Have we the energy for Scottish independence?

Opinion by Energy Voice

IF EVER there was an issue that has resulted in some of the most outrageous and irresponsible commentary from people who really ought to know better, it has to be the possible consequences of Scottish independence on Scotland’s energy policy.

First, the basics. The morning after independence is declared nobody is going to come along and chop through pipelines and cables connecting Scotland to the rump of the UK. There will be no energy “separatism”.

Most of Europe and Scandinavia already is connected, and it is well known that discussions have been going on regarding a new interconnector between Scotland and Norway. So that’s myth number one dealt with.

Most of the bile has, however, been directed towards the current Scottish Government’s alleged “no-nuclear” policy and its determination to generate the equivalent of 100% of Scotland’s electricity need using renewables.

One of the main objections to nuclear power in Scotland has been the problem of dealing with waste. This issue still hasn’t been fully resolved at a UK level, although the Department of Energy and Climate Change recently repeated jts view that geological storage is the best option.

DECC is attempting to encourage communities to propose sites that will enable it to achieve its aim of having a disposal site operational before 2030, but, unsurprisingly, so far only a couple have come forward. As far as I’m aware nowhere in Scotland has volunteered.

So, that’s one ongoing problem that doesn’t seem to want to go away in a hurry, and indeed adds logic to the recent statement by Holyrood that it is happy to see Scottish reactor working life extended to the late 2020s or beyond. Hopefully that will give sufficient time for DECC’s plans to come to fruition.

Then there is the potential danger presented by an engineering failure. I personally think that unlikely, although not impossible. However, the simplest things can cause major problems, as was demonstrated recently when jellyfish blocked the cooling water filters at Torness power station, which is sits on the east coast near Dunbar.

While the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami were tragedies in all senses of the word, it was also disastrous for their nuclear power sector, yet it is claimed that such events could never occur here.

However, a few weeks ago an earthquake of magnitude of 3.9 on the Richter scale struck the middle of the English Channel, 60km south-east of the Isle of Wight. Although not major, it was one of the largest recorded for some time. Perhaps best then we should never say “never”.

Then there’s the economics. Without subsidies which aren’t supposed to be forthcoming, who in these trying economic times could actually afford to build a series of new nuclear reactors?

With the future of the euro in doubt and the UK’s economy barely growing, would you take the investment risk with or without government guarantees?

In short, the nuclear issue is horribly complex.

The current Scottish Government has also established a policy favouring maritime renewables – wind, wave and tidal. I have written before on the subject of exploiting the opportunity as well as the resource and, while nobody can deny the marine resource potential is huge, there is still a long haul ahead before we can say with any confidence that Scottish industry will get as much out of this new industry as it ought.

Could independence help? Well, it’s not unreasonable to say that if Scotland had its own stock exchange, its own banks and, dare I say, even its own national energy company, then the situation couldn’t really fail to be a whole lot better than it is now, where really we have no national champions supporting Scottish companies, UK levels of R&D funding are pathetically low and finding equity for clean technology start-ups remains a major challenge.

Evidence that small but properly focused countries can succeed industrially lies just across the North Sea in Norway, where they are rapidly developing viable maritime renewables. They have already developed hydrogen electrolysers and other technologies, including highly efficient electric motors and generators.

Of course, that’s following on from their having developed a highly successful oil and gas supply chain. So, if it’s worked for the Norwegians then I see no reason why it wouldn’t work for Scotland.

Technology is of course key to an independent Scotland having a successful energy future. If we want to use wind successfully we know we will need energy storage to deal with the intermittency issue. That may also apply to wave energy. We still need coal or gas and that requires carbon capture but not necessarily sequestration. There are now better things to do with the carbon including producing liquid fuels. We should also look at more hydro.

But could we still have nuclear? Thorium-based molten salt reactor systems would appear to be considerably safer, produce far less waste and could be cheaper. China and India will tell us that. They’re spending money on it. Interestingly, independent Norway has huge Thorium reserves. I bet they won’t leave them in the ground.

Then there’s the tax thing. Does anyone doubt that Scotland would take a more strategic approach to taxing the oil and gas sector? I think not.

Scottish energy independence could lead to an industrial resurgence regardless of who is in power. Norway seems to do well regardless of which party is running the shop. It’s an attitude we need to emulate.

o Adviser/analyst Dick Winchester has decades of offshore sector experience