ELECTRICITY is a complex topic at the best of times. Last year, a YouGov survey found that around one-fifth of people in the UK do not understand how their energy bills are calculated. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to think that fewer still will know where their energy comes from and how it is generated.

The reality is that not all of our energy has the same carbon footprint associated with it – different parts of the country have different energy mixes. To capture that, the National Grid measures what it calls "carbon intensity", essentially a measure of how "clean" energy is at any given time. The more fossil fuels burned to produce that electricity, the more carbon-intense it is.

Energy from renewables is notoriously difficult to store – hence the push to develop more battery storage systems across the UK. This means the carbon intensity of electricity fluctuates at different times of the year: for example, in the summer more solar energy is produced and blustery days see more wind energy make its way into the mix.

However, if you use electricity at a time when no energy is available from these sources, then it will likely come from sources such as oil and gas. With that, it will be much more carbon-intense.

Our analysis of National Grid data from the past few years found there are massive regional variations in the average carbon intensity of Great Britain’s – excluding Northern Ireland’s – electricity supply. During some quarters, the difference between the cleanest and least clean energy has been as much as 11 times.

From January 2020 to the beginning of October 2022, the South of Scotland had an average carbon intensity of 47.28 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent produced per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated (gCO2e/kWh), making it the lowest in the UK. This compares to 316.94 gCO2e/kWh for South Wales, the most carbon-intense region over the same period – an average difference of nearly seven-times.

Such a large difference can have a massive impact on the carbon footprint of energy-intensive industries based around the country. If we take a 200-rack, one-megawatt data centre in London – which averaged 179 gCO2e/kWh, placing it more or less mid-table – it would have produced 1.16 million more kilograms of CO2e during 2021 than an equivalent facility in southern Scotland. Moving it north of the Border would have reduced its carbon footprint by 73%.

These are not small differences. If these reductions in carbon are extrapolated over hundreds of facilities, with varying power needs, that could be relocated, we could make a significant difference to the emissions of not only individual organisations, but the entire country.

The UK has set a target of hitting net zero by 2050, and Scotland five years before that. If either is serious about achieving that, knowing more about our energy system and using that information to most efficiently locate critical but power-hungry facilities could be a big step in the right direction.

Danny Quinn is MD of DataVita

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald

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