There is no doubt that being part of the UK has been a problem for Scotland’s ambitions on climate change and energy. From artificially high costs to deliver green electricity into the grid to the UK Government cutting support for wind and solar power, and the difficulty of delivering higher targets when essential policy levers remain down south, we have done well despite the system rather than because of it.
With the equivalent of 98.6% of the electricity we use generate by renewables in Scotland in 2020 the growth of clean energy has been remarkable over the past two decades. This despite the UK Government pausing support for onshore wind power for years to please Tory backbench MPs and cutting support for installing solar panels just as the industry was taking off.
Scotland makes much more of its power from renewables and less from fossil fuels and nuclear than does England. An essential compliment to renewables is energy storage but the UK energy market system does not have an effective mechanism to make sure that additional storage, like the existing pumped hydro schemes, is economically viable.
An independent Scotland would be able to make its own choices on energy and prices would reflect this. For a start Scottish bill payers would no longer have to subsidise nuclear power by contributing to the guaranteed price to be paid for the next 35 years for any electricity generated by the new reactors at Hinkley Point, a price about twice the going rate for other power over the last few years.
Electricity prices are closely linked to gas prices and the current massive increase in bills is because global gas prices are high. Yet we generate very little of the power we use in Scotland from gas, so breaking away from the UK energy market could let us break this link between high gas prices and high electricity bills. This would only work if set up correctly though because any company generating lovely green electricity might be tempted to export it to England for a high price rather than have it used in Scotland at a lower price.
As climate concerns rise and fossil fuels increase in price, renewable electricity will be increasingly in demand. The industry thinks it will more than double the supply from offshore and offshore wind by 2030, allowing Scotland to meet its own needs and export ever more electricity through the existing inter-connectors with England and Northern Ireland, and possibly through a new connection which is being discussed to Norway and so beyond into the EU electricity market. The recent ScotWind leasing round attracted criticism about some of the companies involved but nonetheless it could see 25 GigaWatts of new offshore wind capacity – five times Scotland’s peak demand – and £25bn invested in Scottish supply chains.
Currently power firms have to pay charges to get their electricity to where it is (at least theoretically) used. This system is based mostly on distance from the big power users in the south east of England, meaning a wind turbine in the Western Isles needs to pay vastly more to put its electricity into the grid than a wind turbine in Kent, even if the reality is that the actual electrons are really doing their useful work somewhere in Scotland. An independent Scotland would be able to decide its own rationale for transmission charges.
An example of where the lack of control of key legislation holds back Scotland was when the Scottish Government decided to help deliver its climate targets by trying to speed the transition to electric vehicles. It had to use the clumsy formulation of aiming to ‘phase out the need for petrol and diesel vans and cars’ by 2032 because Scotland does not have the powers to actually proscribe which vehicles can be sold here. A similar commitment from the UK Government was initially targeted at 2040.
Of course the trickier issue is oil and gas. Despite clear messages from the International Energy Agency that no new fields should be started, the UK Government has remained gung-ho for new oil and gas, claiming that plenty more production for decades to come is compatible with international climate targets, and devising a climate checklist to basically greenwash new development. Meanwhile the Scottish Government has taken a more nuanced view, with support for the oil and gas industry being linked to their contribution to an energy transition, a step away from the mantra of extracting every last drop possible and the First Minister coming out against the proposed massive Cambo oil development north west of Shetland. But when 90% of UK oil resources are suddenly Scotland’s oil resources, will the Scottish Government be brave enough to leave most of it where it is ?
If you are serious about climate change, you also need to be serious about an end to its main cause – burning fossil fuels. Although the Scottish Government have made some of the right noises about a just transition for workers and communities dependent on the oil industry, the oil industry itself is still hugely influential in Scotland and the politics of the North East are tricky for every party. This led to the fumble over the international Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance at the Glasgow climate conference, where Scotland could have been one of the leaders in signing up to (eventually) phase out oil and gas, but instead said they had to think about it some more. Meanwhile the UK Government is rumoured to be about to approve six more new oil development.
If we are running our own affairs we might also fall for the oil industry’s smokescreen of investing in carbon capture and storage in a big way, a ruse designed to pretend we can keep on pumping the oil and not worry about climate change.
Independence could bring the power to do great good on energy and climate change, but only if we can bite the bullet and actually phase out fossil fuels.
A version of this blog appeared in the Herald newspaper’s Scotland’s Future series on 5th March 2022.