Will wind power divide Scotland from the UK?

Will wind power divide Scotland from the UK?

How the government’s decision to curtail support for wind has angered the Scots and what the SNP might do about it, by Angus Hanton

Wind power is important to Scotland. The Scots already generate 13 gigawatts of electricity from wind turbines of which 8GW is from onshore and 5GW offshore. Experts say that Scotland is the best site in Europe for wind energy generation and it’s got so much potential that by the year 2020 wind could be producing 100% of Scotland’s electricity needs. There are over 6,500 turbines already installed with many more being erected before the new cut-off date of April 2016 when the feed-in tariff will end, albeit with a grace period for schemes which at that point already have planning permission, a grid connection and proof of land tenure.

Popular approval

There is massive support for wind energy amongst the Scots, with over 75% in favour – and even when people live nearby there is high acceptance from local communities. However, last week the new Westminster Government announced, through the energy minister Amber Rudd, that the feed-in financing arrangements for onshore wind would be terminated in April 2016.

This decision was apparently made without consulting the Scottish National Party despite their horde of Westminster MPs, and this has greatly annoyed them. It is just this sort of measure which could give the SNP reason to demand a new independence referendum, and one can see their point. On the other hand, if Ms Rudd had discussed it with the Scots previously they would probably have disagreed and might have opposed the Conservatives on this issue even more strongly.

But the energy industry won’t do away with wind turbines in Scotland. All the existing feed in tariff arrangements and renewable obligation certificate (ROC)-supported windfarms will remain, as well as the new ones currently being built and those that will be commissioned during the transition period in 2016/17 – which could be an extra 2,000 turbines.

Even government support for wind energy may re-emerge because the Scottish Assembly could introduce their own scheme to finance it. The problem is that wind energy, like other renewables, is not financed by “subsidies”, despite government and others continually using this term. The source of finance has been a supported price received directly from the energy company, which is in effect financed by consumers, not taxpayers.

In principle this cross-financing has the virtue of keeping government out of the matter and not using taxpayer money, but it also puts a small premium on all electricity prices to pay for it. Other things being equal, this levy should reduce demand and cut carbon emissions further.

Southern NIMBYs

Presumably the Conservatives’ decision has been motivated by their electorate in the English shires where some vociferous opponents have given the impression that the majority are against onshore wind. So the SNP will need to think fast about how they protect their booming wind industry – whether by direct support for Scottish schemes or by political opposition to the Conservatives. It may be that they do both.

In addition, with the development of battery technology it may become economic to build turbines where there are local users and where people have the capacity to store electric power. The virtue of wind energy over solar is that it generates more electricity at times of the year when it is most needed – in the winter – and it generates power at night.