No energy minister should say, as many have: “The lights will not go out.” But Scotland is not in worse shape than, say, south-east England. Margins have been tight across the UK for years. Yet we’ve only actually run out of electricity twice in the past decade – five times better than the standard set for National Grid by government.
So how have we got away with it? Last winter, we were a bit lucky with the weather (unless you wanted to build a snowman). That doesn’t mean a cold snap would have knocked the grid over, because underlying consumption has fallen. It’s hard to unpick the destructive effects of the recession from the remarkable success of LED lighting; the two emerged at the same time and significantly slashed demand.
We also have a more diverse and better-connected electricity system than ever. Coal-fired Longannet closed early because gas-fired Peterhead power station beat it in a tender. By this winter, the famous Beauly-Denny transmission upgrade – familiar to drivers on the A9 – will be complete. This will allow more wind power to flow out of north-west Scotland, and directly cut Peterhead’s gas bill – which we pay for.
We can’t control the wind, but we don’t control world fuel markets either. If the lights are to stay on, we can’t rely on any one particular source. Enter Scotland’s most flexible and least obvious power station, tucked away in Edinburgh’s west end. This is Flexitricity, which has hooked up a network of industrial, commercial and public-sector electricity users across Scotland, England and Wales. Hospitals, banks, event venues, universities, greenhouses, supermarkets and datacentres are ready to cut consumption or turn up small generators when the National Grid runs short.
This is demand response. It’s big enough to fill in when Peterhead fails, or Torness, or the cross-channel links. If things really do get tight, it could be a warehouse or hospital near you that’s keeping the lights on.
• Dr Alastair Martin is founder and chief strategy officer of Flexitricity