Continuing our series of articles from Closer Elaine Morrison explores a future beyond climbing prices, energy profiteering and fuel poverty.
It’s 2016. The progressive green-left coalition is into its first term as the government of an independent Scotland. The seeds of change it promised are beginning to take root.
2016 is the year that the devolved governments of Scotland had set as a distant target for ending fuel poverty. They failed to come close. Energy prices spiraled in the hands of private utilities with energy policy set in the hands of Westminster. Piecemeal programmes to insulate people’s homes put much more money in the accounts of ‘delivery agencies’ than was saved in energy bills en masse. Investment in solar power was encouraged through a subsidy that benefited the rich and encouraged greed at the expense of the poor. Investment in large scale renewable energy was hindered by a lack of real commitment to anything other than big business (especially those with their sticky mitts in the black, black oil) and a lack of access to land for most communities to do it for themselves.
Those of us who worked in the green energy sector were split into two camps. The ‘get rich quick and onto the next bandwagon’ brigade and the rest of us who felt the soul being ripped from what we believed to be a progressive way to reduce energy bills and tip the balance back in favour of a healthy planet.
But it’s 2016. Fuel poverty hasn’t been eradicated but in the space of a year the new confidence and fresh thinking post independence is bringing it closer. From hope springs a new reality.
Early actions included establishing a co-operative energy utility to develop, own and operate all future base-load energy generation. Private sector energy developers are required to contribute to a Scotland-wide fuel poverty fund and a ‘polluter pays’ carbon tax has been placed on all fossil fuel extraction and use in energy generation. The grid infrastructure is in the throes of being taken into public ownership as is the only remaining Scotland-based energy utility which has been subject to a number of hostile takeover bids in recent years. The state has taken control of the Crown Estate in Scotland to make inshore and offshore assets available for publicly developed renewable energy schemes ranging from mid-scale hydro electricity to large-scale marine renewables.
The Government has offered every household in Scotland a solar thermal or solar electric system depending on best fit. The caveat was that these systems had to be manufactured in Scotland and installed by local contractors. This promise is resulting in a major upscaling of existing solar thermal manufacturing in Forres and a new solar PV plant in Dundee finally offering high value jobs for the city’s redundant micro-electronics workers. Demand is high and all the stops are being pulled out to ensure it can deliver. The trade off (or the ‘no such thing as a free lunch‘ small print) is the introduction of a universal personal carbon budget. The penalties for over-spending on the carbon allowance is high, the benefits of being canny make it well worth the effort. Energy awareness education has become a core part of the school education system and workers from the old delivery bodies have been redeployed to offer genuine free in-home energy management advice rather than sitting at the end of a phone telling people to ‘only fill the kettle as much as they need’ and to ‘go easy on the accelerator in the car’.
The fuel poverty fund, carbon tax and progressive taxation policies are being used to roll out a range of initiatives. These aim to enable a genuine balance to be struck between meeting enhanced climate change targets whilst achieving energy justice for those previously excluded from participation in green energy initiatives due to low incomes and lack of access to knowledge.
They include a sustainable energy action plan for all of Scotland’s towns and cities to maximise the use of combined heat and power and district heating networks using a mix of hydrogen (generated from off-peak on and offshore wind, pump storage hydro and wave and tidal turbines), solar thermal panels, local woody biomass where appropriate with a small input of natural gas as part of a transition arrangement. Major insulation retrofitting alongside smart meters and smart grids help with demand management. Local authorities are encouraged to develop Danish style energy co-operatives and residents are given the options to buy a stake in the co-operative through the use of credit union finance. They are also required to produce and report on management plans to prevent exploitation of common-pool resources – the land, trees, rivers and atmosphere on which renewable energy generation depends.
Building standards for new and refurbished buildings insist upon measures to optimise solar gain, such as proper sunspaces (not heated conservatories), thermal mass in the built form and the use of solar thermal systems with inter-seasonal heat stores.
Rural communities are being aided to make best use of their natural advantage through a rural resilience development fund in which they are adopting the ‘Gigha+ Model’ of using income from energy generation to invest in improving the energy efficiency of housing, developing local infrastructure and enabling a reduced rate of electricity for low income households. Scotland’s islands and peripheral communities have become the gatekeepers to base-load electricity generation and are using land reform legislation to ensure that influence delivers tangible benefits for the local economy. An early result of this has seen rural populations increase, young people having the hope to return home to work and raise their families and a general reversal in the decline in resilience bemoaned for decades pre-independence.
There is no doubt that this is the beginning and that inroads to achieving real energy democracy will take time. The theme of hope runs throughout these bold measures and is demonstrated in the apparent willingness of citizens of the new Scotland to embrace change. It could be viewed through a cynical lens in that people wonder what there is to lose as they were catapulted into a land no longer part of Britannia. But this wee land of few people were brave enough to listen to their hearts, to think enough of themselves and their neighbours to mark their cross where it mattered.
With fuel poverty anticipated to be eradicated within 6 years the progressive green-left coalition has their work cut out for them, but for now the tide is in their favour. Taking a stake in how energy is generated and used is empowering quite literally. It engages every citizen in being part of the change that is necessary to prevent runaway climate change whilst at the same time creating an economy that functions equitably at all levels. You don’t need to use terms like ‘energy justice’. Give power for the people by the people and it’s inevitable that the lightbulb stays alight and glowing proud.
There is hope. Change is happening in front of our eyes.