Energy Futures

tumblr_m6smm4OwzC1qgqdx4o1_500Why 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 ?

More at:


Comments (13)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. fionamacinnes says:

    I have a problem with renewables. I understand the Scottish gvt/SNP need to secure energy as a fundamental economic building block of a potentially independent Scotland. However all the major companies operating in the development sector are foreign owned and because energy production = profit, any benefits will drain out of the communities that are sacrificed to this very widespread, land and sea hungry means of power production. Energy production must be a national asset, owned controlled and distributed for the benefit and well being of the people of this country. We are currently despoiling and industrialising the last wild places in Scotland to wind farms, and sacrificing large areas of wild fish producing sea and seascapes to energy production, not unlike those same countries that give over productive agricultural land which could feed their own people to cash crops for the developed world. We relegate our ability to source and produce our own food at considerable risk I would say. I disagree that it is only rich retired middle classes who object to windmill proliferation. Many will agree that the current funding/subsidy model of wind farm development perpetuates all that is bad in the the market/big business wins model of the economy. In Orkney some say it is too late as windmill proliferation is a choke level, with some individuals happily rubbing their hands in glee and the rest of us simply putting on more jumpers and swallowing the electricity price increases. We sit ,if some are to be believed in Orkney, on the power house of renewable tidal and wave energy. A serious look is required at the truth of all this as the evidence we see despite the relentless spin of the stakeholders in keeping the naked emperor well clothed is that; of the devices currently under test, one is damaged and has not appeared operational all summer, another set broke loose 5 days after being deployed and are still ashore, another is damaged beyond repair and awaiting repatriation abroad and only 2 seem to be continuing in test. As the true commercial potential or lack of any of the test devices are locked in electricity data unavailable to the public we have nothing but the spin of the companies eager to ensure investment buoyancy in their interests remain undamaged and afloat. This could be Darien all over again unless some in government are willing to re-examine what some might say is a naive and ill-researched gamble into renewable energy with all of us paying through the nose for it. Anything is possible and men can walk on the moon, but the costs must be truly calibrated. There is much about the current renewable power industry which is similar to the history of nuclear, secrecy, expense, bungled and costly developments and loss of local democratic control, with copious wool pulling going on too. I want to see an energy secure independent Scotland, but it must begin with truth about where there is success and failure and remove the energy needs of the people from the aspirations to gamble on the international market. To satisfy the capacity of the proposed connector from Orkney to the mainland of Scotland the equivalent of one quarter of the islands would required for windmills.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Totally agree with you Fiona about ownership models. None of that takes away from the need to shift to low carbon renewable energy. There is of course little or no incentive for privatised utilties to reduce energy demand. This is as much of a flaw in the model as the extractive drain on local communities you describe.

  2. cjenscook says:

    Unfortunately the wrong enemy is being fought here.

    The really low hanging fruit in making the transition to a low carbon economy is not Mega Watts of renewable energy (which is necessarily sold at a low price to the Big Six), but the huge potential energy savings – ‘Nega Therms’ – in natural gas which are made at the retail price.

    This recent post of mine on a ‘Scottish Green Deal’

    was written at the request of someone in the Yes Campaign (where it appears to have sunk without trace).

    This Scottish Green Deal is a ‘reality-based’ policy that could be introduced ,bottom up’ – starting tomorrow – through networked community partnerships, with no change in any law.

    And for anyone to whom credentials matter, I was for six years a director of a global energy exchange, and was responsible among other things for architecting the UK’s natural gas futures contract, for which I am happy to apologise.

  3. Vitally important that we get control ;-)))

  4. wangi says:

    “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”

    Something not limited to rural Scotland; it’s very much alive in urban Scotland too. We call it the Portobello Problem.

  5. Stuart Vallis says:

    I understand that Germany is building a new generation of coal stations precisely to be able to help the transition to renewables, – a baseload generation is required in the medium term. In my view the SG are exactly correct in what they are doing as far as baseload. The decentralised storage system you describe is a long term goal, just quite what storage will be is even still open to question, hydrogen storage? fuel cells?. More realistic is to have a renewables and storage system europe wide, e.g. Hydro/wind/tidal and pump storage in Norway and Scotland, wind and biomass central Europe, CSP/solar in south europe. Non renewable peak and additional generation could be coal with carbon capture and Gas CHP. Its not really clear to me why Germany thinks that its electricity consumption will decrease when they would like a shift to electric powered cars. I understand the additional capacity planned in Scotland is to cover anticipated rise in consumption due to the shift from fossil fuel transport to electric powered transport and for electricity export. Seems reasonable to me, here in Switzerland electricity is exported (Hydro and Nuclear) and imported both from Germany (coal power stations) and from France (Nuclear) according to demand. I think the reason that renewables are community owned in Germany is probably because local government is strong there (I am writing from Northern Switzerland and think is the same in Germany). This is where I think you could reasonably criticise the SG, they could be doing more to decentralise political power and strengthen local democracy and control, e.g. think it would be reasonable that community councils would benefit financially from wind turbines erected in their areas, at the moment I understand only the landowner and turbine owner benefits?
    I also find it unlikely that there will be a reduction in energy consumption due to efficiency which is, I think, the ground for which Germany is anticipating a 10 percent reduction. Energy efficiency is not proven to reduce energy consumption. We have a lot of industries and machines that are much more efficient but however every year the consumption of energy is more. This is the “Jevons Paradox”, energy efficiency promotes economic growth, increasing overall energy demand. e.g. We can get a grant from the local council to improve energy efficiency for our house, which will save us money. This money i will then use to buy more stuff, fly back to Scotland more often etc. Energy efficiency has an important role to play in reducing fuel poverty and promoting economic growth, but not for reducing energy consumption on the macro scale.
    For some of the last 4 years i have been working in various Sahel countries on energy projects (fuel efficient stoves, biogas, reforestation) these people are suffering severe effects due to climate change. They also live without benefits of cheap energy. Living without electricity and with minimum energy (wood fuel) is very stressful. I think the SG have so far made a good balance between transiting to a low carbon economy and ensuring that Scotland has enough energy. Reducing climate change has to be the top priority, you can close Torness now but you have to make up the difference in Coal and Gas electricity generation until you get renewables online, and that means to hell with the people of the Sahel.

    1. cjenscook says:

      If you monetise energy as I advocate (see above) then Jevon’s Paradox does not apply, because UNLESS you save energy you don’t save money.

      This model applies anywhere, not least in the developing world where the barriers to implementation are minimal, using (say) mobile payments.

  6. BellaC –
    You seem to have attracted a fair wheen of folk who know their stuff – this is the kind of discussion that the MSM cannot have – the mainstream is too bloated and slow to host this kind of debate.
    Speaking as someone who has no strong feelings about power-sources until/unless gadgets don’t work or I can’t afford to keep the car going, I’m probably typical of many who have been bombarded with messages via MSM for decades about the sustainability of this, that or t’other. I’ve given up trying to make sense of it because I honestly don’t trust anyone who speaks ‘on behalf of’ any power company – they all have top experts who know how to spin their products and services to make it appear that they’re outdoing one another in every way.
    The way I ‘see’ this discussion must be the same way a lot of folk ‘see’ the many stushies seen here on BellaC over matters which appear to be more obtuse e.g. ‘arts’ – I know people who cannot, and never will, understand why anyone could possibly be interested in, let alone upset by, the behaviour of the BBC, the arguments over ‘culture’ vis-a-vis Kelman, Grey, Rangerstaxcase, Rankine, Wishart, the Elspeth King affair, the British Council etc. (Not that all have been featured here.)
    Still – the appearance of this discussion forces readers like me to have a serious think about it all. Ultimately, someone will have to persuade me that there is a reasonable, practical way of handling our energy requirements in a way which doesn’t render us hostages to fortune. And if I’m at all typical of the electorate in general; they’ll have to do it in a way which can be understood, assimilated, then conveyed to others in plain language without the use of pie-charts and fifty-year projections.
    In short – this subject is important, and we all ‘know’ it, but a ,lot of us don’t feel it. Perhaps that’s – at least it part – because we were persuasively lied-to back in the late 70’s, when the single most effective argument against voting for independence was the ‘well-known fact’ that there was only another five or ten years worth of recoverable oil left, so we needn’t get ourselves in a lather over it all.
    None of this is meant as any disrespect to the contributors above – I have read all the pieces, but understand little. That’s my fault. But if I’m a normal Jimmy? Getting these messages across is going to be a problem, especially when the MSM can’t/won’t even attempt to do it. Good luck to all concerned, and here’s hoping someone finds a way of clarifying all of this stuff before we hit the final countdown to the vote.

  7. fionamacinnes says:

    Agree BC – I fully confess to being hoisted upon a cleft stick with this one but its not just the middle classes that have the right to apprecieate beautiful landscapes. Excess comsumption must be reined in before our own nest is truly shat in.

