Why is Electricite de France ruling UK energy policy? And why does London still dominate Scotland’s energy plans? Shaun Burnie looks at de-linking economic growth from energy growth and the prospects for a smart grid future.
The urgent need for the people of Scotland to secure control over energy policy was highlighted on several fronts both domestic and international during 2012. Ambitious targets for renewables set by the SNP government can make you feel good about the direction the nation is taking – but the reality of Scotland’s energy policy, its contradictions and its poverty of thinking on a strategic scale – warrant more radical action. And when I say radical – the conservative led German model would be a good start.
The fourth largest economy on the planet, Germany shut eight reactors in 2011 following the Fukushima-daiichi accident and has further increased renewable energy output to provide over 23% of electricity production in 2012. Around 400,000 people are employed in the renewable sector. It has been able to do this because there has been a serious debate on energy policy in Germany for the past three decades. The idea of de-linking economic growth from energy growth, long embraced by the environmental movement, has only recently been accepted by the Christian Democrats. The Fukushima-daiichi accident was the final trigger for Chancellor Merkel.
In recent weeks, Berlin’s Economics Minister Philipp Rösler has stated that,
Energy consumption is declining, energy efficiency is improving continuously, renewable energies increasingly contribute to energy supply. That leads to decreasing greenhouse gas emissions
Scotland, and even more so the UK, may only be a short hop across the Nordsee – but the main political parties are decades behind in their thinking on energy policy. Rösler’s view encapsulates the fact that Germany has taken a hard look at its energy model and decided that there is an alternative to energy growth, fossil fuels and nuclear power. While energy policy remains under the remit of London, Scotland will continue to follow the same energy growth, fossil and nuclear dominated path. The renewables sector, championed by the Scottish government, will grow, but not as it could, and without generating the employment and carbon reductions that are possible and needed. The SNP’s 2011 “Our ambitions for clean green energy” showed that the Scottish Government is planning for an increase in electricity consumption of around 9.5% between 2011 and 2020 – Germany during the same period is aiming for a 10% reduction.
The dominance of the big six energy companies in the UK also contrasts with the decline of their counterparts in Germany. Utilities such as RWE and EoN in Germany for have decades generated their electricity from coal and nuclear power. They tried to manage renewable growth so as not to threaten their core business. At the same time, enlightened government policy encouraged large-scale renewables to be community owned. Today it stands at 65% (compared with less than 10% in the UK). The result is that the large utilities are in crisis – their large polluting plants are proving increasingly uneconomic and redundant.
What about intermittent supply and the need for base load cry the renewables opponents in the UK ? Germany is on the way to ending the debate – baseload will not be required in the new energy future being planned and implemented. By 2030 100 per cent renewables electricity grid in Germany may be 40-50 per cent wind, 30-40 per cent solar, with the rest coming from other sources. Smart grid and storage technologies will provide the means to balance this.
One reason this debate is suppressed in the UK is that large scale renewables and large scale baseload are not compatible. The big utilities cannot survive with renewables on a massive scale – hence the efforts to both minimise the growth of renewables, in particular by Electricite de France (EDF), and to rig the already rigged electricity ‘market’ in favour of large scale subsidy to new nuclear power plants. New base load power plants, or an extension of the lifespans of the existing ones, will endanger the development of renewable energy, and would not constitute a bridge to the energy supply system of the future.
Yet the Scottish government supports both new fossil powered baseload and lifetime extensions. Little more than a year after the meltdown of three reactors at Fukushima-daiichi, the Scottish government endorsed EDF’s decision to extend for ten more years the operation of the Hunterston B nuclear reactor. The same EDF that lobbied the Cameron government to scale back renewable development. The present leadership of the SNP will likely support the same for the two reactors at Torness.
Not only does this directly undermine the Holyrood governments renewables objective – its not wise in terms of nuclear safety. Reactor unit 1 at Fukushima-daiichi similarly received a ten year extension in February 2011 – the next month its core suffered a meltdown. The reactors at Fukushima lie more than 100 miles from Tokyo – and yet a briefing to then Prime Minister Kan from the nations Nuclear Safety Commission warned that evacuation of upwards of 30 million people could be required in a worst case scenario. Hunterston and Torness, older than many of the reactors shutdown by the German government on safety grounds, lie even closer to Scotland’s major cities. They may as well be located in Maryhill or Morningside in terms of the risk to the majority population in the central belt. Understanding both this threat and its impact on renewables development is clearly beyond the grasp of the current Environment Minister in Holyrood.
Similarly, while the SNP acknowledge the moral repugnance and human impact of fuel poverty, its present position is both hamstrung by London and its own contradictory policies.
One consequence of the lack of community led initiatives has been the rise of the Daily Mail/Telegraph brigade who dominate public discourse through the local rural press. The general (and largely urban based) population remain supportive of wind and other renewable energy development. But in the rural areas where most wind is being proposed, community and regional Councils are bombarded by passionate if delusional campaigns of the largely retired middle classes. The class element of the story is that those most actively engaged in opposition to wind development have the time and means – index linked pensions and paid off mortgages – to lead the fight to defend their little bit of rural idyl. Reducing carbon emissions in a warming world is of little concern to these groups – and in some cases rejected as scientific bunkum.
In contrast to the ill informed but vocal Mail brigade – there are the large sections of the rural population struggling to survive on seasonal income and the limited work options in forestry and agriculture and who are largely silent and forgotten. Their energy bills form a disproportionately larger share of their income. Even more vulnerable are those on negative growth state benefits and pensions exposed to the energy price rises that the big six have imposed. The price trajectory over the coming years is only upwards on the current economic model which means more fuel poverty and early death. And its not renewables that is the driver – but commodity price increases and escalating profits.
Disastrously, the German approach to community ownership of large scale renewables remains off the agenda while London controls Scotland’s energy policy.
This real energy crisis where people are choosing between heating and eating – but increasingly not both – is not reflected in the policies of major parties including unfortunately the government in Edinburgh. The petty point scoring between the Yes and No camps will likely continue and intensify during 2013 – while real issues of people’s energy security and general poverty will either be ignored or paid lip service.
Yet the opportunity to articulate an an economic model that prioritises peoples welfare and the environment and the freedom to adopt such policies in an independent Scotland could help to engage and mobilise the Scottish people. If Angela Merkel, a nuclear physicist and leader of the conservative party can grasp the potential for an energy revolution – why not here ?