7 January 2010: At last, Scottish grid improvement will be built

Scotland has immense potential to expand renewables, particularly wind. The Scottish National Party (SNP), when it took over the Scottish government in 2007, set a target that half of all Scotland’s electricity should come from renewables by 2020. The previous (Labour) Scottish government had set the target at 40% by this date. Meeting the SNP 2020 target would require around 8Gw of installed capacity, including up to 6Gw of onshore wind. At the end of 2009, Scotland had 3.4Gw, 1.9Gw of which was wind.

So, wind capacity in Scotland will have to be more than tripled in a decade. The SNP government has performed quite well on renewables so far, for example, by speeding up time taken to make planning decisions. However, renewable expansion has been seriously held back in Scotland (as it is in Wales) by the inadequacy of the electricity grid. Yesterday, the Scottish government gave permission for a major upgrade from Beauly, close to Inverness, to Denny, near Stirling. This upgrade has been under consideration for over four years. An 11-month Public Inquiry ended in December 2008. The trade association Scottish Renewables hailed the decision as follows:

“… the upgrade will allow the development of some 6 GigaWatts of additional renewable electricity generation in the north of Scotland”.

(See Scottish Renewables: Scottish Renewable Respond to Beauly-Denny Decision.)

The project is controversial, mainly on landscape grounds – it will go through the Cairngorm National Park. It will require fewer pylons than the current line, but the largest will be 24m taller than the tallest existing ones. The Ramblers Association condemned the decision as “an act of sheer vandalism”, and the John Muir Trust as “the wrong choice for Scotland …Wind, tidal and wave energy may be renewable but Scotland’s precious landscapes are a finite resource” (see John Muir Trust: A Black Day for Scotland’s Landscapes).

Anyone who goes to Scotland because of its wonderful landscapes (as I do) will agree that they are precious. However, uncontrolled climate change would devastate them. The Trust argues that the electricity should, instead, be transmitted in subsea cables. These would be much more expensive, and Scotland already has extremely serious fuel poverty. 618,000 households – over a quarter of the total – spent more than 10% of their income on fuel in 2008. 217,000 of these were pensioners living alone (see EAS: Scottish House Condition Survey). The low carbon transition will not be cheap, so it is sensible to use more cost-effective options where possible.

The SNP announced its decision after a night in which the temperature in parts of Scotland was -11oC. Inevitably, climate deniers are claiming that the current cold weather shows that climate change is a myth. This is nonsense. The UK, most of the USA, Scandinavia and parts of China and India are colder than normal for this time of year, but most of Europe, North Africa and Canada are significantly warmer. And even if the entire globe was colder than usual, this would prove nothing. A changing climate does not mean that there will not be variations, with some years colder than normal, and some warmer. This is well explained in a paper from the US National Climatic Data Center, Is the climate warming or cooling?

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