OFFICIAL figures slipped out by the Scottish Government over the holiday period underlined the huge challenges it will face achieving its renewable energy ambitions as the risks it will frighten off investment in vital gas fields increased.

The Energy Statistics for Scotland report which was issued on December 23 showed that the target for all of the electricity used in the country to come from renewable sources by the end of 2020 was missed.

As some 98.6% of electricity used came from renewable sources in 2020, some might feel it is wrong to read too much into the numbers. The report was issued around a year after the end of the period concerned.

There was lots of noise from the Scottish Government last year about how the country has been leading the way in the effort to cut emissions. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon took advantage of the fact the COP26 climate summit was held in Glasgow in November to court the environmental lobby weeks after the SNP struck a co-operation agreement with the Scottish Greens.

HeraldScotland: First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at the launch of the European Offshore Wind Deployment Centre in Aberdeen Bay Picture: Jeff Mitchell/Getty ImagesFirst Minister Nicola Sturgeon at the launch of the European Offshore Wind Deployment Centre in Aberdeen Bay Picture: Jeff Mitchell/Getty Images

In the Energy Statistics report, Michael Matheson, Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport, declared: “Scotland is leading the way internationally with our commitment to be net zero by 2045. This statement shows we are continuing to make good progress with the equivalent of 98.6% of gross electricity consumption being from renewable sources in 2020, which is up from 89.8% in 2019.”

He added: “Whilst we do have many challenges ahead of us ... we have laid the groundwork in 2021 for Scotland to take important leaps forward towards net zero.”

We will have to wait until later this year for the Scottish Government to publish its new energy strategy and the plan for how it expects the country to achieve the just transition to a net zero economy.

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Mr Matheson did not highlight some figures included in the report in respect of the third quarter of 2021 which make clear that simply increasing renewable energy capacity in Scotland may not do much to address the climate change challenge.

The report states: “Renewable electricity capacity has increased over the past year to 12.2 GW in September 2021, up 0.5 GW since September 2020.”

It notes that there are 15.2 GW of renewable electricity projects in the pipeline in Scotland, with 2.8 GW currently under construction.

However, the report found that the amount of renewable energy generated in Scotland in the third quarter of 2021 was down 35 per cent on the same quarter of 2020.

It added: “Compared to the first three quarters of 2020, generation is down 22.3%. This follows continued mild weather over the year, with wind generation down 37.1% in 2021 Q3 compared to 2020 Q3, and hydro generation down 45.6%.”

The findings highlight the fact that the amount of energy that key renewable sources can generate is largely dependent on weather conditions.

READ MORE: ScottishPower feels gas price impact as windfarm output falls

Nevertheless, the release containing the statistics trumpets the fact that renewables represented 60% of the electricity generation mix in Scotland in 2020, compared with 39% in England and Wales.

Other figures that highlight the importance of energy sources that are demonised by some environmentalists are given much less prominence in the report.

HeraldScotland: Torness nuclear power station director Tamer Albishawi inside the plant Picture: Gordon TerrisTorness nuclear power station director Tamer Albishawi inside the plant Picture: Gordon Terris

These include the fact that low carbon nuclear power represented 25.7% of the generation fuel mix in Scotland in 2020 compared with 14.7% in England and Wales.

The implications of these numbers, which cover the output from Scotland’s two nuclear power stations, are particularly sobering. Power generation is about to end at the giant Hunterston plant in Ayrshire, which has been in operation since 1976. The Torness nuclear plant in East Lothian is expected to enter the decommissioning phase in 2028.

READ MORE: Boss of Torness power station makes case for nuclear after record performance by East Lothian plant

The Scottish Government website says the energy strategy published in December 2017 confirmed its continued opposition to new nuclear stations, under current technologies.

The energy statistics report also noted that gas consumption in Scotland rose by 2.4% in 2020 compared with 2019, with increases recorded in both the household and business sector.

The report found that only 6.5% of non-electrical heat demand was met from renewable sources in 2020, against a target of 11%.

After wholesale gas prices rose to record levels last year, millions of consumers are facing the prospect of swingeing increases in their bills from April. The price cap set by the regulator is expected to rise sharply from then.

The UK Government is coming under intense pressure to provide relief for households.

Despite its continued desire to separate Scotland from the rest of the UK, the Scottish Government may well be happy to let the Whitehall administration try to deal with the energy price issue, and face the related flak.

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However, Ms Sturgeon has done nothing to help matters with the stance she has taken on the key North Sea oil and gas industry.

Market watchers have said the surge in gas prices last year partly reflected cuts in UK production. These have left the country more dependent on imports of gas, which can entail higher emissions overall.

Against that backdrop it makes sense to increase production of North Sea gas.

HeraldScotland: Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA WirePicture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

As oil and gas firms grapple with the impact of the coronavirus crisis, they will think long and hard about investing in the kind of projects that can help Scotland meet its energy needs while creating jobs.

The UK Government makes decisions about whether or not North Sea developments will go ahead.

However, Ms Sturgeon has helped create an atmosphere in which firms may decide that the risks associated with North Sea developments outweigh the potential benefits through her intervention in the heated debate about the Cambo development off Shetland. Shell shelved plans for Cambo in December after coming under sustained criticism from campaigners.

READ MORE: Oil firm highlights uncertainty anout UK developments as it drills off Norway

By recommending that the UK Government should effectively block the development, Ms Sturgeon increased the pressure on Shell and helped create the impression that firms that propose other projects could face potentially significant political complications.

This week a seasoned North Sea player made clear the fallout from the Cambo affair is already making firms think twice about investing in the UK North Sea.

Asked why Longboat Energy is focusing exploration work on Norway chief executive Helge Hammer said: “We are worried about recent political comments/processes in the UK related to new oil and gas developments … which has created unnecessary uncertainty.”