Speech to COP21: Balancing renewable electricity with gas


Gas and renewables working together in harmony - a modern-day fairy tale?

For many people gathered in Paris it is indeed a fairy tale. For some, the fairytale is ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ with gas a wolf in sheep’s clothing, devouring poor granny.  For others the fairytale is ‘Goldilocks’, with gas providing a solution, not too hot - like coal and not too cold - like renewables. However, in hunting through my Brothers Grimm the best tale of all may be ‘Jack & the Beanstalk’ - Jacques et le haricot magique, with gas the plucky Jack, climbing to the sky to conquer the giant of Climate Change. Perhaps I have overstretched my metaphor.

However, that is certainly the view from across the pond. In his 2014 State of the Union Address, President Obama hailed the shale gas revolution as the most effective way to power the economy while reducing carbon emissions. One thing is clear: natural gas emits less carbon than coal. President Obama termed the revolution, ‘a gas bridge’ to the future.

A bridge it may be, but the bridge can’t go on forever.  The question, therefore, is as always, when does the future start?

I represent Scotland in the European Parliament.  For most of my life the oil and gas of the North Sea has been a constant presence, with Aberdeen, the city serving the oil fields, known as the ‘Oil Capital of Europe.’  Of late, Scotland has embraced the most far-reaching renewables targets of any nation on the face of the globe. How has Scotland managed to reconcile its mature oil industry with its progressive green ambitions?  The answer is badly. There is an air of schizophrenia when energy is discussed in the round.

To give context to the tension, by 2016 Scotland’s last coal fired power station will close. By 2025, Scotland’s last two nuclear power plants will be decommissioned - primarily based upon ideology rather than energy strategy.  Some 60% of Scotland’s electricity generation will due to vanish by 2025.

The Scottish Government has three options:

Import electricity from England or indeed elsewhere in Europe, not a practical problem in an integrated energy market, but certainly a political one for a nationalist government;
Invest in renewables. The Scottish Government has grown renewables generation by 30% in a decade, an impressive feat. However, when the wind doesn’t blow… Scotland is approaching 50% of its electricity from renewable sources, but electricity is only 21% of the energy mix.  The largest share is gas heating at 55% and as yet there is no plan to covert Scotland’s gas cookers and boilers to run on electricity. (The next largest is transport. Scotland has 1100 electric cars out of a fleet of 3.2 million).
Invest in gas fired power stations to produce our electricity.

So the challenge for the Scottish Government is to balance out the energy demands of Scotland, with an approach which allows year-on-year reduction in emissions.

The answer for Scotland in the short to medium term, as it was for the US, would appear to be building that magical gas bridge.

But what about the future?
There is enough gas in the ground to power us for 200 years. That much is clear. But it’s expensive. Every day Europe spends over 1 billion euros importing gas from Russia. The North Sea is not what it once was. We have 30 to 40 years left of extraction. Indeed, even the USA’s shale gas revolution has begun to judder.

Here in Paris we are reminded of our long-term carbon reduction goals: net-zero emissions by the end of the century. Indeed, the lead negotiator for the EU, Commissioner Canete, is arguing that very point in the room next door right now. So what does net zero actually mean for gas?

First and foremost it means innovation.  CCS. That three letter acronym that we don’t talk about in the UK anymore. Well, by the end of the century CCS, or efficiency levels so high that they nearly negate the need for CCS, will be required in order to keep gas a part of the energy mix.  In my role as Rapporteur on the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme, I am pushing for a substantial innovation fund to support breakthrough technologies that will help keep fuels like gas a part of our energy mix.

But it also means adapting to the increase of renewables in the system, and shorter start up times, whether that be through combustion engines or more innovation in turbine engines.  We need to be able to consistently supply gas to homes in a matter of seconds, not minutes, in order to account for the wind not blowing or the sun not shining.  That may seem impossible now, but just think what else we have achieved in 85 years.

And that’s your timeframe. 85 years to prove to the green groups and the politicians outside of this room, who today call for the end of all fossil fuels, that in fact you have the capabilities and the will to be a part of the solution.  You have a responsibility as you always have done to supply people with heat and light when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.  But much like poor old Jack, who could bring home nothing but magic beans, you have the bum deal of having to innovate your industry and cut your emissions in the bygoing.

So, the clock is ticking, the giant is descending, and it’s time to start chopping down the bean stock.