Brian Wilson: So much for the power of Scotland

If there is independence the UK would be unlikely to buy expensive Scottish energy. Picture: PA
If there is independence the UK would be unlikely to buy expensive Scottish energy. Picture: PA
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Putting all our eggs in one basket means we could have to import cheap nuclear energy under independence, says Brian Wilson

It IS timely to reassess the disarray of Scottish energy policy in the light of SSE’s declaration of retreat from renewables as part of its freeze package.

We are heading for what was predictable and predicted: the historic contribution of a Nationalist government to Scotland’s energy history will be to transform us from a substantial exporter of power into a massive importer in the not very distant future.

This has been achieved through the classic error of energy policy – putting all the eggs in one basket. Committing Scotland to generating the equivalent of 100 per cent of our electricity from renewable sources was good for headlines but not much else, particularly when accompanied by neglect of other vital ingredients in our energy mix.

Bloated target-setting and unfulfilled press releases were never going to keep a single light on, and now reality is dawning. The problem is not the pursuit of renewables, which I have long supported, so much as the neglect of other necessary ingredients in our energy mix, all of which are in decline.

The rhetoric about Scotland as the “Saudi Arabia of Renewables” was dependent on two factors – the capacity to harness offshore technologies and the willingness of consumers throughout the UK to provide an open cheque book.

It is not looking good on either front. Wave and tidal power should be pursued as a long-term project. But there was never any likelihood of them contributing anything to our energy needs over the coming decade. The much-vaunted Saltire Prize will stay in the bank for a good few years to come.

As anyone paying attention would have observed, offshore wind has proven a lot more difficult to deliver than predicted. It is an inescapable maxim of renewables that where natural conditions are most powerful, the hazards of turning them into electricity and getting it ashore are correspondingly trickier. A few offshore wind developments will proceed, but SSE will not be the last to pull out. The inconvenient truth is that Scottish waters, deep and fierce, offer fewer favourable sites than elsewhere in the UK – though SSE is also pulling out of projects in the benign south of England.

The hype employed to sustain the “100 per cent renewables” claim was founded on wildly unproven assumptions about the cost and practicality of bringing power ashore from hostile environments that are not susceptible to politically driven agendas.

The Scottish Government has always refused to provide a breakdown by technology of where its target was supposed to come from. This was for the good reason that – apart from hydro, which pre-dates any of this – almost all the additional capacity will be from onshore wind, a reality that carries its own political challenges.

The more offshore renewables are discounted, the more obvious it will become that there is – to coin a phrase – no Plan B. In order to get anywhere near the fabled 100 per cent equivalence, there would have to be onshore wind farms on a scale not yet contemplated and probably unsaleable to public opinion. But then look at the other precondition for the route we have been taken down – the existence of a single energy market in which power suppliers throughout the UK are locked into Scottish renewables and consumers throughout the UK are prepared to pay for them.

Among all the unproven assumptions of the Nationalist case – and there are many – this has all along struck me as one of the most irrational. It is simply not within their gift to insist that the state from which Scotland had just seceded would be falling over itself to retain a single energy market or to subsidise Scottish renewables. Put simply, they wouldn’t. Buried deep in SSE’s statement, there was exactly that recognition. It expressed the polite belief that a single energy market would be “the most likely” eventual outcome of a Yes vote. But, frankly, nobody invests billions on the basis of hope or expectation.

The real meat followed in the rest of that paragraph: “SSE has long recognised that the process of negotiation between the Scottish Government, the UK government and the EU following a Yes vote would be likely to take time, be complex and may result in changes to the energy market. The uncertainty associated with any constitutional change represents increased legislative and regulatory risk of which SSE has to take account in making decisions.”

So there you have it. At exactly the time when one of the Scottish Government’s highest priorities should be to encourage stability within the British energy market, it is actually setting out to create maximum instability through its pursuit of independence. It also confirms that the interminable independence debate is stunting investment and threatening employment. The most notable feature of the Scottish renewables saga so far is not how many jobs have been created but how few, with virtually all the turbines for wind farms imported. If offshore wind sinks without much trace, the job prospects will recede further.

I hope the Beatrice project off the coast of Easter Ross manages to get across the line. It will be a particularly cruel betrayal of raised expectations if the “5,000 jobs” promised only last week do not materialise. Huge amounts of UK and EU money went into the development stages of this project, using the infrastructure of an early oil platform. Hopefully it will survive, because, in that case, SSE would act as purchaser of the power generated in order to supply its own customers. But even there, it has cut back its planned investment by £250 million and others must now be found to fill the void.

Earlier this month, Michael Fallon, the UK energy minister, launched construction of a fantastic engineering project, a £1.3 billion undersea cable between Hunterston and North Wales. Fallon described it as “the perfect symbol of the UK energy market”, funded by consumers and taxpayers in the UK and the exporting lifeline for Scottish renewables.

But, as he also pointed out, it is a two-way link and, if we create separate states, all bets would be off about the UK buying expensive Scottish renewables. In these circumstances, the probability is that it would be one-way traffic – with nuclear power from England flowing northwards to fill the shortfall we are creating for ourselves. A strange outcome, indeed, for an anti-nuclear Nationalist government to achieve through its blinkers.