The Balance of Power Sustainable Development

In 2014 one of the main negatives of the NO campaign was that Scotland needed oil to fund an independent future and the oil was running out. However, 2021 is a different world and we are all more cognizant and have greater understanding of the damage that fossil fuels are doing to the world and that the role of oil in a nation’s wealth is diminishing.

This is the last of three articles that I’m putting together to look at the possibilities that Scotland has to stand tall and proud in the future, and how we as a nation can tackle some of the biggest problems – food, power and housing – to create a caring, sustainable nation that works for the good of all of us and the land we thrive upon.

Sustainable Development isn’t only about building businesses that make money for the long-term, it’s about closing the equality gap locally and internationally, removing poverty everywhere and making sure that none of us, businesses or individuals, wreck the planet for now or for future generations.

In 2020 Scotland produced 97% of the nation’s electricity from renewables and that is making a great contribution to the target of 50% of the overall energy needs of the country to be from renewables by 2030. Scotland in 2019 used about 160 GWh of power: about 80GWh of energy for heating, another 40 GWh for Transport and about 40GWh for electricity and everything else, so we have quite a bit to do to get to the overall 50% mark and clearly a LOT to do to get to the 100% mark. We get renewable electricity from mainly wind, and Scotland has great potential for further expansion of on-shore and off-shore wind and tidal, and wave energy, so the potential to achieve the complete renewables supply is there – and potential for ability to generate more for export.

But let’s not get complacent about how well Scotland is doing on the electricity generation side. We need to replace existing power stations rapidly. Hunterston nuclear reactors are literally cracking up, currently posing a risk of “a large offsite release of radioactivity” (according to Rob Edwards in The Ferret Oct 2020). The industry response to that has been to move the goalposts and seek to increase the number of allowed cracks. The plant, owned by the French state electricity company EDF, is currently being allowed to run the problem reactors for 6 months on the promise that it will close them completely by Jan 2022. There four similar reactors at Hunterston and two reactors at Torness in East Lothian. There are also 9 coal-fired power stations 2 oil-fired and some mainly island based, diesel fuelled stations operational, across Scotland all contributing to Scotland’s current capacity of 10GW production and our carbon footprint. But the export market is already established: Scotland and regularly exports about 25% of capacity to England.

The difficulties of moving to renewables from a sustainability point of view are the materials that the turbines are made from and the distances they need to be transported. The difficulties from a usefulness point of view are that the best places for power generation tend to be in the more remote areas of the country and there is a need for substantial amounts of new infrastructure to get the power from where it is made to where it is needed and looking further into the future being able to export via International interconnectors. The new longest interconnector across the North Sea to Norway is from Blyth in Northumberland, unfortunately the North Connect scheme between Norway and Peterhead was refused permission to proceed by the Norwegian government in Mar 2020. At the moment, and for the foreseeable, the only interconnectors that Scotland has are the Moyle to Northern Ireland and with England.

As a nation we are still very dependent on oil and gas to provide heating for both business and domestic buildings. There has been a reduction in consumption, helped by the campaigns to better insulate current buildings and higher standards for new-builds but that has given only about 15% reduction since 2005. 75% of our household energy usage is for heating and with our climate that is a need that can’t be ignored. If you look to Europe for inspiration on this you will find Denmark with their community heat systems where a central source provides heat to all properties in an area. In Denmark 64% of all private households are connected to district heating systems providing space heating and hot water. The first system was a combined heat and power plant set up in 1902 as a waste incineration plant, solving two problems at the same time. For Denmark the plan is to use thermal generators with heat pumps powered by renewable electricity for the rest.

We can do that too. We can use our waste to fuel heat generation to warm our homes. We can do that efficiently and reduce the amount of stuff that we sent to landfill which is literally just burying our mess for other generations to have to deal with in the future. We can put in ground source heating in areas with accessible land – taking energy from the earth to heat and cool buildings. Of course, reducing the home heating impact of the country is going to cost money, it is going to be disruptive, but focus on the benefits and also on the opportunities for new employment and new skills that creating that new infrastructure and related businesses will bring.

