Keeping the lights on when the wind isn’t blowing

While Trump goes to court to challenge the Scottish Government’s wind power plans, are there other alternatives for keeping the lights on?

Barry Cowell, in the Herald last month argued that we should look again hydro-electric. It was 70 years ago that the Hydro-Electric Development (Scotland) Act was introduced, enabling large-scale renewable energy development. There follows a rapid expansion with 78 dams built and the installation of over 20,000 miles of transmission lines delivering electricity to 200,000 homes.

Today there are around 120 hydro schemes in Scotland producing around 5TWh of electricity each year. These range from major installations generating more than 100MW down to small micro-sites providing just a few kilowatts. The combined output of all these schemes amounts to roughly 12% of our current electricity demand.

Despite the fact that it provides us with a clean and reliable source of electricity, hydroelectric power has been significantly under-represented in the current renewable energy debate. Access to grid and high up front capital costs are part of the problem. However, a recent study by the Scottish Government identified the potential for up to 7,000 schemes, which could generate carbon-free electricity for up to a million homes. These new schemes could produce around 3 TWh of additional electricity per year, more than a 50% rise on current output levels.

Another low carbon option is nuclear, going ahead in England, but banned from Scotland. Brian Wilson argued in the Scotsman:
“The silliness of allowing nuclear power to wither away, whether in Scotland or the UK as a whole, should never have been in doubt. The three imperatives of energy policy are security of supply, affordability and carbon reduction. In terms of the latter, everything we might conceivably do in renewables will only cancel out what we are losing in nuclear. And we would still need baseload to back up the dominance of windpower.”

One of the ways Denmark plugs the energy gap when the wind isn’t blowing is by importing hydro power from Norway. That might be an option for Scotland, but the Norwegians not unreasonably favour running their cable to England. Another option was Iceland, but they also appear to be having second thoughts about a cable to Scotland.

Clean coal technologies seem as far away as ever and shale gas is just as dirty as existing gas production, not to mention public opposition. Battery storage on the scale we would need is still some way off. The irony is that English nuclear may well end up plugging the gap when the wind isn’t blowing in Scotland.

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