Lesley Riddoch: How Britain could avoid repeating the mistakes of the past on energy

BBC News talks repeatedly of the “worldwide energy crisis”. Yet during a recent online event, speakers from five Nordic nations were asked if they’ve experienced energy shortages. The answer was a collective No.

A steel boss on Radio Scotland said other countries avoid Britain’s dependence on gas by using coal and nuclear. But that’s not the combination used by any of our Nordic neighbours. Are they just too northern, too rich and too darned clever to get a mention?

Whatever – it’s a shame because their planned, far-sighted approach to energy security is precisely what Britain needs now. Not the chaotic dash from gas Boris Johnson is about to unleash. Norway depends largely on hydro and heat pumps for energy – not the oil and gas it exports to complacent neighbours.

So, energy security is built in and Norway isn’t bothered when President Putin flexes his political muscles. Scotland could have followed Norway’s path – besides sharing offshore oil and gas reserves, hydro’s long been a part of our energy mix, and our engineering heritage means the heat pumps used in Drammen to extract heat from sea water, are actually manufactured in Glasgow. But heat pumps haven’t been pushed in Britain because we relied instead on North Sea oil and gas imports and failed to develop the district heating systems that power most North European cities.

When technology changes elsewhere, it’s relatively simple to upgrade the heat pumps that drive district heating instead of forcing citizens to buy new individual kit. Britain’s free for all approach means lots of boilers, lots of cost for individual households, lots of fuel poverty and lots of profit for private gas suppliers. Norway’s public, planned approach creates affordable, renewable and secure heating delivered by public sector operators.

Margaret Thatcher’s energy privatisation failed to future-proof British citizens in a lot of ways, but failing to convert individual gas boilers into urban district heating systems was one of the biggest. Norway’s other great advantage is that its hydro resource is baseload, a constant source of energy available at the flick of a switch which can even out the intermittency of wind. Scottish Hydro does the same job, but tidal energy – also baseload but not yet ready for mass generation – is in danger of stalling, partly because Westminster won’t earmark funds for development.

If Scotland was independent or controlled energy policy (like devolved territories of Denmark) our parliament could ring-fence cash to stop our lead in tidal technology shifting to Canada or Indonesia, to keep tidal manufacturing jobs here and to enhance energy security by adding another renewable resource to our diversified energy kit-bag. With such control, Scotland could have participated in the green ‘North Sea polo’ grid proposed ten years ago and explored connections with Iceland which also has a surfeit of baseload geothermal energy. But as part of short-termist, just-in-time Britain, energy security in Scotland – the Saudi Arabia of renewables – is ropey.

Our wind and hydro help keep lights on in England, but we are supplied by the same National Grid so our baseload depends on old nuclear plants and – of course – gas. Maddeningly, it’s too late to emulate Norway’s energy savviness. So that’s why the experience of another Nordic country may have greater relevance now; 92% of Denmark’s energy consumption came from imported oil until the OPEC crisis of 1973 delivered a seismic shock and a bold new energy strategy, backed by all political parties.

When world oil prices finally dropped, they were kept at 1973 levels in Denmark and car imports were taxed to the hilt, while public transport was made more affordable and reliable and cities like Copenhagen were turned into cycling cities. Like every other North Sea state, Denmark did expand natural gas production but made an even bigger shift into district heating and wind energy. Now 42% of electricity comes from wind and Vestas, headquartered in Aarhus, dominates the world’s wind turbine production.

Yet Denmark’s wind resource is only a fraction of Scotland’s in strength and constancy. That world leader should have been us. But Danish politicians saw the energy crises of the 1970s as a wake-up call and took bold, collective action to phase out oil-fired power plants – ours didn’t.

Denmark does import some hydro and nuclear from neighbours but has gone from 100% dependence on imported fossil fuels to the OECD’s most energy secure and sustainable country today, cutting emissions and improving the competitiveness of Danish manufacturing as the oil price steadily rises. Despite changes of government since 1973, Denmark’s basic energy strategy hasn’t changed – a function of the consensual government that tends to arise from proportional, not first-past-the-post voting. So, can Boris Johnson turn this into ‘a good crisis’ as the Danes did in 1973 and massively expand renewables, end dependency on gas and do it all without passing crippling costs on to consumers?

Not a chance. Quite evidently political will and renewable vision are completely missing from the British Cabinet. The Department for Energy and Climate Change presided over cuts to onshore wind, solar and community energy, scrapped tax exemptions for renewable energy, scrapped Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) projects in Scotland and sold off the Green Investment Bank, before being axed by Theresa May in 2016.

So now, facing COP 26 and the climate crisis, Britain doesn’t even have a dedicated energy and climate change minister. By contrast, the Danish Energy Agency steers its long-term strategy, Norwegian Hydro is effectively owned by local councils and Norway’s oil/renewables giant Equinor is two-thirds state-owned. Will the British state take any stake in our energy future?

As OVO’s Stephen Fitzpatrick pointed out on yesterday’s Marr programme, energy insecurity cannot be tackled on a four-year electoral cycle and the tax system could finance a more progressive and planned shift from gas than surcharging individual energy bills. Was anyone listening? Naturally, the imminent prospect of higher bills and acute fuel poverty focuses minds.

But if citizens don’t demand energy security from government with big, bold Danish-style change, Britain will not emerge from this crisis but simply mitigate, postpone and endlessly repeat it.

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