Over the past few years I’ve become all too aware of the way The Times carps on about the failings of Holyrood, but one of last week’s editorials seemed a bit different.
It was headlined `Don’t Let the Lights Go Out’ and it chimed into a topic I’ve been fretting about for some time (and I’m certainly not the only one). The editorialist summed it up when he/she wrote:
`The fine boasts of delivering 100% of Scotland’s (electricity) needs from renewables conceals the fact there will be huge gaps in the nation’s energy supplies once the coal stations are run down and nuclear power stations approach the end of their natural life.’
In fact, those ‘huge gaps’ might be a bit closer than the writer seems to think. He or she was wrong to worry about the extinction of the ‘coal stations’. The plural was a mistake. There’s only one coal-burning station left in Scotland and that is Longannet in Fife, just west of the old town Culross. And its owner – Scottish Power – a subsidiary of the Spanish multinational Iberdrola – has announced the station’s demise as of next spring (despite assuring Scotland a year ago that ‘there are no plans to do so’).
Which was a blow which left the industry gasping. Longannet was – is – the daddy of them all. Capable of producing 2,400 megawatts (MW) of electricity, it is the biggest coal-burning station in the UK (now that the mighty Drax in Yorkshire has taken to burning bits of wood). The west Fife giant can brew up more electro-juice than all the dozens of hydro electric stations in Scotland put together. Ditto all the wind farms. So the recent announcement that Longannet is to close sent a chill through Scotland’s industrial economy – not to mention the 400-strong work force, the station’s many suppliers and the Scottish Government.
And so it should have done. When Longannnet’s turbines stop spinning Scotland will lose something like 20% of its electricity supply, give or take a few megawatts. This opens up the dire prospect of an `energy gap’ that Scotland’s much vaunted ‘renewables’ industry (i.e. hydro, wind, wave, tidal and solar) will struggle to fill, at least for some years. Particularly since our two nuclear stations at Hunterston in Ayrshire (1190 MW) and Torness at East Lothian (1250 MW) are nearing the end of their lives. In fact, Hunterston should have been shut down in 2011 so it’s already four years past its ‘close by’ date.
But even if the renewables ever do make up the 12,000 MW capacity that Scotland needs they’ll not be enough. In seriously cold weather winds have a way of dropping to zero and the sea has a way of going flat calm and a spell of dry weather will take the muscle out out of the rivers that small hydro schemes need. Tidal power – which is the only truly predictable renewable – is decades away from making a serious contribution and solar power is on the margins of the margins. What we will need, and sometime fairly soon, is a steady, reliable alternative source of electricity against those days when the renewables falter. A source such as Longannet, for instance.
Gridlock on the Grid
Scottish Government ministers know this and have been banging on about the future of Longannet for some years. They’ve seen it as a crucial stopgap in their plans to make Scotland’s electricity 100% renewable by 2020. Energy Minister Fergus Ewing reiterated the point last week in a letter to his UK counterpart Amber Rudd. `Longannet could have played an important role for several years to come,’ Ewing declared `as we continue our transition towards cleaner forms of generation.’ So far Rudd has not replied.
So what killed Longannet? A number of things really, most of them political. There’s no denying that Longannet is one of the biggest polluters in Scotland and had to be either cleaned up or closed down. It ranks high in Green demonology. A few years ago Scottish Power, Shell and the National Grid got together and put forward a `carbon capture scheme’ that would suck the toxins out of the Longannet chimneys, squeeze them into an existing pipeline and pump them up to St Fergus in Aberdeenshire and from there out to the sub-sea caverns on the exhausted `Goldeneye’ gas field in the North Sea.
As the British Government had set aside £1bn for just such a scheme Scottish Power and Shell reckoned they had it in the bag. But when it looked as if the plan would cost more than the £1bn, and neither company would guarantee the excess, in October 2011 the then UK energy minister Chris Huhne declared that the numbers `didn’t stack up’ and pulled the plug. For weeks Holyrood , Scottish Power and the Greens waxed indignant but to no effect. The (now discredited) Huhne stood firm and the British Government’s wallet stayed shut. A few years later the carbon capture billion was shared out between two power stations in Yorkshire and SSE’s oil-fired station in Peterhead.
The demise of the Longannet carbon capture scheme was a heavy blow. But an even bigger problem was the UK government’s refusal to do anything about the millions that that the National Grid charges Scottish generators for putting their power onto the system. It’s a truly iniquitous charge that dates back to the early days of privatisation. Simply put, the further you are away from London, the more you have to pay the National Grid. But if you happen to have a power station in or around London, the National Grid will pay you.
