Get the future of energy right

Energy – electricity, heating and transport fuel – is crucial for the modern Scotland we live in. But it can also be one of our biggest threats if we don’t get them right because it can harm our environment and play a major role in causing the climate crisis. And if we have ‘energy inequality’ it can harm the health of those who can’t afford to heat their homes or run essential household appliances. Scotland is one of the few countries in Europe which owns almost none of its energy publicly and, alone with the rest of the UK, the only one that doesn’t even own its own National Grid. For the sake of our future we need to get all of this right – and to grasp the opportunities it presents.

Common Weal has published too much work on energy to link to all of it here (three key documents are Powering Our Ambitions, Just Warmth and Carbon-Free, Poverty-Free). But most of it is summarised in the Common Home Plan with sections on energy efficiency, electricity, heating and transport

So what is the vision? Scotland is blessed with remarkable renewable energy resources but has cold winters, a lot of inefficient housing, a very high reliance on gas heating and a particular reliance on transport. We need to tackle all of these. The hardest is heating – there is simply no easy solution to weaning ourselves off natural gas. Alternatives which use the same infrastructure (like hydrogen) are very expensive and alternatives like electric heating (also comparatively expensive) would require enormous amounts of work to replace existing household heating systems and would require a very big investment in both more electricity generation and the electricity grid. There is no quick, easy way to do this and retrofitting renewable heating (like Heat Pumps) to most existing houses isn’t realistic. So if we’re going to have to make a massive investment, let’s get it right.

The first step is that we must make our houses much more efficient so we don’t need to heat them so much in the first place, so a major programme of insulating and draft-proofing houses is the first step. Then we need to put in place a heating system which will last for many generations, is clean and efficient and inexpensive for households. The best option is a ‘district heating’ system, where heat is generated in lots of different ways (all renewable), collected in a heat store and then distributed to houses as they need it via a network of pipes. Households just need to switch their existing boilers for heat exchangers and the rest of their heating system should work as is. Make no mistake, this is a truly immense engineering project, but so is anything that heats our homes without feeding a climate emergency.

Electricity is more straightforward in Scotland because of our renewable resources – but we’re going to need more of it. To meet future demand and produce enough spare energy to ensure energy security we will need to double the amount of currently-installed renewable generation and put a lot of energy storage in place. But that’s not enough because if we also want to move to clean transport we’ll need more electricity again – in total about three times what we currently have. Thankfully this can all be achieved with onshore and offshore wind in Scotland, leaving our marine energy resources for other purposes. And if we do it right we can take not only all this new energy into public ownership but the existing energy as well – so we control our own energy system.

Which leaves transport. This too is a massive task – we need to replace the entire fleet of petroleum-based transport. It is almost certain the way to do this is to move to electric battery-power for smaller vehicles like cars and vans and to hydrogen for big vehicles like lorries and ferries. But to achieve that we’ll also need all that extra electricity, a source of clean hydrogen and major investment in charging and refuelling infrastructure.

So where do we get our clean hydrogen from? This is where Scotland’s marine energy comes in. At the moment almost all commercial hydrogen produces carbon dioxide, not when it is used but when it is created in the first place by breaking down natural gas. Clean hydrogen is made with electricity and water – but it needs a lot of electricity. Thankfully Scotland has massive wave and tidal energy opportunities and these can be used to make hydrogen for vehicle transport. Even more than that, it can give Scotland a world lead in hydrogen technology and because we have much more marine energy than we need for domestic transport it is also potentially an amazing export opportunity.
There is no simple solution to our need to clean up our energy, but great opportunities if we do. All that investment creates lots and lots of jobs and economic opportunities in supply chains – but only if we do it right. That’s why we need a proper structure for doing all of this collectively, from the public purse and in the public interest. A National Housing Company can plan and deliver home insulation, a Scottish Energy Development Agency can plan and manage this entire transition and a Scottish National Energy Company can deliver the work and then own our energy system on the public’s behalf.

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