Regular readers will know that one of Common Weal’s longest running and most passionate campaigns has been around the pulling of Scotland’s energy resources back into public ownership. We’ve campaigned for a public energy strategy since before our inception as an independent think tank. We’ve won several policy motions at several party conferences and shaped the policy on energy within the SNP, Greens and Labour. Even the Lib Dems – who are about as ideologically against public ownership as it gets – have supported our work calling out the flaws in the ScotWind auction.
One of the keystone papers in our policy library on this topic is Powering Our Ambitions, a blueprint for creating a National Energy Company that would own Scotland’s energy assets and ensure that the profits from energy generation and supply stay in Scotland and aren’t hived off by multinational fossil fuel companies and the public energy companies owned by other governments.
Throughout this campaign we’ve been fighting as much against the Scottish Government as we have with them. The full story of that fight was detailed in an article that I and Keith Baker wrote in The National last year from initial acceptance by the Scottish Government, through their pulling back to a more limited “retail only” plan that was eventually scrapped just days before an SNP conference that voted by overwhelming majority to continue the plans. We’ve seen the Greens similarly flip from whole-hearted support of public energy being a core part of their (still unpublished) Green New Deal plan to plans being dropped from the agenda when they signed the Bute House Agreement.
Meanwhile, Wales is pushing ahead with their own public energy company and Scotland risks falling so far behind that I’m starting to wonder if Wales might soon be in a position to own more of Scotland’s renewable energy assets than Scotland ever will.
We’ve seen the Scottish Government push multiple excuses as to why we shouldn’t publicly own our own energy. We’ve heard them and their allies say that we shouldn’t have a National company because we should have a network of community companies instead (something that Powering Our Ambitions allows for), though their draft energy statement also says that we shouldn’t have them either because of the lack of access to borrowing that we’ve also been campaigning for them to fight for. You’ll have noticed the pattern by now. Every time an objection has been raised, we’ve shown them how to overcome it and they’ve responded by picking another objection.
The latest one came out of the blue during one of our meetings but I’ve been reliably informed has been offered to other activists since. That is that the Scotland Act itself blocks the possibility of Scottish publicly owned energy. Fine…so we’re escalating all the way to yet another constitutional fight are we? Common Weal is no stranger to those either.
Officials have been vague with us about precisely which part of the Scotland Act is the objection here but I think it’s likely to be buried in Section D1 of the reserved powers in Schedule 5.
Faced with this pretty stark and outwardly unassailable restriction, I fall back on the final words of the Scottish Climate Assembly in their disappointed Statement of Response to the Government’s reply to their report. “Government needs to think less about what they can’t do and instead demonstrate a positive attitude, thinking hard about how they can make things happen.”
So how could a National Energy Company be built in a way that complies with the Act?
1) Fight for the Power
The first response may be to fight against the injustice of the Scotland Act, to recognise that times have moved on in the quarter century since it was passed and to demand the devolution of energy powers to Scotland. At the very least to campaign for parity with Wales to unambiguously allow Scotland to copy their plans.
The law as written is obviously absurd. Does this mean that the Scottish Government must remove the solar PV panels from the buildings it owns? They generate electricity and, assuming they’re tied with a feed-in tariff, they transmit and supply electricity. Do we go further and demand the confiscation of the batteries from the stationary cupboards in the Government’s offices? They supply electricity. That electricity is distributed with every requisition order. Not every bad or outdated law is a sign that democracy itself is under attack (in this case, the Scottish Government agreed to the changes to the Scotland Act in 2016 that led to us not getting the same powers that Wales got then) but it is still the duty of democrats to ensure that laws are fit for purpose and the precedent down south gives Scotland a good case for those laws just as our powers over the Crown Estate is being used as precedent for their campaign for more devolution there too. There’s power in solidarity. We should use it.