Unsurprisingly, Holyrood and the Scottish generators have been raging about these charges for years but to no effect. There was nothing they could do. Holyrood couldn’t chip in with its own money because its hands are tied by Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act of 1998. Section D1 of Schedule 5 make it very clear that the `Generation, transmission, distribution and supply of electricity’ is a matter reserved for Westminster. So unless London steps in – and it’s very hard to see that happening – Longannet will go dark.
So, without Longannet, where does that leave us? With a mixed bag of electricity sources, is the answer. We’re left with two ageing nuclear stations, one gas/oil station (at Peterhead), a couple of `pump storage’ hydro schemes at Cruachan and Foyers, a few dozen hydro schemes that range in size from substantial `storage and cascade’ stations to a lot of small `run of river’ schemes that need no dams but rely on fast-running rivers and a clutch of little diesel-powered stations on the western and northern isles.
Despite years of work and millions spent, wave and tidal generating schemes remain stuck in the experimental stage (two of the firms involved have just gone belly up). Solar power, in Scotland’s climate, hardly registers and will stay that way until somebody comes up with a massive improvement in photo-voltaic (PV) cells and there’s little sign of that.
There’s no doubt that Holyrood is pinning its hopes on the wind-farm industry taking up the slack. But will it? Can it? How many wind farms will it take to replace Longannet’s 2,400 MW? Or Hunterston’s 1,190 MW? Particularly since wind turbines, those white giants which loom from one end of the country to the other, usually produce around only 27% of their `nameplate capacity’ that usually ranges from 2MW to 8MW tops. And while Holyrood likes to bang on about the jobs that the wind farmers have created (and such jobs do exist) almost all the turbines and their associated kit (blades, nacelles, motors, gear boxes, transformers etc.) come from plants and yards in countries like Denmark and Germany. Scottish industry is just not in the game.
(And it’s not just Scotland’s firms that have been left out in the cold. When Chris Huhne cruised out into the sea off Kent to inaugurate the London Array, which is Britain’s biggest offshore wind farm, it turned into a PR disaster. The media took the opportunity to point out that, alas, British industry’s contribution to the great project was around 10%. In other words 90% of the huge generating project had been supplied and put together by foreigners.)*
There’s a small, if sour, irony there. It could be argued that wind-generated electricity is a Scottish invention. It’s believed that the very first dwelling to be lit with a wind turbine was a cottage in Marykirk near Montrose, the holiday home of Professor James Blyth of the Anderson’s Institute (now the University of Strathclyde). The idea spread and by the 20th century it was being tried and tested across the industrial world. But it didn’t take root until the 1970s when Danish and German engineers came up with the three-blade, pitch-controlled turbine. The industry is still dominated by Vestas (Denmark) and Siemens (Germany) along with General Electric (USA).
Whether you approve of them or not the turbines are impressive pieces of engineering. Standing on cylindrical steel towers at a height of anything between 40 and 82 metres their glass fibre, clockwise-turning blades turn a shaft at around 18 rpm which an internal gear box converts to around 1800 rpm. That’s enough rotational energy for its electric motor to create around 6,000 volts of power which is sent to a `step up’ transformer which bumps up the voltage to the 132,000 volts needed to put the juice onto the grid and on its way to boiling your kettle or charging your i-phone.
But for their size wind turbines have a very modest output. Most have a declared capacity of 2MW to 3MW but they’re getting bigger. And the wind farmers prefer bigger ones if they can be justified. They get more electricity that way. The new Vestas 164 turbine, for example, can produce 8MW of electricity, a capacity unthinkable a few years ago. But with an average productivity of 27% even a 8MW turbine will produce only 2.16MW most of the time. Plainly, it is going to take a great many wind farms to close the 4,850MW gap that will be left by Longannet, Hunterston and Torness.
Betting the wind farm
So just how many wind farms are there between the Solway Firth and the voes of Shetland? Precise figures are hard to come by. For every wind farm that’s up and running there seems to be another one being built and two or three more at the planning stage. But a rough count based on a number of sources produced a figure of around 200 onshore wind farms in operation plus a couple offshore, i.e. the Talisman Energy/SSE venture on the Beatrice field in the Moray Firth and the 60 turbines of the Robin Rigg wind farm on the Solway Firth, owned by the German utilities giant (E.ON).
