Scotland’s security of electricity supply was put under the spotlight this week following the confirmation that Longannet, Scotland’s largest thermal generating plant, will prematurely close in 2016 with the likely loss of over a 1000 jobs.
The Scottish Government has been widely criticised by opposition parties for not ensuring a balanced supply of electricity generation.
But why is a balanced energy mix necessary? And how exposed is Scotland due to the loss of Longannet?
The answers to these questions very much depend on your political viewpoint. The Scottish Government’s White Paper on Independence was very clear. It said “Scotland’s substantial energy resources and balanced generation mix will provide enhanced security of supply, greater long-term stability in energy prices, decarbonisation of electricity generation, the protection and creation of jobs and further community empowerment.”
There are a number of assumptions within this statement that can be questioned, especially on balance of supply.
Longannet is a dirty old coal generating plant, that happens to provide 2,400MW thermal generation that feeds electricity into the National Grid. Many environmentalists are secretly delighted that the plant will close as it is one of the most polluting in Europe. The plant’s existence has been under threat for some time and a stay of execution was dependent largely on whether it could benefit from CCS technology that is so far an unproven and uncommercial technology.
Every government has a duty to ensure the security of energy supply. In the grand scheme of things, the lights won’t go out in Scotland as we can rely on thermal back-up from England, Wales and beyond. That’s ok as we benefit from being within a single GB energy market. The Scottish Government’s White Paper recommended that this single market should continue, regardless of the outcome last September, tacitly contradicting assurances within the same paper that said Scotland’s benefits from its own, balanced supply.
Many will blame the Scottish Government’s pure renewables electricity policy. Such a policy is fine as long as the thermal back-up exists to ensure supply when the wind is not blowing. Statistics from DECC this week show that Scotland’s 50 per cent renewables electricity target has been met a year ahead of schedule. This is commendable and goes a long way to ensuring Scotland and the UK’s renewable targets are met.
However, it remains the case, that if we are to believe statements from the SNP that its energy policy is credible and, in the event of independence, Scotland will have a balance of supply, it needs to provide clear answers to the fact that polluting coal and gas power stations will eventually close. When you add the fact that Scotland’s two nuclear power stations will also close within the next ten years, we face a massive shortfall in reliable, round the clock, electricity generation.
Subsequent policies such as blocking new phase nuclear and by issuing a moratorium on shale extraction (that could power new gas plants), effectively closes the door to alternatives as well as restricting opportunities for highly skilled engineers, such as those from Longannet, to find new employment.
There are reasons to criticize the UK government’s track record on electricity market reform. The regulator Ofgem has dragged its feet on reform to transmission charging, that does negatively impact on Longannet’s economic case. However, there are many other factors in place, not least our commitments to carbon reduction and air quality that have forced the plant’s closure. The wider UK also faces concerns on thermal back-up as old plants come to end of life and under-investment undermines balance of supply, which shouldn’t be ignored.
So, are our politicians being straight with us on this issue or is this just another extension of debate on Scotland’s constitutional future? Is Scotland’s energy policy credible? The Scottish Parliament’s energy committee will host an inquiry into the subject were many of these issues will be thrashed out but politicians of all colours should be honest with the public and take the difficult decisions to ensure our energy supply, on which we all depend, is secure and affordable.