Lesley Riddoch: The heat is on for efficient warmth

It's high time to kick-start a green heating revolution in Scotland, writes Lesley Riddoch.

The SNP wants the UK government to devolve offshore oil and gas licensing and taxation so that significant remaining North Sea reserves can be used to drive investment in Scotland.

No wonder. The Oil and Gas Authority estimates that our oil and gas resource will last for at least another 20 years, raising an estimated £15 billion in tax revenues over the next six years alone. The SNP says Scotland faces a choice between billions being squandered by the UK government or the opportunity created by devolving new powers to the Scottish Parliament.

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Given Britain’s shameful track record of frittering oil and gas revenues on pointless privatisations during the 90s, I’m sure independence supporters won’t be the only folk who’d prefer stewardship of our remaining oil wealth to be invested in a Fund for Future Generations, administered through Scotland’s new National Investment Bank as Andrew Wilson’s Growth Commission has suggested.

Control over planning ensured two-thirds of Scotland's energy needs were met from renewable source in 2017. Picture: John DevlinControl over planning ensured two-thirds of Scotland's energy needs were met from renewable source in 2017. Picture: John Devlin
Control over planning ensured two-thirds of Scotland's energy needs were met from renewable source in 2017. Picture: John Devlin

The snag is that the choice of Westminster or Holyrood control over oil is not the most important energy challenge facing Scotland.

The IPCC’s special report on global warming of 1.5C says we need to leave 80 per cent of our oil and gas reserves in the ground. The big choices facing Scotland are whether we accept or ignore this reality and whether we act or just talk about action.

Most folk will concede that Scotland’s doing pretty well on the green energy front. Even though Westminster controls energy policy, the Scottish Government’s used control over planning to ensure two- thirds of Scotland’s energy needs were met from renewable sources in 2017. That is good going. So is the policy to reforest Scotland (though tenant farmers facing removal urgently need protection) and the decision to phase out petrol and diesel cars by 2032 so drivers switch to electric and hybrid cars.

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But there is another aspect of energy policy controlled by the Scottish Government but hardly ever discussed. Heat.

In 2015 the Scottish Government published a heat policy statement setting out plans for using less energy to heat homes, industry and offices with the aim of decarbonising the heat system by 2050. Three years later, how are we doing? Well, by British standards we’re doing not badly, but by European standards, we’ve barely begun.

The main problem is that Scotland, unlike mainland Europe, has hardly any district heating schemes – so we have many boilers but no pipes while Europe has many pipes but just one boiler. That means densely packed town and city centres in Scotland, which could be heated by a few, super-efficient and easily updated green energy units, are being heated instead by thousands of individual oil and gas boilers. This is crazy. Thanks to Scotland’s tenemental housing, we have dense towns and cities which are ideal for district heating and thus for quick upgrades to new green bits of heating kit. Like the natural heat pump system – a river source energy system that could revolutionise heating in every Scottish town and city located on a river – and that’s the lion’s share.

Hard as it is for non-engineers to understand, heat pumps can extract energy from cold water by cooling it further. The “lost” energy is captured in a heat pump and used to warm water, which is delivered to homes and businesses via district heating systems.

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The natural heat pump system is already being used in the industrial Norwegian town of Drammen where two- thirds of the energy going into the district heating system is recycled heat from the fjord and just one-third is new electricity needed for the process. Even the high-tech Norwegians couldn’t find a better local technology than the pumps made by Star Renewables, a Glasgow-based engineering firm. According to its director Dave Pearson; “The quantity of heat in the River Clyde alone is eight times the amount needed to heat the centre of Glasgow.

“If all Scotland’s big cities used their rivers to produce heat and district heating to send it round homes and businesses, more construction jobs could be created than the current total involved in the oil and gas industries. The potential is enormous, but we have to grasp it.”

The Scottish Government has been urging local councils to consider district heating for new developments. But if developers prefer to install individual gas or electric heating instead, no-one seems to be arguing. Even though our climate change and green energy targets mean we must cut the use of gas for heating by 5 per cent every year. Even though there are question marks over emissions and air quality where gas engines are delivering combined heat and power (CHP). A report for the London mayor this September observed; “The CHP facilities proposed… could have a significant effect on air quality [and] offset the benefits gained from the transport-related air quality interventions being implemented by the mayor. Impacts are more significant [near] gas engine CHP facilities in close proximity to schools, hospitals or other sensitive sites.”

So gas is not the long-term answer for heating in Scotland. Electricity is less efficient than heat pump technology and hydrogen may be hard to scale. Clydebank is on the brink of becoming the first town in Scotland to follow Drammen’s lead and switch to river-sourced heat pumps.

But there’s no incentive for other towns and cities to follow suit, while installing new gas-fired heating systems is cheap and environmentally acceptable. For consumers, cheap gas also seems to mitigate fuel poverty. But fuel poverty isn’t a fuel thing, it’s a poverty thing. Our gas prices are actually lower than almost anywhere in Europe – the trouble is our average incomes are too.

So rather than conduct a tokenistic fight for control over oil revenues, the SNP could kick-start the decarbonisation of heating in our existing buildings and cities.

Yip – that sounds hypothetical and underwhelming compared to the £15 billion in oil revenues amassing as we speak in Whitehall coffers. But such a green shift could put Scotland ahead in the worldwide race for non-gas heating.

And politically, instead of being snubbed by Westminster over oil, the Scottish Government could own a green heating revolution, as soon as it declares an intention to do so.

In energy policy as in life, isn’t a bird in the hand better than two in the bush?