ESG factors must lead to energy transformation
The war in Ukraine has caused European politicians to finally realize that overreliance on imported energy can carry extreme risks. What they haven’t figured out yet is that you can’t just close one set of faucets and open another.
British politicians are desperately trying to convince themselves and us that we can stop importing the 4% of our gas from Russia and easily replace it with new gas from the UKCS. I fear they will be disappointed. We import gas from Russia, Norway, the Middle East and elsewhere because UKCS reserves are in decline. Unless we suddenly come across a magic gas tree, the recoverable supplies we have left just won’t make much of a difference. New fields like those recently announced by IOG may be good news for their shareholders, but they represent a miniscule amount of new production compared to current demand levels.
Importing gas or any energy or goods from abroad creates other risks as well as potential loss of supply. The role of the world market in driving up prices before the Russians foolishly decided to invade Ukraine was already evident. But on top of that there is always the risk of disruption and, without trying to sound too pessimistic, the invasion of Ukraine should put disruption way up on the list of things we should plan to avoid.
In fact, any remote energy supply puts the consumer and the system at risk in various ways. During recent storms in Scotland and northern England, consumers were without power for days on end. Many have had no electricity for more than a week.
The problem in this case was the vulnerable overhead cables. The network and its distribution networks were designed and built in the era of large power stations. Whether coal, gas, or nuclear powered, these generators needed the ability to push electrons across large areas, making them vulnerable.
Add the potential for more frequent climate change-induced extreme weather events to the continued risk of dependency on others and the case for a large-scale overhaul of our entire energy system in Scotland already seems overdue. .
You will have to be very radical.
The first priority must be to “localize” energy production. With coal gone, gas on the way out, and nuclear now a wasteful and risky option, the grid becomes a liability, not an asset. Its grossly unequal pricing scheme is also a real problem.
If we take the example of Shetland, the tidal energy network built by Nova Innovation of Edinburgh has seen its costs fall by 30%, which means that they are on track to reach the European target of 100 euros per megawatt hour by 2030 and that makes it cheaper than nuclear. Nuclear takes decades to build, still suffers from cost overruns and is now a prime target for every crackpot hacker, terrorist or dictator on the planet and takes forever to dismantle, so forget about it.
Logic then tells us that Shetland must expand its tidal generation as well as wind and solar and use these assets to generate enough hydrogen to cover all the island’s needs.
Shetlands would no longer be subject to price increases or supply problems. Off-grid means off-market, so the next time the world price of gas or oil rises, Shetlanders won’t have to worry about it affecting them.
Why specifically hydrogen and not electricity? Because we can store huge quantities of hydrogen over very long periods of time thanks to simple and relatively inexpensive technologies such as composite or metal tanks that require little attention. Design it right and it means there will always be hydrogen available when renewable energy sources are offline, as they can be.
Any Scottish island could do the same. The Western Isles are rightly complaining about energy prices and in one report a company that distributed bottles of LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) feared the high prices would kill its business. Locally produced hydrogen perfectly replaces LPG.
But local hydrogen-generating grids have potential across Scotland, including in our major cities. Glasgow happens to have the mother of all hydrogen fuels running through it. It’s called the River Clyde.
We must not only become radical but imaginative. Have a little forethought and look at what is investable in the future. Einstein rightly said that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”.
If we continue to use the network and expose consumers to global markets, then it is inevitable that, especially in today’s privatized world, consumers will never come first and will never see price stability.
Local grids and integrated hydrogen production will produce stable returns for any investor, whether public or private or, as I would prefer, a mix of the two.
This approach will also tick all the boxes for investors when it comes to environmental, social and governance factors, which are rightly of increasing importance to modern investors.
Abandoning the national grid will require new laws, including on land and water use and ownership. Not difficult to achieve but again, quite radical in the context of today’s society.
It depends on us. Either we continue to operate with a system designed at the beginning of the last century, or we transform it for today’s needs of resilience and price stability, and make it more investment-friendly. I know what I would do, but does the government have the guts to put people first, not businesses?
Dick Winchester is a former underwater engineer and adviser to the Scottish government on energy transition.