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Why new Scottish nuclear power stations would be ‘catastrophic’ financial decision

IT has been suggested that new nuclear power stations should be built in Scotland, but this would be a catastrophic financial decision, especially if Scotland became independent.

Rather, the current gas price crisis demonstrates how an energy strategy based on energy efficiency and renewable energy is best for Scotland. It is best for Scotland not only on the grounds of reducing greenhouse gas emissions but also in safeguarding energy security and curbing energy price spikes.

The UK Government is planning to spend approaching £1,000 per consumer to pay EDF to build Sizewell C before it has even started generating (£20 billion in total plus probably inevitable cost overruns). Yet, for Scotland, given a consumer base a tenth of the size of the UK’s, this would cost each Scottish consumer up to £10,000 per consumer.

It would be irresponsible to consider such a venture, especially considering that the inflexible operation of nuclear power effectively switches off wind farms, thus wasting their production.

The talk of “small” nuclear reactors is based on fantasy since small reactors were long ago abandoned as being even more expensive as large ones.

Making sure that older buildings are retrofitted to improve energy efficiency and that new buildings are zero carbon in energy use is essential in this endeavour. Public spending in this area is much more important than giving short-term payments to the oil and gas industry for dubious, unproven projects like “blue hydrogen” (involving producing hydrogen from natural gas).

Buildings can last for over a century, a lot longer than any power plant, and their energy efficiency is an essential bequest that we can make to future generations. This needs to be done by a mixture of public spending and private spending driven by tough energy efficiency standards.

It is terrible that large numbers of poor people have to spend large parts of their income heating poorly insulated homes, and this needs to be remedied as rapidly as possible.

Improving energy efficiency standards for buildings have greatly reduced costs and emissions, with a new building today needing no more than half the energy to meet its heating needs compared to a similar building constructed in the 1960s.

It is a great pity that further tightening of building energy standards has been resisted in the past.

Installation of heat pumps needs to be a key priority. Heat pumps will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds compared to gas heating. With gas prices now going up faster than electricity prices, installation of heat pumps can deliver energy to homes or businesses at the same cost as gas heating.



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Fossil fuel boilers in new buildings should be banned by the end of 2023.

Heat pumps are very cheap to install in 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 valuegenerating 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.



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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.

To read all the contributions go to www.

heraldscotland.

com/politics/ scotlands-future/ new buildings (compared to retrofits).

Making heat pumps the standard in new build will boost the heat pump market and reduce heat pump costs generally. The importance of solar pv has often been wrongly downplayed in Scotland. Solar pv should be made mandatory in new buildings, a policy which is now being pursued in Germany.

Scotland has large quantities of cheap onshore wind and solar resources and bountiful offshore renewable resources, including wave and tidal, that needs developing. Wind technology is improving its efficiency all the time. The wind farms that are scheduled to be built under the recently awarded ScotWind offshore wind concession (organised by the Scottish Government) will, in combination with the renewable energy already deployed in Scotland, be approximately enough to supply all of Scotland’s energy needs, not just present-day electricity demand.

In future, energy services, from transport to heating to industry, should be supplied mostly by electricity. Some services, such as provision of long-term storage, that cannot be met by electricity, can be supplied by hydrogen generated from renewables. Renewable or “green” hydrogen can be stored in offshore salt aquifers and then used to power gas turbine generators to produce electricity when there is not enough wind.

Scotland must develop much more offshore and onshore renewables capacity. This can be exported to other nations. More offshore renewable auctions need to be planned so that Scotland can earn money from exporting the energy, as well as helping to reduce carbon emissions.

There is around £700 million being earned from the ScotWind concession, but this sum could be greatly increased in future rounds.

A levy or tax earning 5 per cent of gross income from electricity generated by offshore wind farms would yield about £250m per year (nearly £4 billion over 15 years) if applied to developments the size of the 25GW ScotWind auction.

The Scottish Government can either negotiate with Westminster to achieve a higher return from offshore wind farms or achieve the same end as a result of sovereign control over the offshore resources in the case of independence.

It is now obvious that serving our energy needs from renewables using cheap long term fixed price contracts to pay the renewable operators is the cheapest and most secure source of energy for consumers. Developing more oil and gas to be sold on the global markets to the highest (currently extremely high) bidder does nothing for Scottish energy security, consumers’ bills, and certainly does nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Whether independent or still part of the Union, Scotland and the rest of the UK will continue to support each other making use of the increasingly extensive system of high voltage electricity interconnectors between Scotland and England. There are now three of these, with another being planned along the east coast. It will make sense to continue to have a common System Operator which will oversee the balancing of the British electricity system, with Scotland exporting increasing quantities of renewable energy to England.


Dr David Toke is Reader in Energy Politics at the University of Aberdeen

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