Scotland’s Energy Plan Is Ambitious, But Is It Realistic?

Editor’s Note: EarthTechling, always looking to forward the cleantech revolution discussion, is proud to present this article via a cross post from partner National Geographic Society. Author credit goes to Natalia Bonilla.

As the COP17 conference concluded in South Africa with what has been called “modest” progress on stemming climate change, a bolder plan in Scotland to reduce emissions and move toward renewable energy faces criticism over costs and lack of planning.

government audit released this month found that Scotland’s plan to reduce emissions by 42 percent within the next decade could cost as much as £11 billion ($17 billion), with no clear indication of where that money would come from.

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The emissions target “is far more ambitious than U.K. and European Union goals, and the Scottish Government is dependent on action by others to achieve it,” the Audit Scotland release said, citing particular challenges in the transport sector.

One “formidable but achievable goal” at the heart of Scotland’s plan to reduce emissions, as outlined in the 2020 Routemap for Renewable Energy updated this year, is to derive 30 percent of its overall energy, and 100 percent of its electricity, from renewable sources by 2020. As with similar efforts to grow clean energy in the United States, the Scottish government is touting the effort as a means to greater employment and investment opportunity; it estimates that renewables could provide up to 40,000 jobs and £30 billion ($47 billion) in development investment.

Thanks to its strong investment in hydropower and wind energy, which includespartnering with Ireland on offshore efforts, Scotland is well along on its goals for electricity generation. The government says nearly 30 percent of electricity demand is met by renewables. And plans are under way for an offshore wind farm that could supply electricity to more than 1 million homes, according to the developer.

However, a November report from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (ImechE) pointed out that electricity “is by far the smallest of the three fields of energy demand in Scotland,” outpaced by heating and transport needs.

“Much more emphasis needs to be placed on developing the use of renewable energy sources for heat and transport in order to meet the overall renewable energy targets [set by the government],” the report said, echoing Audit Scotland.

Other critics of Scotland’s ambitious strategy fault the potential costs associated with renewables; planning hurdles for wind farm developers; and the impact on consumers.

“The great unanswered question on renewable energy is regarding its long term cost to consumers. Offshore wind energy at the moment looks as if it is becoming one of the most expensive ways of generating electricity, certainly in comparison to fossil fuels and even nuclear. With no long term guarantees currently existing over the future of [government incentives for renewables], we need greater clarity over what Scotland needs, how it can be delivered and at what cost,” Liz Cameron of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce said at a recent event for business leaders.

Even without its own targets, Scotland is bound by the U.K. commitment to reach a 15-percent energy share for renewables by 2020. British policies to support that goal, along with a 50 percent reduction in emissions by 2027, will most certainly raise power and gas bills, particularly for corporate consumers, Energy Secretary Chris Huhne said last month.

The Great Energy Challenge is an important three-year National Geographic initiative designed to help all of us better understand the breadth and depth of our current energy situation. National Geographic has assembled some of the world’s foremost researchers and scientists to help tackle the challenge. Led by Thomas Lovejoy, a National Geographic conservation fellow and renowned biologist, the team of advisers will work together to identify and provide support for projects focused on innovative energy solutions.

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