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Two-way traffic to keep the lights on

THE Scottish Government's independent Expert Commission on Energy Regulation published its findings this week and came to a conclusion that, for once, both sides in the referendum debate could agree upon.

The panel, which has been considering the implications of independence both for power companies and consumers, said sticking with Britain's present integrated energy market would be the best outcome for everyone. Alex Salmond welcomed the report. "It is in our common interest to share energy resources across our borders," he said. The No campaign agreed, filing the report and its main conclusion in the box marked "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", along with sterling and other UK-wide arrangements (university research funding, for example) which the SNP aims to retain in an independent Scotland.

There agreement ended, however. While Robert Armour, chairman of the expert commission, said a shared energy market was possible with a little "goodwill and co-operation", the UK's Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) insisted the present system "could not continue in its present form". The row that followed focused on the possible consequences for Scotland's rapidly expanding renewables industry, which currently receives one-third of all the subsidies paid out by UK consumers.

The expert commission said cross-border subsidies should continue. DECC was adamant they would not. Scottish-generated wind power would be imported on a purely commercial basis, the ministry said. In other words, if the rest of the UK could buy low-carbon nuclear power more cheaply from France or the Netherlands, so be it. On this, the UK Government's hand appears to have been strengthened by a recent European Court ruling which established that governments were not obliged to include foreign-generated power in their own subsidy regimes. It is also worth noting the single Irish energy market, one of the cross-border examples used to argue that an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK could continue as now, does not operate cross-border subsidies.

The row will surely rumble on to referendum day itself, but the future of Scotland's renewables industry is only half the story. Ever since the First Minister famously declared Scotland could become "the Saudi Arabia of green energy" the Scottish Government has viewed the UK market as an opportunity to export vast amounts of low-carbon electricity to an England struggling to meet its environmental obligations.

But, as The Herald reports today, it is not all one-way traffic along Britain's interconnectors. Scotland has begun to import electricity from the rest of the UK. The amounts are not high. Over the past three years, some English-generated power has been required on 162 days. However, on 10 occasions, power was imported right through the day to meet Scotland's needs and experts believe the situation will worsen as the country's non-renewable power stations are due to close.

In an article for the latest edition of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society's magazine, The Geographer, Professor Paul Younger of Glasgow University argues that, with nuclear power stations Hunterston B and Torness due to close in 2023, and ageing, coal-fired Longannet not expected to last beyond 2025, there is barely enough time to build replacements that can provide the baseload, or constantly available, electricity essential when the wind fails to blow.

With the SNP set against new coal or nuclear, the only option is a new generation of gas-fired power stations, even though most North Sea gas fields lie off the coast of England.

Professor Younger, one of the country's most respected experts in energy engineering, is equally unimpressed with energy planning down south. England has similar problems, he says, and there are is no guarantee going forward it will have spare capacity to feed power north when Scotland is in need. It is an alarming assessment but, as things stand, it certainly underlines the importance to Scotland of being part of an integrated British market, not just for exporting increasing amounts of green energy but also for importing supplies when the turbines are not turning.

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