Fracking, solar, wind or nuclear … which way now for the great Scottish energy debate?

Speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival 2013 George Monbiot argued that we need nuclear power to help us respond to climate change.  He challenged a number of preconceptions about nuclear power, arguing that concerns over the safety of nuclear power plants have been greatly exaggerated and that we cannot allow our misconceptions to blind us to its advantages.  While he made it clear he was not a fan of the nuclear industry or its managers he argued forcibly that nuclear power is a source of low carbon energy we cannot afford to ignore.  You can find a short statement of his views on his website

At the same event Professor Sue Roaf, of Heriot Watt University argued with equal passion that advances in solar power meant that we should now embrace it more fully in Scotland.  Despite our cloudy skies, recent developments in solar technology mean that efficiency has improved and costs have come down and we should all now benefit.  This would give householders an opportunity to lower their carbon footprint and their energy bills.

Meanwhile, in the same week David Cameron, the Prime Minister, wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph, declared his support for fracking in Britain, arguing that it would lower fuel bills, create jobs and benefit local communities.   Notably he suggested it should go ahead in the south of England, unlike the Tory peer Lord Howell who, in a debate in the House of Lords, expressed the opinion that fracking was more appropriate in the ‘desolate’ north of England.

All of this suggests that the energy debate is well and truly underway and that we are approaching a time when critical decisions will have to be taken about the future direction of Scottish and UK energy policy.

The Scottish Government has set its face against nuclear, is distancing itself from fracking but supports the continued development of offshore oil and gas in Scottish waters.  It is also strongly supportive of wind power, both on land and offshore.  The UK Government supports new nuclear power stations and now appears to support fracking but seems less convinced about wind power, at least in areas where it arouses local controversy.

In part this reflects different circumstances between Scotland and the rest of the UK.   Scotland has the biggest wind resource and the lion’s share of North Sea oil and gas.  A recent report from the British Geological Survey suggested the north of England is sitting on vast reserves of gas that might be accessible by fracking.  But what would happen if surveys found similar huge reserves of shale gas under the central belt of Scotland and what if windfarm protestors in Scotland gained the upper hand and blocked the development of wind resources as appears to be happening  in parts of the south of England?

In order to meet the Scottish Government target of an 80% cut in the emission of greenhouse gases by 2050 the decisions we take in the next year or two will be critical.  From the perspective of the Church of Scotland we need to approach this with a clear ethical mind.  The Church is a member of the Stop Climate Chaos Scotland coalition and strongly supports the Scottish Government climate change targets.  Equally, we are concerned about the extent of fuel poverty in Scotland and energy policy must seek to reduce or remove fuel poverty as an objective.  These two objectives are a guide to policy making, but which energy solutions will help us move quickly towards them?    The question may be easy to pose but in the confusing welter of claim and counter claim from different protagonists the answer is by no means easy to discern.     We need the debate to be well informed and we need it quickly as the wrong decision could tie us into developments we could be stuck with for decades to come.

Adrian Shaw, Climate Change Officer, Church of Scotland

August 2013