Transport is another area where Scotland is struggling to get away from diesel and petrol. Encouraging people out of their cars might be easier after Covid Lockdowns, but in rural areas it’s really hard not to have personal transport and it is hard to justify regular, low-cost bus and shared transport options. There are other options. We can change the fuel, and the tech has been long proven in places like Sweden and even Brazil to make fuel from non-fossil sources.  Celtic Renewables have (finally) begun installation of a biorefinery in Grangemouth, and the new plant is expected to process around 50,000 tonnes of residues each year from the whisky industry, adding value and sustainability to one of the country’s most important sectors. Two birds one stone, upcycling waste along the way. It’s not a perfect solution, it is still releasing Carbon dioxide, but it is a step along the way to sustainability.

I have to admire the Danes and their largest all electric ferry operating between Fynshav and Søby, the crossing there being 19km. That is slap bang in potential range for many of the Scottish Islands (Mallaig to Armadale 8km, Wemyss Bay to Rothesay 14km Ardrossan to Brodick is 23km). The big hope is that we will move to EV transport. Telsa’s for all! And supporting that ambition there are charging points appearing all over the place.

I have an issue with the drive to move to Electric Vehicles everywhere. I dislike the social injustice of the battery industry. Africa is being dug up to provide the west with what we want, whilst children are working in mines, toxic waste from the extraction processes is emptying into local waterways and the wealth isn’t going to their communities, it’s going to global corporations.

There is also great potential from hydrogen powered vehicles. Germany are bringing in some hydrogen powered trains later this year and Airbus are working hard on turboprop hydrogen engines aiming for 2035 – if any of us have managed to get back to travelling by then it could be quite the thing. Working alongside increased electrification of train lines, and more train lines, it could make a significant difference to our carbon footprint.

To make to make Scotland energy sustainable we have to look at sharing the wealth and assets with the communities that are custodians of the natural capital in the areas providing the power. Community owned schemes are increasingly popular – creating power by and for a community and then, where possible, making profit from the excess sold to the National Grid can provide funds for other local projects.

Foula, the most westerly of the Shetland Islands, population 35, has been generating its own electricity since 1982. It does it through a mixture of solar, wind and hydro, uses battery storage to absorb the excess and provide it back at lean times and the whole system is backed up by diesel generators. Over the next 12 months they are hoping to be able to move to a 24-hour supply and reduce the reliance on fossil fuel back-ups. Other off-grid islands such as Fair Isle, Eigg, Muck Rum and Canna are also working towards secure, decarbonised supplies.

Community owned companies in Scotland are working hard to get involved in the Energy market.

Applecross funded their hydro scheme (AppleJuice) through crowdfunded investments providing a forecasted 4% return to investors as well as generating funds for the local community and providing them with green energy– they were over subscribed. One of the latest is Barr River, Morvern, Lochaber and it is also the largest with a 1.6MW capacity generating 4,269,000 KWh per year.

Not all proposals are so welcomed by the local communities. The run of seven micro-hydro systems along Glen Etive has seen a strong reaction from campaigners with great concerns about the damage to a fragile eco-system during the construction (it requires upgrades to the road) and the ability to repair afterwards.

Wind projects have also good potential for communities around the country to create shared assets and gain from the profits. Gigha has modest 3 turbines at the south end of the island and Stòras Uibhist has Scotland’s biggest community owned scheme, supplying 6.9MW across 850 homes in the Western Isles.

The technologies such as Compressed Air, pumped-hydro potential needed for storage of power to ensure constant 24/7 feed to the grid are here already too and they reduce the need for battery banks.

The route map is there for us to follow. There are working examples of the technologies already out there for us to adapt to our own national requirements and perhaps even improve on them. We could re-create national utilities for the cities to share in, they do not need to be excluded from the community asset buzz. Perhaps by having direct ownership and a stake in the energy we create, we will learn to be more mindful of its usage and more able to truly value it rather than just know the cost?? At the moment the cost of not moving rapidly to sustainable power is simply too high for the planet to support.


First Published in the iScot Magazine #74 June 2021