  8. Mike Vickers says:

    Lots of interesting points in this article and the comments
    My first exposure to the David Hume Institute 10 years ago was a seminar ‘Tooting at Windmills’. The conclusion was that wind was more expensive than coal. And at the time I felt this was wrong, not that the conclusion that wind is more expensive than coal and it probably still is, but that what any country needs and Scotland is no exception is a wide portfolio of sources of energy. A couple of years ago Germany was proposing getting most of its energy from solar furnaces in the Sahara and bringing it back to Germany using a European wide super-grid. This looked to me a great idea – harnessing the Sahara without little or no environment impact. But how reliable would such an energy source be now after the Arab Spring?
    Yes Scotland has lots of potential renewable energy but as fionamacinnes says tidal energy may be still a long way off. The great manyana in the 70s and still is thermonuclear hydrogen power but that’s back at least to 2050; a more short-term solution till then is fracking. Bella Caledonia decries conventional nuclear power yet its environmentally friendly – BTW does Electricitie de France get ROCs from the UK Government? The Fukushima nuclear disaster was a major disaster and it’s no good after the event stating that if the proper safeguards had been put in place the forecast death toll could have been greatly reduced – this always the case. But the death toll is put at 130 deaths and possibly 180 suffering from cancer: this is comparable with the number of deaths is on the roads in Scotland in 2011 -186.
    I am not trying to belittle the number of death tolls at Fukushima or argue that the number would be no more if there was a meltdown at Torness. But I am arguing for Scotland to rely solely on renewables at this time is ‘unfortunate’ .
    Also it looks Unfortunate that coal which Scotland still has in quantity has been written off – the Scottish Government terminated its support to Scottish Power’s pilot Carbon Sequestration at Long Gannet.
    BC talks of the move of the German Government away from Nuclear and towards renewables and local renewables at that, so I followed that up. The cost of energy in Germany in May was 31.41 cents /kWh while the UK was 19.39 cents /kWh in November.
    More surprisingly that average wage in 2011 in Germany is 40,223$ while the UK is 44,933$. Against these figures the Germans have compulsory deductions of 39.9% while the UK has only 25.1%
    I suggest that some of the German deductions are going into funding renewables.
    So it depends where as a nation we want our money to be spent.
    BC is right, as I see it fuel poverty should be eradicated but it would seem that the fuel price in the UK is significantly less than in German to start with against an higher average income.
    But then I have ignored that greater disparity between the top and the bottom earners of our society and for this I needed to go to
    where the article talks of the Gini factor – new to me – which gives some measure of inequality in any country. I note that the UK is close on the US which has the highest Gini and worse still the UK Gini has grown by 8% over the last 30 years – more than the US. Germany is however not immune but from my own experience Germany was still recovering from WW2. So the fuel poor in the UK may well be more poor than in Germany. Denmark is a real shining example where its Gini has dropped over the period from a very low value in the first place; Denmark has the highest price of electricity in Western Europe but then again they have the most windmills.
    So where does that leave me – in a difficulty!
    1. I am supportive of renewables and the various technologies need to be properly funded, not as at present. For this the Goverment needs court the big multinationals
    2. ‘It’s Scotland’s oil’ but it can’t be burned in Scotland. One solution is to beef up its petrochemical industries – a really valuable use of hydrocarbons. Again this needs courting the multination’s
    3. There needs to be real support for the people of Scotland on the poverty line but that should not be though just fuel poverty – I was connected with the electricity business and pay meters for the fuel poor and they were a nightmare to manage and typically did not solve the problem
    4. The real crunch for an independent Scotland – whether it is has the will to go for a tax structure more like the Nordics and in particular Denmark (but even the Danes are not sacrosanct even forgetting the Killings)
    5. Scotland needs a set of high level strategies on its real priorities
    a. Go for Renewables and force them through – avoid the long drawn out public enquiries (which by all accounts in today’s Scotsman on Sunday may be overturned by the Government anyway). In this respect I commend Jim Mather who got through the North South High Voltage Grid despite enormous odds.
    b. But Keeping the lights on in 2020 to 2030 means that the Scottish Government has to have a realistic energy portfolio; this should include coal and nuclear.
    c. Work with the large multinationals but keep them at arm’s length. It is unlikely that Scotland would able to raise the capital needed in any other way
    d. And really the only things that matter are the Governments strategies for its tax regime to provide a much more socially democratic country and that means coming clean on its tax raising plans both domestic and corporate and how it intends to go out and sell them.
    Finally it would be nice to include ianbrotherhood by bringing in Switzerland and apart from its guns policy I can’t that many comparative facts on the web.

    1. Mike, it was Stuart Vallis who brought up Switzerland. ( It’s just as well I didn’t – wouldn’t have had anything to say.)
      Cheers for interesting stuff.

  9. Stuart Vallis says:

    Hi Mike Swiss kWh price is ca. 20 Rp for a household (varies a bit Cantun to Cantun and dependent on your use), think this is about 17 Eurocents per kWh. There is a plan for increased investment in new renewables and in new pump storage facilities, I dont know if this would be funded through increased prices though. There are special CO2 taxes on things like heating oil for houses and this then funds grants for people who put better isolation on their houses, upgrade windows, or change to heat pumps or wood pellets instead of gas or oil heating. Not sure about the guns policy comparison? you mean you want to compare the costs of conventional militia type forces with upkeep of a nuclear submarine fleet and two foreign invasions? might make for an interesting calculation.

    1. Mike Vickers says:

      Thanks for the input and apologies for quoting the wrong contributor in my comment.
      Switzerland doesn’t feature strongly in these global tables.
      However my flippant comment was just that Switzerland is in the news at present because it is high on the gun owner list, not far behind the US but the contrast in murderous usage is enormous. If nothing more perhaps it shows that you have to be careful in how you use raw statistics.

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.