Energy regulation powers have been removed from Holyrood, removing campaigners’ ability to tackle concerns in Scotland. Image: Biofuel Watch.

Almuth Ernsting is Co-Director of Biofuelwatch who campaign against the negative impacts of industrial biofuels and bioenergy.

For many years, the Scottish Government has had some of the most ambitious targets for renewable energy and greenhouse gas reductions in Europe. The key targets are: a 42% emissions cut by 2020; generating the equivalent of 100% of Scotland’s gross electricity demand and 30% of all energy use from renewables by 2020; reducing energy consumption year on year; and abolishing fuel poverty by 2016.

But what are the chances of any of these targets being realised? How can Scotland move away from fossil fuels and nuclear power towards a cleaner energy system powered largely by wind, solar and tidal power, without Scottish powers over energy policy? And what are the chances of creating a fairer, democratically controlled energy system?

Targets of course are meaningless without powers to turn them into reality. And, when it comes to energy, the Scottish government has very few powers. It can use planning policy to support or stop certain types of developments – though so far it hasn’t used them to stop opencast coal mining nor the threat of fracking or other unconventional gas. It can use public funds to hand out some limited grants, whether to energy companies or for home insulation. It could enforce stricter air quality limits to curb polluting power plants and incinerators (but doesn’t). And that’s about it.

There are no Scottish powers to even regulate energy companies, let alone powers to take energy into national or community ownership. There aren’t even powers over key subsidies (other than very limited grants paid out of public funds). And of course there are no Scottish powers over banking either, which could help channel funds towards community-based energy schemes rather than energy corporations.

Nonetheless, the Scottish Government has always been confident that its energy and climate targets can be met, regardless of the vote on Independence. In fact, the Energy Chapter of “Scotland’s Future” emphasised support for “a single GB-wide market for electricity and gas…with the current market trading arrangements”. And the Scottish Government had commissioned a business and pro-business ‘independent expert group’ to report on recommendations for energy regulation. Predictably, the ‘experts’, including representatives from Shell and SSE, recommended little more than business as usual.

An independent Scotland of course, or one with truly devolved policies over energy, could have chosen a different path, and would likely have faced strong protests if it didn’t deliver a very different energy policy.

Such confidence in the fact that we can massively reduce the contribution of fossil fuels to Scottish energy supply, greatly curb greenhouse gas emissions, cut energy use and abolish fuel poverty with current powers and Westminster policies, seems woefully misplaced.

For example, to greatly scale up electricity from intermittent energy sources such as wind, we would either need more power stations for ‘backup’ – which would defeat the purpose of cutting carbon emissions – or we would need to see big investments in electricity storage. Large-scale electricity storage is perfectly feasible. In fact, Scotland has two pumped storage hydro schemes that were built in the 1960s and 70s and that still work well. But energy companies get no subsidies for investing in storage, so they don’t. And there is little the Scottish Government can do to make them invest: It cannot pass regulations to make them build storage facilities, it can’t even offer any subsidies to entice them to do so. Renewable electricity subsidy rules are determined by Westminster and they don’t support storage.

Foyers pump storage power station, Highland. “Energy companies get no subsidies for investing in storage, so they don’t.” Image: Invernesstrucker.

Another example: Fuel poverty is rising, not falling, and it will keep rising as UK-wide benefit cuts and lower-wage squeezes push ever more people into absolute poverty. On top of this, UK-wide programmes to improve home insulation are being cut. The Scottish Government is funding home insulation from public funds, that’s true, mainly through the Home Energy Efficiency Programmes for Scotland (£79 million in 2013-14), and this is welcome. But upgrading one of the leakiest housing stocks in Europe requires a great deal more than the limited funds on offer. The main funding mechanism for home energy efficiency is via a UK-wide obligation on energy suppliers, and the Westminster government has just cut that obligation.

Remarkably, Scotland has also just lost a key power over renewable energy policy. The overall system for subsidising energy has always been determined by Westminster, but until recently, Scotland could make its own rules about the types of energy classed as renewable which should receive subsidies and the level of subsidies which different technologies should attract. Back in 2012/13, Biofuelwatch, Friends of the Earth Scotland and local campaigners and residents (albeit unsuccessfully) pushed the Scottish Government to stop financing all inefficient and all larger biomass power plants, and to focus all renewables subsidies on truly climate-friendly forms of energy. At that time, the Scottish Government still had the power to enact better, more sustainable and more climate-friendly renewable energy policies than those being enacted in England, even if it did refuse to use them in any meaningful way.

Since then, however, a new subsidies regime for renewable electricity has been introduced: Contracts for Difference. Under this scheme, the Scottish Government is merely consulted, but no longer has a real say. This could soon spell an end for the Scottish Government’s wind energy ambitions. Under the new funding regime, electricity providers need to bid and compete for renewable energy subsidies. The first funding round has already been announced and all of the awards have gone to large-scale biomass electricity and offshore wind. None have gone to solar power or onshore wind.

While offshore wind is fairly uncontroversial, large-scale biomass electricity means burning wood from millions of mostly imported trees. Drax, the UK’s largest coal and biomass power station, is one of the main beneficiaries of new subsidies even though it burns pellets from clearcut, biodiverse swamp forests in the southern US – a disaster for biodiversity and the climate alike. Existing onshore wind schemes and new ones built before March 2017 can still get subsidised under the old rules, but whether any new ones will subsequently be funded is very doubtful. If the Conservatives win the 2015 elections the chances are even smaller: They have pledged to end all subsidies for new onshore wind turbines. They are however happy to meet UK renewables targets by decimating biodiverse forests elsewhere to fuel UK power stations, and in the process seeing ever more communities polluted by biomass plants and waste incinerators. