Plugging the Gaps in Sloppy SNP Energy Policy


Yesterday the SNP published its general election manifesto.  Among the lesser reported sections was one entitled ‘Renewable and Community Energy’, in which the party detailed its support for renewable energy.  Except they don’t. In fact what the manifesto does is confuse two fundamentally different things – energy and electricity. A minor error one might think, but not so.  And what is more, they have form.

Perhaps the best way of explaining why this distinction matters is by examining what Nicola Sturgeon said during the Scottish leaders debate a couple of weeks ago. In response to a question on Scotland’s depleting oil and gas resource she said:

“ an energy sense we’ve got to continue to work to make the transition to renewable sources of energy.  We had statistics published just a couple of weeks ago that showed that we are now generating something like half of our energy consumption from renewable sources, so really good progress but we’ve got work still there to do..."

There is a simple problem with Ms Sturgeon’s statement and its echo in the manifesto: it’s not true.  Scotland is not close to producing even a tenth of its energy consumption from renewable sources, let alone a half.  Ms Sturgeon and the drafters of the manifesto meant to speak of electricity consumption, not energy consumption.

‘What’s the difference?’ I hear you call.  Let me explain, with the assistance of a helpful pie chart. 

More than half of Scotland’s energy is used for domestic heating (the yellow slice).  Hands up those reading this with gas central heating (or who have a gas cooker).  Believe me, you are not alone.  80% of Scottish homes rely upon gas.  A further 9% are off the grid entirely and rely upon fuel oil. In discussions with analysts from one energy company, they estimated that our electricity generation would need to increase by 500% to replace all the gas in Scottish homes.

A quarter of Scotland’s energy is for transport, mostly cars (the blue slice).  I have no need to ask you to put your hands up if you own an electric car. The present Scottish fleet consists of only 1,100 cars (out of a total fleet of 2,700,000). Given that Scotland still generates most of its electricity from fossil fuels, it could be argued that electric cars are powered by coal, let alone oil.

Only then do we get to the share of Scotland’s energy represented by our electricity consumption, at 21%. Ms Sturgeon’s statement refers to this category.  Last year, half of this was generated from renewable sources (a quarter from the hydro plants built in the 60s and 70s).

The Scottish Government did once publish figures detailing progress in meeting the total renewable energy target.  Indeed back in 2011, Alex Salmond committed Scotland to generating 30% of its overall energy consumption (including heating and transport) from renewable sources.  However, that target gently slipped off the grid to be replaced instead by a target of 100% renewable electricity by 2020.

Why did the goalposts change? And why do Scottish Government ministers still mix up the energy goal of the earlier target with the electricity goal of the later target?

The answer may well be found in a report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers entitled ‘Scottish Energy 2020?[1]. In considering Scotland’s 30% renewable energy target, the engineers reached a simple conclusion, the Scottish Government had no ‘credible plan to deliver Scotland’s renewable energy targets…’

The report is worth quoting further:

“There is an inherent problem in trying to achieve the overall target for all energy from renewables largely by electricity. Electricity is the smallest component of energy demand in Scotland, whereas heat is by far the biggest, and transport energy needs fall between the two. It would be technically remiss to assume that the renewable heat and transport targets can be reached by a shift of these sectors to electricity.”

The transformation of the heating and transport sectors needed to meet the 30% overall target would have serious implications for Scotland.  Simply put it would mean a decoupling from fossil fuels and their replacement by renewable-generated electricity.  Setting aside for just a moment the impact of such a fundamental change on the North Sea oil and gas industry, let’s consider the ‘domestic’ impacts.

That controllable gas hob and combination oven you prefer?  No more.  The combi-boiler you rely upon in the bleak midwinter? A thing of the past. The family hatchback or jaunty runaround? Scrapheap. Replacing the white goods and the car is a significant capital cost - hobs, ovens, boilers and cars don’t come cheap.

However the real impact on your bank balance will be the running costs.  Electricity is more expensive than gas – by about three to four times in most cases. A unit of mains gas will cost you about 4p per KWh, a unit of electricity 15p. Think what that would mean for your monthly bills.

Fossil fuels are finite. At some point in the future, conversion to renewable electricity (or a sustainable biofuel) is inevitable.  Climate change and all that entails means that the day of conversion will come all the sooner.  The question is then, just as it was framed in Aberdeen ‘how can we ease the transition from declining oil and gas reserves to a renewable future?’

President Barack Obama talks of a ‘gas bridge’, a route whereby we transit from a carbon (coal) dependent economy through a low carbon economy represented by gas to a zero carbon economy.  Estimates of global gas resources suggest there is enough energy for upwards of 200 years.  Scotland is presently sitting upon up to 135 trillion cubic feet of shale oil and gas. Gas combined with carbon capture technology could well buy time for the conversion yet to come.   For it will be quite a conversation and it will come at quite a cost.

However, the first step in realising this cost is to have our government acknowledge its scale.  At the time of their report in 2011, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers noted that the Scottish Government had no reliable consumption data against which to measure their ambitious renewable energy targets; four years on, and the Scottish Government’s latest Energy Compendium still uses the same 2011 stats.

Without a serious analysis of the challenge ahead, we cannot hope to understand the implications of these renewables targets on consumers, or indeed on North Sea oil jobs.  Confusing electricity with energy as the First Minister did is careless mistake, and one that shows a deeper problem with the Government’s energy policy; amply a blindness to the difference, but also to the consequences the difference makes.  A dangerous place for any government to be.