Smith Commission and Energy

Recent months have not been kind to traditional forms of electricity generation. The fire that shut down the Didcot B5 plant on the 19th of October is just one of a series of mishaps this year. Since February, after another fire, one unit at the fossil fuelled Ironbridge power station remains offline and in July two units at the Ferrybridge one gigawatt coal plant were also shut down after fire broke out.  Not that it has only been coal fired stations that have had their troubles.  In August EDF Energy shut down four nuclear reactors after a routine inspection found cracks in the boilers of one unit.

Now winter approaches all thoughts turn to keeping us warm and cosy as the temperatures fall. OFGEM told us in the summer that we should have between 5% and 10% capacity over and above the norm to cope with the winter cold. Now we are not so sure and National Grid has taken extraordinary measures to ensure supply meets the demand. According to BBC News early in September this increased uncertainly led National Grid to look for additional sources of supply to fill the possible gap. National Grid was quoted as saying it was a “sensible precaution” due to an “uncertain” winter picture.

The Business Green web site reported recently that nearly a quarter (24%) of the UK’s electricity was provided by wind power on the very same day that Didcot B5 was shut down.  Intermittency, the bug bear of all renewable energy sources is not confined just to wind and solar.

Weather conditions can have other consequences. Over the past four years the flow of electricity generated by Torness nuclear power station has been interrupted by the ingress of seaweed and on another occasion jellyfish into the seawater cooling system. The stations director Paul Winkle is quoted in the Guardian as saying, “We are aware that at certain times of year with particular weather conditions in this part of the Forth estuary, seaweed volumes can increase and enter the station’s cooling water intake system.” Traditional energy generation at the mercy of the weather, this must seem as manna from heaven to many in the renewable energy business.

However this is not the whole story on Sunday the 19th of October the Independent reported that Communities Secretary Eric Pickles had turned down nineteen applications for onshore wind farms.  Mr Pickles has refused over 80% of onshore wind applications in the past year which would have generated about half a gigawatt of electricity and around £500M in investment.  This prompted Maria McCaffrey, CE of Renewable UK to say, “Mr Pickles is playing politics with energy policy, putting his views above our country’s future energy needs, thereby jeopardising investment and local jobs. This subversion of the democratic planning process has created chaos and confusion among local councillors and planners.”

Owen Paterson, the former environment secretary argued in a speech to the Global Warming Policy Foundation that the UK should scrap the Climate Change Act because of what he termed “considerable uncertainty” of warming due to carbon emissions. His replacement as Environment Secretary, Liz Truss MP, went on record in the Mail on Sunday on the 19th of October to say that taxpayer handouts to massive “ugly” solar farms must end.

So where does that leave Scotland?  On the 22nd of October the Smith Commission on devolution for Scotland met for the first time in plenary session with representatives of all the parties in Holyrood. By all accounts the meeting was “very good natured” and “constructive”. Lord Smith said “all in all, a good start but a long way to go.” Much of the discussion seemed to be centred on tax raising and constitutional powers, though the details were sparse.  Johann Lamont MSP, the Labour Leader, talked of “power for a purpose” and Annabel Goldie MSP, former Tory leader, thought the meeting “very encouraging.”

However, nowhere in the discussion have we seen much on energy policy and in particular the National Grid. The Connection and Use of System Code (CUSC) constitutes the contractual framework for connection to, and use of, the National Grid’s high voltage transmission system. It is one of the most convoluted documents I, as a forty year Civil Servant, have ever seen, Chapter 14 alone (Charging Methodologies) is 117 pages long. And with policy makers north and south of the border taking a very different stance this could be where a chasm of difference between Holyrood and Westminster opens up.

A cursory glance at the charges levied on generators by the National Grid, the so called Transmission Network Use of System (TUNoS) charges reveal just how expensive it is to put electricity from Scotland onto the grid. It is perhaps understandable that the TUNoS zonal tariff for the North of Scotland is much higher than that for the regions around London given the remoteness and the difficult terrain. However, it seems harder to justify in these terms the payments to generators in the Southwest of England, just as far from London as Northern Scotland is from Glasgow. Additionally, in contrast to Westminster with its flirtation with shale gas, the Scottish Government and Parliament’s avowed policy is to use the development of renewable forms of energy to re-industrialise the Scottish economy.

I don’t envy Lord Smith and his committee the task of untangling this particular Gordian knot along with all the others.

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