Scotland’s smart renewable future

Scotland’s wind turbines have once again broken their own generation records as in March this year they sent 1,240 GWh of electricity to the grid, an 81% increase from March 2016. It was also a 23% increase on the 1006 GWh generated in March 2015, the current record holder. The 1240 GWh generated last month accounted for 57% of Scotland’s entire electricity usage.

These latest figures were released this week by WWF Scotland and speaking at the launch director Lang Banks said: “Given this March wasn’t as windy as it has been in some previous years, this year’s record output shows the importance of continuing increase capacity by building new wind farms.

“As well as helping to power our homes and businesses, wind power supports thousands of jobs and continues to play an important role in Scotland’s efforts to address global climate change by avoiding millions of tonnes of carbon emissions every year. However, the UK Government’s decision to end support for onshore wind is going to make meeting our international climate obligations much harder in the future.

“The reality is that if we’re serious about cutting carbon pollution in the most cost-effective way, then we need every one of the political parties in Scotland to back the continued deployment of onshore wind power. It’s only with political backing for onshore wind from all of the parties that Scotland will be able to maximise the benefits to its economy, as we transition to a renewable future.”

The question of what to do with excess renewable energy, generated when the wind is blowing but demand is low, is also now closer to being answered. In the Scottish Islands the Mull and Iona Community Trust is developing a super smart grid network called ACCESS (Assisting Communities to Connect to Electric Sustainable Sources) that will enable electricity to be stored during high generation low demand periods.

Key elements include electric storage heaters in homes can be automatically switched on and off in order to match the amount of power being generated by the 400kW local community owned hydro plant.

Experts believe that this is the type of decentralised, locally owned and community-scale schemes for using renewable energy that have the real potential to revolutionise Scotland’s economy.

Andy Kerr. Director of the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation argues that the old, inflexible and top-heavy electricity distribution system is going to disintegrate.

“We are seeing a period of extraordinary disruption in energy systems in Scotland and elsewhere around the world. Last century’s electricity grids assumed that power stations had to be near coal mines or ports and those wires would be strung around the country to pump electricity to consumers.

“Enough power stations were built to ensure that there was more than enough capacity for the 30-minute peak power demand on the coldest day of winter but we are now entering an era of localised and personalised energy services.

“This is because it is becoming as cheap to install a local solar panel or wind farm as it is to buy power from far away power stations. With the introduction of smart, Garmony-style schemes matching local supply and demand, with heating controlled by mobile phones and with more electric vehicles, people are finding new ways of meeting their energy needs.

“These changes fundamentally re-shape energy systems – but also economies – since the economic model of the big energy companies is redundant. If I can create and automatically trade energy with my neighbours, why would I buy from a big company elsewhere?

“Scotland has tested various local energy system models and is at the leading edge of know-how that can support export potential. Low carbon companies have been shown to export more than regular Scottish businesses.

“The global market for low carbon products and services is worth $1 trillion or more,” he says placing Scotland in an excellent position to be at the forefront of this industry as it matures. The focus in Scotland has been on its wind or wave resources – too often, we are forgetting about its people resource. It is the presence of skilled people in Scotland that have helped deliver the green energy targets.”

He also claims that green energy will bring major economic changes to the country stating “It is a key pillar of our current energy system and our current political thinking, but in future will become a key pillar in our Scottish economy.

“But we need to get away from thinking of green energy just as a bunch of subsidised windmills or wave or tidal turbines, or thinking only about electricity. Green energy in its widest sense includes energy generation technologies, but also heat pumps, energy efficiency, low emission vehicles and smart meters.”

Low carbon industries were already worth £10.7 billion to the Scottish economy in 2014, and supported 43,500 jobs. The UK market for green technologies is worth up to £122 billion. This is the same size as the UK food and drink industry, twice the size of the chemicals sector and five times the size of the aerospace sector.

Head of policy at WWF Scotland, Dr Sam Gardner, suggests that Scotland is experiencing a green energy revolution. “By 2020, it is estimated that our continued shift to a zero-carbon economy could create over 60,000 jobs spread across our major cities and rural communities, providing a catalyst for economic renewal across Scotland.”

“The global energy transition is happening, and Scotland is blessed with an abundance of renewable resource. By harnessing this we can create green jobs, improve our transport system, cut fuel poverty and improve public health.”

Jenny Hogan, director of policy at Scottish Renewables puts the value of the global renewables market at £379 billion, which could grow to £620 billion over the next two years. “The opportunity for economic growth from this industry is huge but to capture any of this prize here in Scotland, the industry needs a viable route to a viable market – something currently lacking for many technologies.

“It also means investing seriously in innovation to bring technologies like energy storage, renewable heat, wave and tidal power to full commercialisation, and in low-carbon infrastructure like district heating and electric vehicle charging points.”

The Scottish Government’s draft energy strategy proposes that 50% of all of Scotland’s energy usage, including heat, power and transport is generated from renewable sources by 2030.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said “In recent years we have developed a growing international reputation as a knowledge hub for modern, renewable energy technologies, particularly in areas such as tidal, wave and offshore wind.

“This places us at the forefront of the global challenge to reduce the carbon footprint of our energy needs, which is at the very heart of meeting our domestic and international climate change obligations.

“Also we aim to foster a strong, low carbon economy that will deliver opportunities for both suppliers and consumers of energy. This will help to reduce the damaging impacts of fuel poverty in Scotland, and creating a vibrant climate for innovation, investment and jobs.”

All of this is extremely good news but we should remain cautious. There are many issues to resolve barriers to overcome and whether these lie in Scotland, or London or perhaps even further afield rarely would such change come without some pain. However if we can all work together towards this common goal there is no reason why it cannot be achieved.