants for backup less attractive, given their unabated emissions. But then high-cost CCS probably wouldn’t have made sense with flexible gas peaking plants, which would only operate occasionally to back up renewables. In any case, in addition to hydro pumped storage, and power imports balanced by exports, there are other low carbon supply/demand balancing options, including Combined Heat and Power/district heating networks linked to heat stores and smart grid demand response systems, all of which Scotland is looking at, as this book notes.

Some critics, of course, resent the SNP’s opposition to nuclear, which they see as a vital component of a balanced system. The chapter on nuclear in this book reflects that view and suggests a rethink may be in order – or at least full consideration of what the phase-out of the two remaining Scottish nuclear plants would imply. Much of the rest of the book, in effect, offers some ideas for new areas of development, in addition to wind power (the main one), including chapters on marine energy (wave and tidal), community energy projects and energy efficiency.

Scotland has enviable wave and tidal resources and is in the lead globally in developing them, with many new technologies being under test, and the start of GW-scale deployment being possible in the 2020s. However, it has to be said that, apart from the exemplary community energy programme, so far progress on energy efficiency and green heating has been quite slow and the book reviews the problems that have been faced. They are not unique to Scotland: the UK as a whole has been slow to develop its green heat and efficient energy use strategies. So has much of the EU. But the potential for energy savings in all sectors is there, as is being promoted in the EU’s new Efficiency First Strategy.

Moreover, green heating is moving up the political agenda in most places, as the problems of meeting heat demand just by using green electricity become clearer.  Solar heating is relatively marginal so far in Scotland, but it could expand along with heat storage  – the heating season there is long and the cold northern winters can be sunny. Biomass is another option, including the use of forestry wastes, but there are limits to how much land can be used for energy crops, even in the relatively sparsely populated rural areas of Scotland, although as elsewhere, farm and urban food and other wastes can be used as a feedstock for anaerobic digestion (AD) biogas production. Ambient heat extraction using large-scale heat pumps is also an option, as is being planned for Glasgow, extracting heat from old flooded mine workings. So too is geothermal heating, linked perhaps to heat networks and large heat stores.

Clearly, there are many options and some urgent policy and development issues to be faced. This book offers a guide to how a devolved, and possibly independent, Scottish government could address them. Not all of the issues are addressed fully in this book. Although it sets the wider scene, it focuses on non-fossil energy options: renewables, nuclear power and energy efficiency. So it doesn’t cover fossil fuel issues, CCS briefly apart, and also only delves briefly into transport issues, focusing on user-behaviour rather than technology.  However, it does take a quite broad view and it’s not afraid to look at the problems. Overall it provides an inspiring account of what many see as a brave attempt to accelerate renewables so that they can meet most energy needs, while also allowing for continued export of electricity. That certainly seems a popular idea.

And going further, WWF wants a 50% green energy target set for 2030, with renewable electricity helping out with heat (40%) and transport (18%), as well as supplying almost all power, and overall energy demand cut by 20%. There certainly will be a need for a coherent integrated cross-sector approach if targets like this are to be met. But a start has been made, and the Scottish government has now backed the 50% by 2030 energy target. It won’t be easy, but it seems possible. Though there’s a very different view here, which calls for three new nuclear plants.


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