Scotland faces ‘hard and costly’ energy choices

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A new independent advisory commission should be set up to look at how to meet Scotland’s energy needs, with a report warning “difficult decisions” will need to be taken on how to cope with a looming energy shortfall.

The closure of the country’s two nuclear power stations, Hunterston B and Torness, by 2030 will result in “a shortfall of electricity generation in Scotland” unless alternative sources of power are established.

But a new report from the Royal Society of Edinburgh argued a “no pain, no gain” situation exists in energy policy.

Sir Muir Russell chaired the inquiry for the Royal Society of Edinburgh. (RSE/PA)
Sir Muir Russell chaired the inquiry for the Royal Society of Edinburgh. (RSE/PA)

The RSE said there is “no technological or regulatory solution that will meet all the objectives … without hard and generally costly choices being made”.

Its report added: “Addressing the diverse nature of Scotland’s energy needs will necessitate an energy mix and trade-offs.”

The report called for an expert advisory commission on energy policy and governance for Scotland to be set up, saying such a body could provide the Scottish Government, legislators and regulators with  impartial advice on all aspects of energy policy.

It made the call as it noted: “The reality of where we find ourselves, however, is that the planned closures of both of Scotland’s remaining nuclear power stations by 2030 will see Scotland lose the source of generation for almost 43% of its electricity, going into a period where it is widely expected that demand for electricity will increase.”

Increased usage of electricity for both heat and transport is forecast – with the RSE noting the closure of the two nuclear power stations could also potentially coincide with the first wave of offshore wind farms coming to the end of their life.

“Difficult decisions must be made on how to address this future shortfall, ” the RSE said.

“Either significant additional generating capacity will need to be built, an unprecedented reduction in demand facilitated, or the amount of energy imported from outside Scotland will need to rise markedly.”

More than half (51.7%) of the electricity generated in Scotland in 2017 came from the renewables sector, with nuclear power accounting for more than a third (36.6%).

Just over a 10th (10.5%) of electricity came from fossil fuel sources, while hydro power made up the remaining 1.2%.

But the report said different forms of electricity generation have different drawbacks, noting that while nuclear power generation has zero carbon emissions and “could play a major role in helping Scotland meet its climate targets”, replacing the exiting stations would have “substantial up-front costs” with significant investment also needed in decommissioning and waste management.

Meanwhile, Scotland has “very considerable wind energy resources but attempting to harness these onshore requires significant areas of land and local support”.

Although using wind to generate electricity could “play a significant role in helping Scotland meet its energy demand, while simultaneously reducing carbon emissions”, the report said the variable nature of wind power could require a “large-scale storage” system to be developed.

Sir Muir Russell, who chaired the RSE inquiry, said: “Energy is a highly complex area of policy.

“The reality is that no energy policy will ever solve all the problems and paradoxes of energy supply and use.

“However, what is vital is a holistic approach to developing policy, underpinned by a robust, evidence-based understanding of all options and the advantages and disadvantages of every option.”

He added: “If policymakers want to achieve particular outcomes, they must first fully understand all the issues and consequences and invest in time and resource to achieve that understanding – and in the meantime, be careful of promising too much or the wrong things.”

Dr Jamie Stewart, energy spokesman for Citizens Advice Scotland, said: “This report is timely and welcome, identifying as it does a number of important questions for the future of the energy sector in Scotland.

“As one of the leading advocates for consumers in the energy sector, we submitted our own evidence to this inquiry and we are pleased to see that the report highlights some of this – particularly our concern that the costs of transition do not fall unfairly on vulnerable consumers.”

Scotland’s Energy Minister, Paul Wheelhouse, said: “Many of the recommendations are for actions that we are already undertaking, or are planning to progress, so we welcome the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s detailed contribution to what is a complex but vitally important policy area.

“We also welcome its recognition of the progress Scotland has made to date as we take forward delivery of Scotland’s Energy Strategy.”

He urged the UK Government to take “rapid decisions” in areas for which it is still responsible and said: “The Scottish Government will continue to focus on protecting consumers, improving the efficiency of energy utilisation, decarbonising heat and transport and supporting innovation across our energy system.”

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