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The safe bet: a renewable powered future for Scotland by 2030


Our new report  ‘Pathways to Power’ shows that Scotland could be powered almost entirely by renewables by 2030.

Against an often uncertain landscape for renewables in 2014, it was great to see Scotland continuing to earn its clean energy stripes, keeping pace with other energy progressive nations that have made green growth a pillar of industrial policy, such as Denmark and Germany.

The last decade has been one of extraordinary renewables growth in Scotland.  They have gone from strength to strength, outstripping nuclear, coal and gas to become the number one source of electricity in 2014, delivering clean power, jobs and investment with very little fuss. This has been driven in no small way by the Scottish Government’s ambitious 2020 target for renewables and a cross party commitment to low carbon growth.

Dawn over Whitelee wind farm © Global Warming Images / WWF-CanonDawn over Whitelee wind farm © Global Warming Images / WWF-Canon

How to replace our ageing power plants?

But in the background, with coal plants creaking and cracks appearing in our nuclear plants, it’s clear that Scotland’s ageing power stations are getting to the end of their natural lives. So are we doing enough to plan for a future without them? Are we taking sensible decisions now that ensure we deliver an electricity system fit for the future?

In Scotland, we already have a clear idea about where we’re going over the next fifteen years. The Scottish Government took the right decision to set a target to decarbonise the power sector by 2030, based on the advice of the Committee on Climate Change. Meanwhile, the clean energy industry is crying out for the same kind of certainty at a UK level. Cutting carbon from electricity will help to cut carbon from our industries, our homes and ultimately our cars too.

Scottish CCS policy – the emperor’s new clothes?

However, WWF doesn’t shy away from calling out a strategy when we see flaws that risk derailing our climate targets and it’s clear the Scottish Government’s current strategy for hitting its 2030 target is a fairly big gamble. Why so? Quite simply, it relies heavily on unproven carbon capture and storage (CCS).

While we support the testing of CCS, it’s a pretty big leap to put a technology that is developing slowly and expensively at the centre of our electricity policy for the next decade; all the more so if it’s already led to poor decision making, such as giving planning consent to the proposed Cockenzie gas plant as ‘CCS ready’. Decisions like these are high stakes and could trap Scotland in a higher carbon future than we’re bound to under our Climate Act; one where we’re still at the mercy of volatile fossil fuel prices.

With no guarantee CCS will be scaled up commercially in fifteen years (it’s already nearly eight years since a CCS competition was first announced in the UK), we wanted to test whether an alternative future powered almost exclusively by proven renewables was possible. We therefore commissioned respected engineering consultancy DNV GL – the world’s largest renewables consultancy – to undertake a technical analysis, based on relatively conservative assumptions. This was reviewed independently by two energy academics based at Edinburgh University and the results are set out in our new report Pathways to Power: Scotland’s route to clean, renewable, secure electricity by 2030.

Nearly 100% renewable generation in Scotland is credible – and secure

The analysis threw up plenty of good news. It proved that our vision for a secure, renewables-powered future for Scotland is perfectly credible. And it showed that Scotland does not have to generate electricity from coal, gas or nuclear to ensure security of supply, as long as the GB grid is secure. Sure, we’ll have to make moderate efforts to reduce our need for electricity and to increase proven pumped storage to realise our vision, but this too is completely do-able with the right policies in place.

In fact, a renewable-powered, energy efficient 2030 vision is the safe bet, and even has lots of advantages – it’s got lower emissions, is less import dependent at peak demand and is cheaper than current Scottish Government scenarios.

Scotland can still be an exporting nation

Crucially, we’ve shown that Scotland can still be a power exporting nation – it could even expand to being a net renewable power exporter – well within the current renewables pipeline. On our (all too rare!) calmer days, it may have to import from the rest of Britain. But the balance would continue to be firmly in Scotland’s favour.

With plenty of stories about the lights going out in the media, we made sure DNV GL stress tested what would happen on a cold, calm winter’s evening with high demand and low renewables output. They showed that our efficient, renewable vision had less of a gap between supply and demand than the Scottish Government’s, even without back up gas plant. Either way, however, we can rest assured that ongoing grid upgrades will be more than enough to ensure security of supply. That means we don’t need to have conventional generation in Scotland by 2030 – how we generate our power is ultimately an economic and environmental decision, not an engineering one.

Offshore wind farm © Global Warming Images / WWF-CanonOffshore wind farm © Global Warming Images / WWF-Canon

 So where do we go from here?

Sure, the electricity system will have to change between now and 2030, but mostly the technologies already exist to achieve close to 100% renewable generation in Scotland – we just need to get the right policies in place.

This means:

  • not consenting plants as ‘CCS ready’ unless CCS is genuinely commercially available
  • making sure our coal and nuclear plants are phased out as planned
  • improving investment certainty for renewables right across the UK
  • making real progress on reducing power demand and expanding new pumped storage development in Scotland.

We are on a journey to a very different electricity future globally where fossil fuels will only play a background, transitional role. With abundant resources and a thriving green energy industry, it’s clear that Scotland can continue to be at the forefront of this global transition. But tying ourselves into a high risk pathway is precisely the kind of strategy we need to avoid if we’re going to seize the full economic, social and environmental wins of a renewable-powered future.

 Do you support a renewable future? Leave us a comment.

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