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Energy in Scotland - Reality not Ideology

The Sunday Herald recently published a letter claiming that Scotland needs more control over its energy policies to escape from those advocated by the "English" government. Its writers appear to share a number of commonly held misunderstandings which require refuting.

The Holyrood parliament does not have formal responsibility for energy policy in Scotland. However it does have control of general planning. Further, the owners of Scotland’s conventional electricity generation capacity have currently no incentive to expand it. These factors have enabled Holyrood effectively to take control of all new energy developments. This has resulted in the construction or consent of renewable capacity to meet at least 99% of the SNP's target of the “equivalent” of 100% of Scottish electricity consumption, although not necessarily when consumers require it.

Based on Scottish Government figures this amounts to 14.13GW of the “100% equivalent” requirement which we estimate to be 14.33GW. Furthermore, there is about 10GW of renewable capacity still unconsented in the planning system. In these circumstances it is hard to understand the SNP government’s current attempts to modify planning policy to facilitate consent of yet more onshore wind turbines. Enough have already been consented to fulfil their arbitrary ambitions.

No technical or economic case has ever been made for the 100% target. Consumer-paid subsidies treble the wholesale price of electricity from offshore wind, for example. Infrastructure costs will increase it still more. The financial and security of supply consequences for the Scottish economy have never been assessed by government. The total subsidies for Scotland's approximately 36TWh of consumption could amount to about £3.7 billion. At present these costs are met by all UK consumers. In the event of Scottish independence they would become the responsibility of Scotland's much smaller population alone. The authors of the letter imply that it should be possible for Holyrood to increase the “incentives” which constitute these additional costs. It is hard to believe that this is a serious suggestion.

There is a view widespread in the environmental lobby that forms of generation other than renewables are unnecessary, although even there, and certainly in the wind industry, there is the understanding that wind cannot be a replacement for everything. The reason for this is quite clear. We cannot control when the wind will blow and so when wind turbines will deliver power. Building more turbines is not a solution – a thousand stationary turbines produce no more energy than one.

Renewable technologies other than wind can be ruled out as significant contributors to UK energy in the foreseeable future or possibly for ever. In cloudy Scotland solar is uneconomic nonsense, although it is an excellent investment both economically and environmentally in much of the developing world. Tidal power has possibilities but a Severn barrage has been proposed for more than half a century and is still no closer to reality. Wave power is still far from large scale realisation and in any case has relatively small potential.

So what is this other source to be if not nuclear? The environmental lobby will vigorously oppose the construction of coal fired power stations, although even ultra-“green” Germany is building them. The same lobbyists will oppose the exploitation of shale gas, despite the fact that its development in the US has made a larger mitigation of global CO2 emissions than all the world’s wind turbines and solar panels.

Current nuclear power is not cheap compared with coal, though it is comparable to the cost of gas generation. However, it is cheaper than any wind technology. The strike price which the UK government has agreed for Hinkley C is less than that for onshore wind with renewables obligation costs, and only two thirds of that for offshore wind. Nuclear plants can be built with access to the existing grid and are controllable rather than intermittent and uncertain, providing electricity when required by the consumer. Nor do they incur massive new infrastructure and load-balancing costs.

Scotland is currently in the happy position of having enough conventional generation to meet its peak demand on those days in winter when there is essentially no wind blowing. One third of this comes from our two proven safe and reliable nuclear plants. However, should we fail to replace any of this in the future we would become dependent on imports, regardless of the number of wind turbines that have been deployed. A corollary to this is that at times of low demand and strong winds Scotland must depend on its only customer, England, to purchase surplus wind generated electricity, at the bottom of the market, at whatever rock bottom price they are prepared to offer.

This highlights perhaps the most serious misunderstanding of all. This is the assumption that wind generated electricity is a valuable exportable asset which could make Scotland “the Saudi Arabia of renewables”. Quite simply, wind is not like oil. Electricity cannot be stored in large quantities, cannot be economically transported over long distances and, in the case of wind power, is not available on demand. One does not have to understand the technologies to appreciate the difference, simply to look at what has happened. Oil and gas companies queued up to buy licences to explore the North Sea and pay billions in taxes. By contrast, we the consumers are paying wind energy operators millions.

Professor Jack Ponton FREng, Emeritus Professor of Engineering

Scientific Alliance Scotland

Sunday Herald 9 July 2014