Whether we like it or not we are in the fossil-fuel age- but the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones. If we’re to address the ecological demands and societal needs of a growing population, we need to radically rethink how we approach our energy generation in the 21st century. If the environmentalist lobby is to make any headway in this, it sorely needs to shake loose the imagery of the tree-hugger and the handcuffs-on-railings. For too long the narrative has been allowed to be the hairy, job-dodging hippies versus the big, economic powerhouses and fat cats. “Close down the mines, shut down the refineries, save the whales!” Whilst these are entirely, environmentally speaking, justifiable positions, they’re not a realistic platform on which to campaign.
The Environmentalist movement needs to be smarter, and it needs to be cynical. People working on rigs aren’t about to vote Green and make themselves unemployed (hence, amongst other reasons (http://parisdan.wordpress.com/2014/10/12/who-votes-green/), the Greens’ woeful electoral performance in the North East of Scotland). We as environmentalists need to look past the whales and the comic-book villainy and speak in terms of cold, hard economics because an environmental revolution would also be a miraculous job-creator, force of decentralisation, and force of empowerment for communities.
Traditionally, energy generation has played into the hands of the incredibly rich and powerful, and centralised power (quite literally) in the hands of the few. Giant power stations powered by fossil fuels extracted by multinational corporations sent along limited transmission networks has long been the preferred method- it is also mutually exclusive with a sustainable energy agenda. The main advantage traditional generation has is that it is predictable and controllable- we can anticipate peaks in demand and switch on reactors fairly easily. When there is excess production, we store it using pumped-storage hydro dams or by wasting it through heaters or giant rotors. When there are peaks in demand, we open up the pumped storage and switch on more fossil fuel plants. It’s a system which, to coin an engineering phrase, works in practise but not theory, and has served us well so far, allowing control down to the level of seconds, Hertz and Watts.
This method also means profit. Profit for the transmission companies, profit for those extracting oil in the Middle East or coal in China, profit from fracking gas out of English groundwater. When the energy networks were privatised in the 80s, we put our energy security in the hands of the markets. It’s also a pretty convenient mechanism for siphoning public money directly to private companies through subsidies and Winter Fuel Allowance – which subsidises high fuel bills directly in much the same way Housing Benefit subsidises landlords charging too much for rent.
Before the energy networks were privatised, they were heavily over-engineered. Since the 80s we’ve largely retained the same transmission infrastructure as we’ve had since then, and it’s served us well, but investment dried up in what was essentially a buck-passing exercise between generators, the taxpayer, and National Grid. Having separate, profit-seeking operators for generation, operation, and transmission means that it’s always someone else’s responsibility, and that approach is now actively inhibiting our renewables revolution. Due to a combination of private land ownership, depopulation, poor planning, and profit-motive from the energy sector, we’re in a situation where the areas from which we can extract the most energy in the Highlands and Islands are the areas least integrated into the energy generation networks- areas in sore need of investment and job-creating opportunities, decimated by centuries of neglect.
Due to the manner of devolution and the nature of development, it could actually end up being easier for us to build undersea cables from the North East of Scotland to the Borders (in doing so, we’d also have to pay the Crown Estate for use of the seabed) to carry wind and wave energy than improve the infrastructure we have in the North of Scotland. It simply isn’t profitable to go through the morass of planning to build more infrastructure in such remote areas. The problem is that if we’re to meet our targets of renewable energy generation, more transmission is exactly what we need. We also need local communities invested in the benefit of renewable generation and to reindustrialise our country to supply what is soon going to be a pan-European energy network.
Every stage of renewable generation is going to create jobs; we need electrical engineers to set up the pylons; we need engineers to design and assemble the wind turbines and wave machines; we need technicians to operate and maintain the networks; we need planners to create the schemes. In short, there are thousands of jobs to be created by investment in renewable energy – high skilled, well-paying jobs with exportable products and skills. However, having a fractured energy infrastructure completely stymies our ambitions for this. We can’t build wind-turbines if there’s nowhere for the energy to go. We can’t sell our energy to the rest of Europe if there isn’t enough capacity to shift the electricity about. We can’t stop our reliance on foreign oil from despotic regimes in the Middle East.
Renewable energy is intermittent, variable, and uncertain so we need to have a diverse portfolio to accommodate this as well as encouraging micro-generation schemes in remote communities. The problem is we haven’t implemented the systems yet because the market hasn’t created any incentive for corporations to do so. All the technology we need already exists but is largely underutilised because thermal fossil-fuel based energy generation suits the rich and powerful perfectly. We’re reliant on buying fuel and electricity from huge corporations to heat our homes and power our industries- but you don’t have to buy the wind from anyone, and nobody can cut off the waves.
If we’re to rely on renewable energy we need to pool resources, not just across the UK, but across the whole EU. Improving the integration of our energy networks can help us to sell our electricity to the English grid when the wind blows and buy it from Ireland, Iceland, or Norway when it doesn’t, because as we develop renewable capacity we need to vastly increase transmission capacity to meet the variability of generation. The weakness of renewables is also in many ways one of its greatest strengths- it relies on numerous, diverse, energy sources, many of which are creative ways of dealing with waste we create (such as bioethanol, biobutanol or biogas, made from waste food and other byproducts).
Much of the energy infrastructure of the 80s is reaching the end of its lifecycle, so we now stand at a most opportune moment. The left should be screaming about this- it’s the greatest opportunity we’ve ever had to wrest free of corporate control a fundamental component of our lives. We can end fuel poverty and take money that was once flowing to gargantuan corporations or foreign state companies and instead put it back into communities which sorely need it.
In the future, land reform could help transform the poverty of the Highlands and Islands into the powerhouse of the British Isles and allow the people of these regions to prosper sustainably. Facilitating community ownership of land would allow communities to invest in developing schemes whilst profiting from selling the excess energy generation, which is described in the Land Reform Review Group’s report, published in May 2014 (http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/0045/00451597.pdf). When it comes to energy developments themselves, this is, of course, still a reserved issue so the Scottish Government’s hands are tied behind its back.
What we can do, however, is ensure public finance is available to facilitate communities buying out unproductive private land and developing their own schemes like Yell’s, which was supported by the Scottish Government’s Community and Renewable Energy Scheme (Cares) and local Government. We could save millions of pounds from welfare by developing affordable energy schemes in deprived areas (be they urban or rural). This would help end the subsidy to corporations of high fuel bills through Winter Fuel Allowance without adversely affecting the lives of those who would need it. This could be done via local authorities, community organisations, or central Government. Rather than just cutting welfare, we can reduce bills and tangibly improve both lives and sustainability through developing cheap energy like micro wind turbines or solar panels in urban areas or larger scale community projects like Yell’s.
There once was the dream that “we will make electricity so cheap, only the rich will use candles” (Thomas Edison) – green energy gives us a chance to make it a reality, and create thousands of jobs while doing so. Community tidal schemes like the one on Yell need to become the rule, not the exception- and a key first step to this process is taking energy back into public ownership and ending the short-sightedness with which our energy infrastructure has been handled since the 1980s. Improving renewable energy supply in Scotland will not only help Scotland, but the entirety of the British Isles as we reduce our reliance on foreign fuel imports and embrace clean, cheap, safe, and sustainable energy.
[Image credit: David Clarke, https://www.flickr.com/photos/daveclarkecb/%5D