Eddie Barnes: Energy ministers spark debate over hot topic of UK’s electricity dependence on an independent Scotland

Fergus Ewing, Minister for Energy, Enterprise and Tourism
Fergus Ewing, Minister for Energy, Enterprise and Tourism
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FERGUS Ewing and Ed Davey made a curious couple as they sat together on the platform at The Scotsman Energy Conference in Edinburgh yesterday.

The two energy ministers offered polite nods of appreciation to the other in their speeches to the assembled audience. Both declared themselves committed to working with one another as best they can. Then both opened their fangs and sought to tear the other’s constitutional argument to shreds.

The pleasantries before the passion has a reason – for both of them. With investors eyeing up the renewables boom, and with Scotland holding a key role in the UK’s industry, the pair have a joint interest in showing that, despite the referendum scrap, it is business as usual in the meantime. Thus Mr Davey remains keen to keep Mr Ewing onside.

That is now – but what about if Scotland’s voted yes in two years’ time?

The SNP minister’s central point yesterday was that Mr Davey will still need to keep him sweet. Of course, Scotland’s figures would no longer fall onto Mr Davey’s desk; he would no longer have any direct need to pay heed to Scotland’s interests. But, the argument goes, England’s energy relationship to Scotland would be not unlike an addict’s to his dealer. It would need its fix of electricity to keep the lights on. More specifically, it would need the good stuff – electricity from renewables – to help meet EU targets. Thus needy London would have little choice but to do as Scotland wished and maintain the current single energy market, handing Scottish renewables generators the same subsidies as they get at present.

Naturally, Mr Davey demurred from this analysis when asked yesterday. First of all, England had other places to go for its clean electricity (the minister noted how former energy minister Charles Hendry had recently been to Iceland, of all places, to look at ways of importing geothermal power from its volcanoes). Scotland would not therefore have monopoly status on green power. Thus there would be no bargaining chip in Scotland’s hand to insist that the single energy market continued.

“We will still be using renewable energy from Scotland,” Mr Davey said yesterday, “but it is difficult to be precise.” Doubtless he has his political reasons for offering scepticism, but his view has backing: yesterday Edinburgh University’s Professor Gordon Hughes declared that the idea England would need Scotland was “exaggerated”. England could easily increase the amount of renewable energy it generates itself, he said. Furthermore, with Scotland no longer in the fold, England could opt to renegotiate its carbon-cutting target with Brussels.

It raises a wider point about the coming independence debate. The SNP’s case rests on the view that Scotland and the rest of the UK will return to being “equal partners”. But, when the bigger partner is less reliant on the smaller one than vice-versa, it may not just be in energy that the rest of the UK turns out to be a little more equal than that.