2) Different kinds of Power
Note that the language of the Scotland Act is very specific. It reserves powers over electricity. The UK is decades (almost a century) behind the rest of Europe in terms of energy infrastructure and we almost entirely lack the kind of expansive district heat networks that other countries consider to be entirely normal. If Scotland’s National Energy Company can’t have power over electricity then it can have power over heat. The heat strategy in our Common Home Plan is largely based around such networks for this reason – Scotland’s green ambitions should not be bottlenecked by the rate that the UK allows us to travel because they won’t reinforce the Grid fast enough to keep up. Solar thermal panels and geothermal systems could feed into interseasonal heat storage systems in the same way that Denmark has been doing for almost a decade. Properly designed, it can be cheaper to transport heat to homes than it is to transport electricity or gas to those same homes to be turned into heat. If there’s enough wiggle room in the Scotland Act to allow electricity generators that aren’t connected to the Grid to use their electricity entirely on-site, then these heat stores can be supplemented with solar PV and wind turbines as required (if it does not, then perhaps the Scottish Government needs to rethink its “Green Hydrogen” strategy and give any emergency diesel generators it owns back to Westminster). Decarbonising heat is a much bigger problem than decarbonising electricity (at least, assuming we don’t electrify all of our heat generation) but it’s one that could be solved by the Scottish Government in a way that keeps those assets in public hands.
The point here being again that instead of stumbling at a knee-high barrier and declaring it to be impassable, the Scottish Government should look at what is not fenced off and do that instead.
3) Decentralise Power
The Scotland Act as a constitutional document is largely framed around restricting the actions of the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament. I think the critical flaw in the Scottish Government’s thinking on energy is that they don’t see far past this. One of our major critiques of the National Care Service Bill when it was introduced was that it essentially centralised all power over care in Scotland away from Local Authorities and gave the Scottish Ministers powers of diktat over the entire sector. We see the same pattern in public ownership of trains and ferries in Scotland but, crucially, the fact that buses would be better served in public ownership at a local level perhaps betrays why efforts to nationalise that aspect of public transport have been so much weaker. I believe that the Scottish Government would prefer to take the same approach with public ownership of energy – to centralise all of the power within the Ministers – and the fact that this is explicitly blocked by the Scotland Act means their heart just isn’t in it to find another way.
Despite the fact that not only is another way possible in Scotland – the Scottish Government actually supported it! Until a few years ago, Aberdeen Council owned a stake in an offshore wind farm via its ownership of the arms-length company Aberdeen Renewable Energy Group. This model of arms-length ownership and funding could be replicated across all Local Authorities in Scotland or it could be combined with community projects and community groups to form public-public partnerships. The ultimate form of decentralisation would be a National Mutual company which would be legally private but owned by the Scottish public directly – every adult permanent resident in Scotland would be granted one non-transferable share in the company (given up if they no longer reside in Scotland) that would entitle All of Us to have a say in how it managed assets. Imagine an annual vote over how profits from the company could be disbursed – choose from linked sliding scales between issuing a dividend to shareholders (i.e. us), subsidising next year’s energy bills or investing in future infrastructure. Then have another vote to help guide where that infrastructure should go. The lesson here is that power need not lie solely with a single Minister and power should not be denied to others if that one person can’t have it.
As I write this, it’s just been confirmed that Common Weal will be involved with a project being run this summer between SOAS University London and the London School of Economics that will further develop our blueprints for public-owned energy in Scotland, including what the public-public or national mutual models could look like in practice. I can’t wait to show you all the results.
I had hoped that the changing of the guard in the Scottish Government would have opened up new ideas about energy and the distribution of power. Humza Yousaf was elected on promises of community ownership and of creating a “New Deal” with local government. Those promises are only small steps compared to what could be done but I fear that they will still be premised on centralisation and maintaining power within the hands of a chosen few rather than being built from the ground up on a principle of subsidiarity and local ownership.
The question before us in this is what is government’s energy strategy supposed to do? Is it supposed to make Scotland a greener, fairer place that works for All of Us? Or is it merely about power and the hands that hold it?