By far the biggest wind farm in Scotland, and indeed the biggest in Britain, is the one called Whitelee near Eaglesham in Renfrewshire. Owned and operated by Scottish Power (i.e. Iberdrola of Spain) it is home to 215 turbines (140 by Siemens and 75 by Alstom) which, taken together, have a capacity of 539MW or around 2.5MW per turbine. Scottish Power claim that Whitelee’s output, even at 27% of its capacity, is enough to heat and light just under 300,000 homes in the west of Scotland.
Next in the wind-farm pecking order, and indeed second in Britain, is SSE’s Clyde windfarm near Abington in South Lanarkshire. The Clyde farm sports 152 turbines with a joint capacity of 350MW. And SSE have permission to erect another 54 turbines on the site which will make it almost as big as Whitelee. Number three is probably Crystal Rig on the Lammermuir Hills not far from Dunbar. It’s owned and operated by Fred Olsen Renewables (domiciled in Norway).
But those three – Whitelee, Clyde and Crystal Rig – are the big boys on the landscape. Most wind farms are much smaller and many amount to no more than three or four turbines standing in the field of some hard-pressed upland farmer delighted to get the wayleave money. If there’s a pattern it is that the big companies own the bigger windfarms leaving the smaller ones to a swarm of firms of which most of us have never heard, e.g. Broadview Energy, DC & MC Energy, A7 Energy, Balnamoon Renewables, Fivestone inter alia.
Having said that, one such `unknown’ company that has been quietly eating its way into our windfarm industry is Falck Renewables, an arm of the Gruppo Falck of Milan. Over the past few years Falck Renewables has acquired seven operating windfarms, another that has been given the go-ahead and five are in the `development’ stage. Falck’s interests range down the country from Dunbeath in Caithness to Nutberry and West Browncastle in South Lanark and across Scotland from Skye to Aberdeenshire. The Italians, like the Germans and the Norwegians, seem set on having their share of Scotland’s wind power. There’s been money in it for them or they wouldn’t be doing it.
There’s no doubt that the wind-farm industry in Scotland has had a good spell in recent years. That may change now that the British Government has decided to cut back on the subsidies for renewables. But there are enough farms in the pipeline to keep the business and its contractors busy for a few years. One of the reasons that SSE opted to drive its controversial new 400KV transmission line from Beauly to Denny across the Highlands and not under the North Sea was in order to hook up to the grid all the wind farms that have sprung up (or are about to spring up) across the bens and glens. For now, the hills are alive with the swoosh of glass fibre turbine blades.
Dash for gas?
If renewables are to meet our needs it is wind farms and hydro schemes that will have to do it. But hydro doesn’t amount to enough (even with the new schemes SSE are planning above Loch Lochy and Loch Ness) and wind generation is both inefficient and unreliable. Turbines slow down and stop when the wind drops below 9mph and are braked when it gets above 50mph. In other words, if there’s no wind they’re useless and if there’s too much wind they’re also useless. We need more dependable sources in the electro-mix to back them up. But the only other sources we have are one gas-powered station at Peterhead (1550MW) and the two nuclear stations at Torness and Hunterston . And both of these must close by 2023, Hunterston for sure and Torness also – unless its owner Electricité de France (EDF) can wangle a stay of execution.
Well, 2023 is only eight years away. If Sturgeon and the Sturgeonites act now they might – just might – have time to order, plan, build, equip and commission a new gas-fired power station similar to the ones the English have been building for years. It would be a one-off Scottish `dash for gas’. I’m not sure the Spanish owners of Scottish Power would be up for it but SSE might. But then again Holyrood doesn’t have the power. Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act of 1998 forbids Sturgeon & Co to meddle in electricity matters.
But something needs to be done. Although our appetite for electricity has been static since the days of the recession that’s likely to change as the economy recovers. And if electric powered cars and vans do take hold (as the autopundits suggest they will) shortages could turn nasty quite quickly. We could find ourselves buying in electricity at a huge premium from Europe or from over the Irish Sea. Or stumbling around in the dark with candles wearing those beanie hats with LED lights on the brim (only £9.99 at 2015 prices).
As usual (I fear) British and Scottish industries seem to have missed the boat on making the equipment to capture energy from the wind. There are now dozens of major firms world wide turning out increasingly large and sophisticated turbines. None of them is British. According to the online journal `Windpower Monthly’ the top ten companies are:
General Electric (USA)
United Power (China)
Ming Yang (China)
Image: “Whitelee panorama” by Bjmullan – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –