By Sir Muir Russell and Professor Rebecca Lunn

MOST of us rarely think about where the energy we use comes from. It’s simply there at the flick of a switch.

However, if we are to safeguard our access to touch-of-a-button power, serious consideration needs to be given to how energy is generated, stored, supplied and used, as well as social, environmental and economic impacts.

There are a range of options available to Scotland for clean, secure, affordable and resilient energy. However, each option has advantages and drawbacks, and all require trade-offs. No single policy can address all the issues and hard choices must be made with a robust understanding of consequences and compromises, and without delay.

This is the overriding conclusion of a major inquiry by the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE), Scotland’s Energy Future.

As Scotland’s national academy, it is RSE’s role to provide impartial, factual, evidence-based advice to inform public policy. The inquiry was driven by the need to encourage debate and to urge government to act now.

The findings paint a sobering picture and provide a stark and timely warning about the significant challenges. However, there is opportunity for Scotland.

Governments around the world have set ambitious climate change targets. In Scotland, significant progress has been achieved with the introduction of world-leading climate change legislation, and over 89 per cent of electricity is generated by low carbon technologies. However, more than 80 per cent of energy consumption is still attributable to fossil fuels, with renewables accounting for 17.8 per cent, which suggests there is still a lot of work to do.

We’ve virtually eliminated the burning of coal and on days when conditions are favourable, 100 per cent of electricity comes from renewable sources. However, electricity accounts for only a portion of total energy consumption. In addition, wind energy has its disadvantages. Onshore wind requires large areas of land, creating social issues, and the variable nature of wind means that large scale storage, which requires huge investment, or another form of generation is needed to supplement days when conditions are unfavourable.

Many of the options available require some form of investment, whether the development of new technology, new and large-scale infrastructure, skills development of the workforce and changes in public behaviour.

It is consequences and compromises of this nature that must be explored, and the RSE recommends the establishment of an independent, expert advisory commission on energy for Scotland to consider all aspects of energy policy.

Energy governance has long been hampered by a lack of transparency; weak planning, monitoring and implementation; and issues related to cost and consumers rights. In addition, no single organisation is responsible for ongoing review of energy policy.

We need to look at the opportunities that energy offers, in terms of innovation and research in areas such as supply, storage and delivery. We must also recognise the interconnected nature of supply and demand, between Scotland, the UK, Europe and the wider energy supplying world. Therefore, better political cooperation is needed to achieve common objectives and outcomes.

This thinking will illuminate the constraints and policy options that are available to those tasked with making the important decisions that will affect us all.

Scotland faces substantial challenges in developing a future energy policy that provides low carbon, secure, affordable energy in a manner that is sustainable and fair. However, it is vital to recognise the equally substantial opportunity that exists to make positive lasting change. We must not become paralysed by the scale of the task ahead. Through informed thinking, ongoing debate, further research and a willingness compromises, it is possible to reach a solution that best serves us all.

Sir Muir Russell KCB FRSE is Chair of the RSE Inquiry. Sir Muir served as Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Office and Permanent Secretary to the then Scottish Executive.

Prof Rebecca Lunn MBE FRSE is Deputy Chair of the RSE Inquiry. She is Professor of Civil and Environment Engineering at the University of Strathclyde