Three months on, the buzz around COP26 might finally have died down, but for those charged with delivering actions to avert the worse impacts of the climate crisis, the real hard work has only just begun.
In Scotland, targets have been set in law to meet a 75 per cent reduction in green-house gas emissions by 2030 ahead of reaching net zero emissions by 2045. While the mid-century net zero target is the one that has grabbed headlines and is more familiar to people, it’s really that earlier target, now only eight years away, that is focusing government thinking.
In Scotland, we have made strong progress in reducing the emissions associated with the electricity we generate here, with a vast growth in renewable electricity production and the closing of Scotland’s remaining coal power stations, the last remnants of which were demolished by the First Minister herself late last year. However, the challenge is more complex than this, both in terms of how renewable generation needs to grow in a wider supply context if we are to meet our needs where even the Scottish wind doesn’t blow ALL the time (and sometimes even blows too much!), and how those needs are already changing and need to change further.
Firstly, on the question of electricity supply, continued growth in our renewables capacity is important for both Scotland’s energy system and economy. New offshore wind sites distributed around Scotland’s coasts could play a huge role in what will be an increasingly electric future and are already having a positive economic impact, with auctioning of the seabed that will host the generating sites having secured £700 million in fees to the Scottish public purse. The challenge will be holding companies to account in delivering the supply chain commitments promised in their bids so that further and sustained economic benefits can be realised.
However, making the most of our expanding renewables capacity, while ensuring that the growing and changing electricity needs of the Scottish people are met at all times, requires that Scotland (whatever her constitutional future) plays a fully integrated, affordable and value-generating role in the GB electricity system. Moreover, we are likely to need to complement what we can deliver through our increasingly renewable electricity system with delivery of other low carbon fuel options in delivering our “energy service” needs. Here, hydrogen could play a key role in decarbonising both heat and transport, and this isn’t just a substitute or alternate to electricity, with potential for wind farms to produce it when we have excess wind.
What of our changing needs? Let’s consider transport first. The Scottish Government has set a target to end the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles within the coming decade, driving the market for electric vehicles (EVs). As the charged mileage range of EVs improves, and car manufacturers slowly make electric vehicles more cost competitive, the mass uptake of EVs continues to become a tangible prospect. However, this requires that people can “plug in” their EVs for charging.
But development of the charging network has been slow, with some nervousness around how the electricity network will cope with need to plug-in potentially over two million vehicles. Electricity network companies have been pitching proposals for network upgrades to the UK energy regulator, Ofgem. One of Ofgem’s concerns is value and affordability for consumers, where all electricity network investment costs are recovered through energy bills.
Our research at the Centre for Energy Policy has shown that while some wider sustained economic benefits could be realised from growing the domestic electricity sector to enable the shift towards EVs and away from import intensive petrol and diesel, there will be a range of cost and price pressures for consumers. There are, of course, also challenges for the UK public purse, where the tax take from fuel duty must be replaced, which could ultimately have implications for the costs facing people running their EVs.
The second big “needs” challenge is how we heat our homes, where emissions reductions must line up with increased affordability, particularly for less well-off households. Here, we desperately need to ramp up delivery and uptake of residential energy efficiency programmes, to reduce emissions, generally lower household energy bills, and close the historical gap between gas and electricity prices, even where a shift to electric heating systems may deliver more physical energy efficiency.
However, the roll-out of those electric heating systems is perhaps the biggest challenge. As it stands, only 11% of Scotland’s households have a renewable or very low emission heating system, such as a heat pump or electric storage heating. In their Heat in Buildings Strategy, published ahead of COP26, the Scottish Government set out a pressing need to ensure that the majority of homes not connected to the mains gas grid, and a million of those that are, have zero carbon heating systems by 2030. While conversion of the gas network to carry low carbon hydrogen may be a solution for some homes (but requiring reserved UK Government decision making potentially not forthcoming until 2026), a rapid roll-out of electric heating systems will be required.
This is a huge challenge. On the user side, it requires a quick ramp up in the installation of renewable heating systems, such as heat pumps, from 3,000 annually today, to a total of 124,000 systems between 2021 and 2026. On the electricity supply side, it adds to the challenge and costs of increasing network capacity. This, then, brings us back to the central challenge of co-ordination between national and devolved governments, electricity generators and network operators, and the GB national grid in ensuring that Scotland’s renewables capacity can actually deliver what the people of Scotland need it to do. Crucially, this needs to be done in an affordable way, particularly for the in excess of 600,000 Scottish homes currently living in fuel poverty.
Professor Karen Turner, Director, Centre for Energy Policy, University of Strathclyde.