Today the Scottish Parliament dissolves for its fifth election since devolution. It has been hard to escape the bragging from the SNP of its record in government. As it goes for many of these claims, they stand on a shaky foundation. Take education as an example – standards are falling and college places slaughtered – hardly a record to be proud of, but the Scottish government keeps banging on about its successes in education reform. There is, however, an arguably greater crisis looming in the wings, a crisis that might turn off the lights in Scotland – literally speaking. I speak of course of the SNPs ghastly track record on energy.
However, let’s start on a positive note. During its two terms in government, the SNP has ensured that renewable energy investments in Scotland have increased significantly. Recently the head of the UN’s climate change body praised Scotland over its leading role in rolling out renewables. So far, so good. Renewable energy will play an important role in the energy mix of the future if we are to have any chance at combating climate change and reduce our CO2 emissions. The SNP government does deserve some praise for achieving this, but at what cost?
Energy policy is one of the policy areas that require the most extensive long-term planning, especially as timeframes for power plants, grid modernisation, and other infrastructure tends to run into decades. Construction of a new gas-fired power station is usually between 3-5 years, with nuclear power in the West adding another approximately 5-7 years (Hinkley Point C clear exemption here). It, therefore, falls upon our governments at the time to plan, keeping in mind that they are unlikely to remain in office when the projects are completed.
Energy is a reserved matter with Westminster deciding the policies, so surely the SNP cannot be blamed for these failures? Au contraire. It is the SNP government that decided to close down the Longannet power station, costing the Scottish economy circa £48 million a year. Worse still, this severely limits the on-demand energy production capacity in Scotland. With the closure of Longannet (which, for environmental reasons would be good as it is coal-fired) without any baseload replacement, the Scottish energy system’s capacity for on-demand production is reduced from 100% to 60%. By 2023, it is calculated that this will have dropped to 45%.
At this point, the SNP would intervene and point out the fact that renewables, mainly wind power, will fill the gap in our energy production. This mentality, however, carries with it a significant flaw – what if there is no (or more likely in the Scottish case, too much) wind? The majority of renewable energy sources suffer from the intermittency problem, i.e. that it cannot be created on demand but rather depends on external factors such as wind or the sun. The problems this causes are obvious, but that is also the point of having baseload generating power plants. These power plants, either fossil-fuelled or nuclear, happily create electricity at any point in a steady and continuous rate, regardless of weather. Whilst batteries in the future might be able to alleviate this intermittency problem, this is not the case today.
This is where the ticking time bomb in Scotland’s electricity production is found. With Longannet gone and no replacement on the books Scotland’s baseload is already under fire but the memorandum on nuclear power presents the potential killing blow. Nuclear power is reserved to Westminster but planning is not, effectively giving the Scottish government the right to refuse planning permission for any new nuclear power plants. By placing a memorandum on nuclear power the SNP government ensures that no new nuclear will be built in Scotland and sending a signal to any firm wanting to do so to stay away. Scotland’s two nuclear power stations, Torness and Hunterston B, produce about 34% of Scotland’s electricity, carbon-free and available at all times. Whilst extending the operating life of these reactors postpones the day when Scotland loses the vast majority of its baseload the inevitable is still not being avoided. If we continue at this rate with increasing reliance on renewable electricity sources and removing baseload capacity we will in a not-too-distant-future face power shortages.
It is time for the Scottish government, whoever will take over in May, to set the record straight and ensure to steer Scotland away from the edge of ruin. By lifting its irrational memorandum on new nuclear power and ensure that replacements for Torness and Hunterston B are built, alongside ensuring the resilience of the renewables sector Scotland could become the model for the new, climate friendly, electricity system. It is not hard, but it takes some planning and long-term thinking. If we fail to act upon this soon the people of Scotland will be facing the prospects of the lights going out.