On 20th of March 2016, Scotland’s largest power station Longannet (2.4 Giga Watt capacity ) was shutdown. It was a day of ambivalent feelings. On one hand jobs were lost, on the other hand the Carbon dioxide exhaled over decades by the plant’s massive chimneys took their final breath. Environmentalists cheered on as anxious looking plant workers faced uncertain future.
After a century of electricity production by coal, Scotland was finally free of the very fuel that has been mined locally by four generations of Scots. It was only in the 1980’s when Margret Thatcher locked horns with the mining community in the UK who eventually caved and took a severe hit. Even after the crack down on miners strikes, coal remained the primary fuel of choice for the country. The difference from then onwards was that coal was imported rather than sourced locally. As skills in the mining industry weren’t transferable, many Scots either left abroad or remained unemployed. There were lessons to be learned, but not much was done to re-skill the mineworkers and much of the expertise was lost. Fast forward to the 2000’s and a new technology arrives on the scene. It promised green and clean energy but at the same time was loathed by many. Renewable energy arrival on Scotland’s shores was not welcomed with open arms and the green revolution was built on pain and strife.
Today, Scotland is seen by the world a country that has been punching above its weight in renewable energy and has been leading the way in renewable technology. Lush green landscape and awe inspiring scenery makes many Scots inherently nature loving. It is a nation which consciously practices sustainability in many spheres of life . However, at the same time, it was extraction of fossil fuels that had put food on the table for a big chunk of population and that too for generations. The country has been historically dependent to fossil fuels. The history goes back to shale mines in the late 1800’s, to the coal mines that remained active till the post-colonial era and eventually discovery of oil in the North Sea in 1970’s. Naturally, the populace and in particular the employees in fossil fuel industry were reluctant about the surge for renewables. Many could foresee that the push towards renewables would mean pulling the plug on fossil fuels sooner rather than later.
Even today, the rise of fracking across the Atlantic and the positive economic impact it has made on the US economy has put many Scots questioning their resolve about Renewable Energy. When the coal fired beast of Longannet was closed, it also meant greater volatility for Scotland’s base load.
Although Scotland produces surplus energy, compared to UK which is a net energy importer, but this fact only diminishes its energy problems. Grid Interconnector with UK and Europe help to keep the lights on in Scotland when the wind power drops. For base load, Scotland is now more reliant than ever on the two Nuclear power plants (Hunterston, Torness). Upgrades to the nuclear plants for now have increased their life for a decade, but like Dounreay, these will also have to be decommissioned in the near future.
Scotland similarly has to depend strongly on CCGT power plant at Peterhead to level any fluctuations in demand.
What Scotland needs to do?
If Scotland is still going to push for 100% renewable energy by 2020, than the country needs to invest heavily in large scale grid storage solutions. Another area that needs to be incentivized is the sustainable thermal energy which includes technologies like Geothermal, Biomass and Solar water heating . It should be noted that in Scotland, more than 50% of the energy in the domestic sector is consumed for heating. Almost half of this demand can be met by Solar Water heaters. This would reduce the total base load significantly by cutting down on electricity that goes into water heating.
The spread of utility scale Biomass plants that produce both heat and power should be part of the future energy mix. Because of large forested areas in Scotland, wood chips can be easily sourced. Despite having access to abundant biomass (wood chips and farm waste) Scotland has a negligible number of Biomass plants. Tullis Russell, a century old employer in Fife, went into administration in April 2015. It had operated the largest Biomass CHP power plant in the country. The Scottish government needs to ensure that the Biomass plant is back online.
The electricity grid infrastructure needs to be revamped. With the closure of large power plants and with the integration of more residential and commercial scale energy generators, the Grid needs to be reassessed and redesigned for reducing line losses. The current line losses in Scotland stand 8% at average, which is a high figure when compared to other OECD countries. Work needs to be expedited on Beauly-Denny line to ensure that the resource rich North is connected to the population rich central belt.
Energy rich Scottish Islands similarly should generate their energy locally. Similarly, the work on Northconnect, the 570 Km Interconnector between Scotland and Norway needs to be expedited. The interconnector will provide security of supply during the time when for example, wind power drops. Another area that can be looked as is building community/ district heating infrastructure.
While Scotland’s ambition of leading country in Renewable energy are laudable, holistic long term planning for an alternate infrastructure is needed for ensuring the security of supply.