Brian Wilson: Broken promises over Longannet

The billions Salmond promised to stop Langannet being one of the EU's dirtiest power plants never arrived. Picture: TSPL

The billions Salmond promised to stop Langannet being one of the EU's dirtiest power plants never arrived. Picture: TSPL

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THE early closure of Longannet’s coal-fired power station would be the final chapter in a sorry tale, writes Brian Wilson.

If there was a gold medal for brass neck, Nicola Sturgeon would have been on the rostrum this week for her breathtaking demand that David Cameron should intervene to keep Scotland’s lights on.

Fortunately, there is no early likelihood of Scotland’s lights going out. Due to the sagacity of the Labour government in which I was energy minister, we have GB-wide trading arrangements which mean that the infrastructure exists to import power from the rest of Britain.

If, however, our lights depended on the wisdom of the Scottish Government, of which Ms Sturgeon has been a member since 2007, then the advice by now would be to invest in candle manufacturing. The “someone else is to blame” mantra has rarely sounded more feeble.

Ms Sturgeon’s disingenuous plea was prompted by the realisation that Longannet power station may not be long for this world. This is due to the fact that its owners, the Spanish masters of ScottishPower, have decided against making the investments which would prolong its life.

Even before the suggestion that closure might be accelerated, nobody was expecting Longannet to go beyond 2020. This is due to the unfortunate fact that it is rated as the 21st most polluting power plant in Europe. Without substantial investment, EC rules on carbon emissions will force its closure.

It’s all a far cry from that giddy day in 2007 when Alex Salmond took office as First Minister. Having tied up his deal with the Tories – hell having presumably frozen over – he bustled off to Longannet for his first public engagement in the role. A curious choice, some thought.

Bombast was already in the air. “Coal is king,” declared Salmond. Scotland was to have a deep-mining renaissance and Scottish Power’s owners, Iberdrola, were to fund “a £1 billion upgrade” at Longannet and Cockenzie. The Iberdrola chairman, Ignacio Galan, was on hand to brief Salmond on these exciting proposals.

It was a headline-grabbing story which, like many to follow, contributed more to the realms of fiction than the future of the Scottish economy. It also set the scene for a mutually profitable relationship between Salmond and Galan.

The terms of engagement became clear. Galan endorsed anything that Salmond wanted him to, however far removed from reality, while the First Minister offered gushing welcomes to whatever the Iberdrola public relations machine pumped out. Nobody – least of all a Holyrood committee – ever bothered to check against delivery.

In the run-up to the last Scottish election, the double act got together for a particularly audacious stunt. Galan announced, and Salmond duly “welcomed”, that Iberdrola would “invest £2.7bn in Scottish businesses over the next two years”. This would be “a catalyst for development in Scotland and the Basque country, two lands … for which we have major plans.”

The same day, Salmond “announced plans for Spanish renewable energy company Gamesa to send a delegation to Scotland to explore opportunities in turbine manufacturing”.

That was in November 2010 and, needless to say, none of it happened. But who cared about that detail in the land of the Brass Neck Olympics? The immediate reward for Salmond was headlines to die for. Endorsement of his genius. Billions of investment. Thousands of jobs. And all of it complete and utter nonsense. Siren voices were marginalised. When the Institute of Mechanical Engineers said that the SNP’s energy policy of promoting renewables at the expense of all else was “technically undeliverable” and risked “increasing fuel poverty and turning Scotland from an exporter of electricity into an importer”, they were chastised by Sturgeon for “talking Scotland down”.

Now reality is closing in. The Scottish Government’s policy is based on crossing its fingers and hoping that hated nuclear power stations keep going till 2030. Cockenzie is closed. Longannet is on the way out. “Renewables” has turned out to be synonymous with onshore wind – with virtually none of the hardware which adorns our hillsides manufactured in Scotland.

In security of supply terms, it may no longer matter that Scotland is an importer of electricity rather than an exporter. But hundreds of jobs are being shed while the manufacturing boom promised from renewables has not happened. Scottish Power and SSE should have been the catalysts for that new industry but have been allowed to get away with importing virtually everything.

There is nothing new about transmission charges which take account of distance from the main markets in the south. It is an inescapable fact that power is lost along the way. But this has never previously been presented as a tipping-point between Scottish power generation being profitable and, as is now claimed, unsustainable. There was no mention of that when these billions of investment were being promised a few years ago.

Both ScottishPower and SSE were given exceptional treatment at the time of privatisation 20 years ago. Because their public sector predecessors commanded a high degree of respect, Tory ministers thought it would sweeten the privatisation pill if they were left as vertically integrated companies.

This has put them in a remarkably powerful position as developers of power from renewables as well as providers of grid connections through their infrastructure arms. It has also put them in a very strong position within Scotland to retain their customer base. Yet, according to the Consumer Association, they have the second lowest customer service satisfaction ratings out of 18 companies. SSE comes 12th.

Both companies occupy extremely important roles in Scottish society, gifted to them by privatisation. They have responsibility for security of supply. They have millions of customers, many of them in fuel poverty. They build and maintain the infrastructure on which new generation is reliant. Their investment decisions will determine the fate of many well-paid jobs.

Instead of writing daft letters to David Cameron, perhaps Nicola Sturgeon should be asking whether Scotland is, reciprocally, getting the deal it deserves from these companies. It is a question that has long cried out for investigation and response.

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