Sheonagh Richards: Keeping our lights on is a difficult balancing act
What does the future hold for energy generation in Scotland? In recent weeks, we have seen differing political agendas of the Scottish and UK governments as to how electricity supplies of the future will be generated. !
Among the questions are: how do you balance society’s desire to keep electricity prices down and the electricity supply secure with the need to replace existing fossil fuel-powered generation plants coming to the end of their life? Or with the climate change agenda making the use of fossil fuels no longer politically acceptable even if the human race were not exploiting these at an unsustainable rate? Or with the drive towards reducing harmful emissions?
We must make difficult decisions on future electricity generation. We all want electricity power on demand and available literally at the flick of a switch. That demand for electricity will only increase with the push to replace diesel and petrol cars with electric-powered vehicles.
In Scotland, we have a government committed to the generation of electricity from renewable resources. This commitment was illustrated by the recent award of the first planning consent for a solar farm in excess of 50MW at Milltown Airfield in Moray to our clients Elgin Energy. With deployment slotted to take place early next decade, it is anticipated that this will herald the start of a solar revolution in Scotland.
Such projects may tick the boxes on climate change and emissions. However, the balancing of supply and demand is very difficult given the intermittent nature of wind and sunshine and they can be seen as expensive. Also, most new renewable energy projects, solar in particular, no longer benefit from any form of government support. That cannot be said of the alternatives.
Criticism of renewable energy focuses on the issue that supply cannot always be guaranteed: the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow, so the amount of electricity generated can fluctuate significantly. As a result, back-up forms of power generation are needed to cover periods when it is not possible for supply levels to meet demand. The alternative criticism is that when the sun shines too much or it is too windy, then too much electricity is generated from solar and wind farms and they have to be switched off. That said, as it is usually not too sunny and too windy at the same time – even in Scotland – some balance can be achieved!
The main thing we should focus on is solving the problem of the efficient storage of electricity so supply and demand can be more easily balanced.
At present dammed hydro-electricity represents the largest form of stored electricity, and has been proven over many decades to be the most responsive to changes in demand. With the Scottish Government’s focus on decarbonising electricity generation, its role in balancing supply and demand is likely to increase. New pump storage hydro projects are being looked at across Scotland, although some still question whether it should have a role as such systems receive cheap electricity to pump water uphill!
Energy storage can deliver significant benefits in terms of energy security and the integration of renewables. Storage technologies must become an essential part of our energy mix. Some will need time to evolve and mature before we can properly assess their long-term viability in balancing supply and demand.
In contrast, south of the Border, the UK government appears to be adopting an energy policy based on the replacement of the existing fossil fuel based generation with “anything but renewable energy”. Following the controversial decision to provide around £2 billion of financial incentives to French power company EDF for the construction of a new nuclear power plant at Hinckley Point, the UK government recently announced a deal to take a £5 billion-plus stake in a new nuclear power station in Wales.
Nuclear power has been seen as having a role to play, but is not without its issues or controversies, and not least in relation to decontamination and decommissioning at the end of the nuclear plant’s life.
Ultimately, if the lights are going to stay on, a balance in energy policy will be key to solving the electricity supply conundrum.
Sheonagh Richards is a partner, Anderson Strathern, and member of the firm’s Energy Sector Group