The opportunity to become a clean technology leader, end fuel poverty and create thousands of jobs must be seized
Blackout Britain! The energy crunch is coming!
The apocalyptic headlines we see in some sections of the UK’s press give the impression that we should be stocking up on canned goods and candles and preparing for a dark winter of discontent. The reality is quite different, but there are challenges we must confront.
I sit on Holyrood’s economy, energy and tourism committee and we recently published a detailed report following an inquiry into security of energy supply. The report, agreed by all MSPs including even the committee’s Tory convener, made clear the reality; we’re moving into a more flexible energy system where demand reduction, storage, interconnection and transmission will be more important than whether each area is meeting its immediate needs every minute of every day. This change does pose some challenges, but also huge opportunities. By reducing demand we can cut our climate emissions, tackle fuel poverty and create jobs.
But sometimes a simplistic idea becomes lodged in the public consciousness, and gets in the way of a more informed debate. “There’s no money left” was one recent example. “Britain is full up” is another. They prevent serious debate about the economy, or about the role immigration plays. “We must keep the lights on” is doing the same to our energy debate. It’s a question which ignores all the complex realities, and implies that we just need to keep generating ever more power.
This is such an absence of subtlety and nuance that it would embarrass even Donald Trump.
We need to consider not just how we generate electricity, but how we use it, and when. We need to think about the wider energy picture, including heat and transport. We need to ask whose interests are served by the domination of a handful of giant energy companies, and how more public and community ownership can be achieved. And we’ll need to get used to the idea that even if we’re still net exporters, especially of renewable electricity, there will be times when we need to import as well, and that there’s really nothing wrong with that. Connections not just within these islands but across the North Sea to mainland Europe will be increasingly important.
The committee inquiry dismissed the predictions of disaster, and it speaks volumes that those who make them tend to be proponents of fracking or nuclear power, which of course would be disastrous for Scottish communities.
But there are two issues which could be huge barriers to the development of this flexible, sustainable and modern energy system.
The Tory/LibDem coalition was gung-ho on fracking and nuclear, but the new UK Government is even more determined to “cut the green crap”, and is tearing up what credibility the country had on climate change.
Conservative ministers have scrapped subsidies for new onshore wind developments, cut back on payments for solar and ended both the Green Deal and the Zero Carbon Homes plan. They’re switching Vehicle Excise Duty to a flat rate, instead of rates based on vehicle pollution levels, and they’re privatising the Edinburgh-headquartered Green Investment Bank.
This week a study by industry body Scottish Renewables showed Scotland risks falling short of its target to generate renewable electricity equal to 100% of our consumption by 2020. The new estimate is that we might hit 87%. The UK Government’s anti-green moves are directly undermining progress in Scotland and the UK.
The second problem is on demand reduction, and here the onus is on Scottish ministers to produce an ambitious strategy. We know that at the current rate of investment it will take 28 years to end fuel poverty in Scotland, so we need to go further and faster than ever before.
Over a year ago, John Swinney agreed with Green calls for energy efficiency to become a National Infrastructure Priority but to date ministers have not said how they will deliver this or how much funding they’ll allocate to it. It’s vital that we see the detail soon, and a step-change in the financial allocation to this work.
District heating and community renewables can play a much bigger role. All too often we see housing developments given the go-ahead without thought given to the efficiencies and savings for householders of having solar power, shared central heating systems, renewable heat from ground sources or small-scale biomass, or the range of other technologies which are out there. Instead we end up with hundreds of individual boilers in hundreds of homes. This isn’t what the future looks like, and it isn’t what we should be building today.
The opportunity Scotland has to become a clean technology leader, end fuel poverty and create thousands of construction jobs must be seized. Let’s show what Scotland can do. Let’s see bold funding commitments in the draft Scottish budget that’s due to be published next month.