Towards the end of this year, a final investment decision is due to be taken on the NorthConnect project which by 2024 would import surplus hydro electricity from the Hardanger region of Norway into Scotland, at Boddam, via a 400-mile interconnector.
The rationale for the project is clear. Scotland, and the UK as a whole, are rapidly becoming more dependent upon generation from renewables, particularly wind, which are characterised by intermittency.
How is that back-up to be provided? That is a very big question which is currently attracting a wide range of answers, some of them complementary and others in direct competition with each other. There is little sign of strategic planning in response to a critical national imperative.
Are we to import via interconnectors or promote indigenous solutions? Is reliance on imported gas an acceptable response when the stated objective is to reduce reliance on fossil fuels? What will battery technology finally offer, and when?
NorthConnect is an interesting piece within that jigsaw, not least because it was promoted with such enthusiasm by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon when she addressed a business audience in Oslo recently. “It would help both Scotland and Norway to reduce our carbon emissions while increasing our energy security,” she declared.
“I very much hope that we see it go ahead. On days when the wind doesn’t blow … it would enable electricity from Norway’s hydroelectric schemes to meet some of Scotland’s electricity needs. And on windy days, surplus electricity from Scottish wind farms could be transferred to Norway and Scandinavia.”
That all sounds fine and dandy though one might wonder how often Norway would require Scotland’s wind power, given its own vast hydro resources. The question for us is whether importing hydro power from Norway will do much good for the Scottish economy if it conflicts with the potential for developing our own solutions.
Just before Christmas, Norway’s Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE) produced a report which found that “the project (would have) very positive socio-economic outcomes for Norway, generating a surplus of £850 million”.
Perhaps a similar piece of work should be commissioned by the Scottish Government to see what our own bottom line might look like. The same approach should then be applied to other part-solutions on offer, not least to the development of Scotland’s remaining Pumped Storage Hydro potential.
When NorthConnect was first mooted in 2011, its chairman, Odd Oygarden, said: “We have quite considerable pumped storage in Norway at this time and we are assessing the possibilities of bigger capacities”.
Initially, there were five partners in the scheme – three Norwegian energy companies, Sweden’s Vattenfall and SSE.
In 2013, SSE dropped out to concentrate on its “core projects” in the UK. These included vast investments in offshore wind and also the development of several Pumped Storage Hydro (PSH) schemes. At present, there are firm proposals for more than 4GW of PSH in Scotland, from the Highlands down to the Borders. The proposed NorthConnect capacity is 1.4GW.
From a UK-wide perspective, there is an obvious reason for supporting NorthConnect – it is just one more tool in the box to ensure energy security and all the better that it is from a renewable source. Similarly, the EU has supported NorthConnect with a 10 million euro development grant as it fits the ambitions for trans-European networks and carbon reduction.
For Scotland, however, the issues are slightly different. If NorthConnect is complementary to the development of our own resources – creating jobs and business for the supply chain – then that’s fine. If it is an alternative, then not so fine.
We need to see a coherent strategy rather than isolated support for a specific project without placing it in that wider context.
And it is not all plain sailing for NorthConnect in Norway. Sceptics maintain that selling Norwegian hydro power to Europe via interconnectors is bound to raise the price of electricity at home. They need to see how the other two interconnector projects with Denmark and Germany impact upon the domestic market before endorsing NorthConnect.
We should have the same kind of debate in Scotland and the UK as a whole.
I know National Grid has been working on various scenarios for energy security as the transition to renewables gathers pace but that discussion needs to be shared with a wider audience.
Leaving outcomes to the market is unlikely to produce the best results for either the economy or environment. This is surely a subject on which the Scottish Government should provide an essential overview of how it sees our energy future.
At a time when the abysmal failure to turn Scotland’s renewables into “the second industrial revolution” is finally becoming a significant political issue, it is essential there is a plan for the future that goes beyond welcoming imports via interconnector.
We have it on good authority that NorthConnect would be worth £850m to the Norwegian economy. It is not unreasonable to ask: “What’s in it for Scotland?”
Brian Wilson is a former UK energy minister