Energy consultations and election concerns

This election is the first since the Paris Agreement on Climate Change became law in November 2016. Under this the Britain has, along with the rest of the EU, committed to reduce Carbon emissions from 1990 levels by 20% by 2020, 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050. Yet since 2015, the Tory government has effectively destabilised the renewable energy sector by cutting solar subsidies, banning onshore wind farms in England, cancelling the £1bn demonstration carbon capture and storage (CCS) facility at Peterhead and forging ahead with the uneconomical Hinkley Point C nuclear station. This has cost over 12,000 jobs across the UK including in Scotland.

Energy policy is reserved to Westminster. However, Scotland has substantially devolved powers over innovation, rural and industrial planning and to come the Crown Estates. The Scottish Government is planning to publish a Climate Change Act later this year and as a result has launched a series of public consultations on Energy Policy all of which close on 30 May 2017.

The most controversial of these is ‘Talking Fracking’, a Consultation on Unconventional Coal and Gas (UCG). If approved for extraction, much of central Scotland north of Glasgow to Stirling and east to Cowdenbeath, Falkirk and Cumbernauld could be subject to exploratory drilling and, if suitable, extraction of gas through underground explosions. INEOS claims jobs would be created and the environmental impact would be beneficial by reducing imports. Environmentalists and residents fear water contamination with associated health risks, earthquakes and a loss of jobs in consequence from damaging Scotland’s farming and whisky purity credentials. The Government seems inclined to give ‘fracking a chance’ based on 1,400 potential jobs and a 0.1% GDP growth, not considering negative effects. A popular revolt could stop it proceeding. This consultation could stop fracking in Scotland for good. 

The Onshore Wind Policy consultation points out the benefits of onshore wind to decarbonisation and predicts lowering costs below gas by 2020 and below nuclear to 2030. Future deployment is in jeopardy due to British government changes to the support framework both on the mainland and Scottish islands. The consultation relates to how the efficiency of wind sites and lower costs might be taken into account in the planning process, reforming the grid access charges, extending asset life and storage deployment.

The Scottish Energy Efficiency Programme (SEEP) consultation focuses on how the energy efficiency of homes businesses and public buildings can be improved, their heat decarbonised and benefit fuel poverty at the same time. The proposals include regulation of private rented housing to improve efficiency, changes to heating and a new Fuel Poverty Strategy consultation. This consultation seeks views on what works well from existing schemes, what are suitable milestones for energy efficiency, how building standards should be altered, how the £10bn programme over 20 years can be funded and how to engage citizens with the programme and ensure communities benefit from jobs created. The proposed shift in the Fuel Poverty Strategy has been criticised as over simplistic as it relies on aggregate not individual data, hence underestimates the effect of poverty. This is evidenced by the results of the Speird Project, which argues Fuel Poverty should be treated as a welfare issue rather than an energy issue. Indeed, energy use could rise were Fuel Poverty tackled.

The main consultation is the Scottish Energy Strategy consultation which is based on the Draft Climate Change Plan, draws upon the above consultations and aims to meet the 2050 target of a 80% reduction in carbon emissions. It proposes a new 2030 target for 50% of Scotland’s heat, transport and electricity consumption to be supplied from renewable resources alongside the energy savings from the SEEP initiative. This target derives from the Draft Climate Plan, modelled using the TIMES climate economic model, makes ambitious predictions – which rely upon sensible policies from Westminster which may not be forthcoming. It would be good to see – as has been promised – the model opened up to academic and public input and to model changes to the regulatory framework from devolution of energy policy to the possibilities of Scottish Independence.

The ambition of the Scottish Government should be welcomed even if some aspects of the modelling such as transport targets appear much lower than Britain’s as pointed out by the Committee on Climate Change. Without public scrutiny of the assumptions, their realisation is questionable.

The consultation asks 17 questions relating to energy supply including the: priorities; targets; role of hydrogen; transforming energy use; smart grids; local energy systems; a government-owned energy company; Scottish Renewable Energy Bonds; public and private sector roles in achieving the vision.

Fundamental to delivering the vision is transforming the grid, and initiatives in Orkney are seen as testbeds for a more decentralised grid. However, the mainland grid is privately owned and there is a reluctance to fund grid connections at an economic cost to consumers. Indeed the main energy companies in Britain have consistently underinvested for decades since privatisation. This makes energy prices too low to enable the transformation required. It also makes a mockery of the Tories’ election pledge for a cap on electricity prices to save £100 per household – a direct steal of Labour’s 2015 promise which the Tories then described as evidence Labour wanted to live in a ‘Marxist universe’.

As the Jimmy Reid Foundation and Scottish Left Review have previously argued, electricity supply is not suitable for a market solution and the grid should be taken into public hands at zero cost. This however, is not in the Energy Strategy, too much of which relies on increasing grid connections and interconnectors to secure supply to and from England all of which at significant cost and loss of power.

For once, however, the role of energy storage is being taken up and hydrogen from hydrolysis is seen as key to the future of home heating at minimum adaptation cost. Producing hydrogen and oxygen by hydrolysis at times of excess wind power is more efficient than paying to shut down wind farms and hydrogen can be pumped straight into the gas grid as is done in Germany, thus, reducing imported gas. This should be trialled now. Hydrogen can be stored for use in gas plants, perhaps using redundant coal or nuclear sites to provide power at times of low wind. Hydrogen vehicles and buses can be used throughout councils across Scotland rather than just in Aberdeen and Fife.

The proposal for a publicly-owned Scottish Energy Company to fund independent local energy nodes and district heating should also be welcomed as a challenge to the existing regime. This company would be funded by Scottish Energy Bonds paid into an energy fund. This is practical even without devolution of energy policy or independence. The proposal to ensure at least half of new energy projects have an element of shared ownership involving communities or the public by 2020 is also welcome. The paper also highlights the role of the ‘circular economy’ in reducing waste.

Overall the Scottish Energy Strategy paper is a welcome advance towards a decentralised community controlled energy policy. It appears to be supported by all parties in Scotland including the Tories. However, this is unlikely to feature in the election campaign. Labour at the British level recognises the energy market is broken and requires £500bn investment through a national investment bank to manage the transition to a low energy economy and lower energy costs to the low paid. There have been fears expressed that as part of Brexit, May’s Tories will see breaching their climate obligations as ‘fair game’, their sale of the Green Investment Bank being one indicator.

All readers of Scottish Left Review and supporters of the Jimmy Reid Foundation are encouraged to respond to these important consultations despite the current election campaign. You have till the 30 May.

Gordon Morgan is independent researcher and campaigner as well as a longstanding member of the Scottish Left Review editorial committee.