Longannet and a balanced energy policy

The threat to Longannet power station has brought the absence of a balanced energy policy in Scotland sharply into focus. Longannet plays an important role in baseload generation and balancing the system, particularly as Scotland becomes increasingly dependent on intermittent wind energy. Longannet is one of the biggest coal-fired power stations in Europe, and generates enough electricity each year to meet the needs of more than two million homes.

Scottish Power has previously said that given the “particularly disproportionate transmission charging penalties applicable to the station” it could not justify entering the plant into the auction for delivering electricity generating capacity for the winter of 2018/19. It costs about £40m a year to keep Longannet connected to the grid, while a similar power station in the south of England would receive a payment of £4m.

The failure to secure CCS at Longannet has meant the plant has no long term future, but it was planned to operate until the end of the decade. If negotiations with National Grid over transmissions costs fail, the plant could close much sooner.

Professor Colin McInnes, from Glasgow University is critical of the way that the energy debate has been led by the Scottish Government, and sees the growing uncertainty about how to provide baseload and “dispatchable” (emergency top-up) power as a case of “chickens coming home to roost.” He says the Scottish Government’s emphasis on renewables targets has distracted attention from baseline needs and realities, and allowed “barking” ideas about a potentially renewables-only Scotland to gain mainstream currency.

“We need to have an energy policy that is technically well-founded, we need a balanced energy mix. Instead of what should have been a simple matter of energy economics, we have seen the debate politicised by a 2020 target to achieve the “equivalent” of all of Scotland’s energy needs by renewable energy. Why would you want such a target? It’s an arbitrary number thought up by spin doctors for a purely political purpose. It’s more fitting for the 1950s Soviet Union than for a dynamic modern economy.”

Nicola Sturgeon’s call for the PM to take action over Longannet was given ‘The brass neck award’ by former energy minister Brian Wilson in his Scotsman column. In a detailed analysis and history of the Scottish Government’s cosy relationship with ScottishPower and SSE he said:

“Now reality is closing in. The Scottish Government’s policy is based on crossing its fingers and hoping that hated nuclear power stations keep going till 2030. Cockenzie is closed. Longannet is on the way out. “Renewables” has turned out to be synonymous with onshore wind – with virtually none of the hardware which adorns our hillsides manufactured in Scotland. In security of supply terms, it may no longer matter that Scotland is an importer of electricity rather than an exporter. But hundreds of jobs are being shed while the manufacturing boom promised from renewables has not happened. Scottish Power and SSE should have been the catalysts for that new industry but have been allowed to get away with importing virtually everything.”

Utilities Scotland has consistently argued that the discriminatory transmission charges are wrong and not just for Scotland. However, the lack of a balanced energy policy means that Scottish lights are increasingly being kept on by English power stations. That would have previously been unthinkable and has serious consequences for jobs and the industry in Scotland.

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