Joyce McMillan: Sea change required in Scots energy policy

Wave-generated energy sources have already been connected to the National Grid, a harbinger of more to come. Picture: ContributedWave-generated energy sources have already been connected to the National Grid, a harbinger of more to come. Picture: Contributed
Wave-generated energy sources have already been connected to the National Grid, a harbinger of more to come. Picture: Contributed
OIL price crisis offers SNP an opportunity to shift emphasis to developing renewable resources, writes Joyce McMillan

To watch First Minister’s Questions in the Scottish Parliament is often to be reminded of just how easy it is for a politician – and particularly one like Nicola Sturgeon, who visibly enjoys the nitty-gritty detail of policy – to become entirely absorbed by the day-to-day business of government. A threatened hospital ward here, a factory closure there, a new package of infrastructure investment for Aberdeen, hard hit by the recent oil price slump; all vitally important, all well worth the First Minister’s attention, but all relatively small parts of the bigger picture which we hope our leading politicians will occasionally step back and contemplate, in the effort to get the context of those detailed decisions right.

And this week, it was impossible not to sense a historic shift taking place, in the big picture of the global economy and of our place in it. Energy, after all, is the basis of everything, when it comes to economic development, and the political systems that emerge from it. Scotland, along with many other parts of the UK, became a great industrial nation partly because we had fast-running rivers, and then because we had coal; 150 years later, we watched both the painful decline of the heavy, coal-based industries that had shaped our cities and our history, and the sudden thrilling rise of Aberdeen as one of the world’s major oil cities, after the coming of North Sea oil in the early 1970s.

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The modern Scottish National Party, as shaped by Alex Salmond, is in many ways a product of that most recent energy boom, just as the Labour Party once emerged from the heartlands of the old coal-based economy. The idea of “Scotland’s oil”, and of vast wealth lying just offshore, helped to change Scotland’s image of itself as a post-industrial basket case dependent on subsidy from Westminster; and to give hundreds of thousands of Scots the confidence to vote for a new, Nordic-style Scotland, which would use its undoubted wealth to create the kind of modern social democracy its people seemed to want.

Now, though, the wheels of history are turning again; and if the SNP wants to sustain its vision of an independent Scotland that is fairer, more prosperous and more sustainable than the UK alternative, then it will have to move fast, and – despite Scotland’s famously ambitious renewable energy targets – with more dynamism than is obvious at the moment, towards a position that focuses much more clearly on the long-term energy future.

There are, of course, many distractions along this path, on which all governments signed up to the United Nations’ radical carbon reduction targets are now supposed to be travelling. The most immediate distraction is the fierce pressure to throw ourselves into the fracking industry, which is said to provide a “transition” fossil fuel that is cleaner and cheaper than coal or oil, but which at best – and even laying aside environmental objections – represents a one-generation stop-gap on the path to a low-carbon economy. The largest is the nuclear option, which generates almost 20 per cent of the UK’s electricity, and a colossal 75 per cent of the electricity used in France; most of Britain’s nuclear power stations are near the end of their planned lives, but the UK government’s hopes of replacing them suffered another blow this week when French company EDF, set to build the new Hinkley Point reactor under a deal which already promises them 35 years of sky-high taxpayer-subsidised energy prices, once again deferred its decision to sign up and start the project, apparently for financial reasons.

And there are no prizes – once we look at the big emerging shapes of this picture – for working out in which direction Scotland’s energy strategy should now be moving, with all possible speed. It’s not only that low-carbon or no-carbon renewable sources represent the obvious long-term future of the energy industry, and are advancing far faster than many experts predicted, already generating around 30 per cent of all power across the European Union. It’s that Scotland enjoys such obvious natural advantages in terms of renewable energy – swept as we are by huge Atlantic winds, waves and tides – that we obviously have everything to gain from becoming a world leader in exploiting that potential; and we also have the companies and educational institutions to help drive the rapid technological development that will be necessary, if renewables are to meet almost all of our energy needs by the mid-century.

It has been calculated Scotland has renewable energy potential almost six times greater than its current total energy production from all sources; these are numbers that could indeed make us the Saudi Arabia of these new times, although one hopes with a better human rights record, and a less toxic impact on our region.

Now of course, there are plenty of potential stumbling blocks on the way to this possible future. There are technical problems to be resolved both around generation and storage, energy waste and over-consumption as well as fiercely complex processes of transition to be navigated – not least by a ruling party so fiercely attached to the imagery of our last energy boom that it cannot yet bring itself to say that our oil extraction industry will eventually have to be consigned to history, along with our lost coalmines.

My guess, though, is that if the SNP does not seize the chance to focus powerfully and publicly on the huge positive potential of Scotland’s renewable future, then eventually, another party will; and will gradually become the voice of that new age. In 1970, after all, when news of the extent of possible North Sea oil wealth was just beginning to emerge, the SNP won exactly one seat in the Westminster general election; today, little more than a generation later, the SNP has 56 Scottish seats out of 59. Yet the kind of generational sea-change that has worked so powerfully for the SNP could also now begin to work against it; if the SNP is foolish enough to forget just how much energy matters in shaping our world, our sense of what our future could be, and our thinking about which politicians we might choose to lead us towards it.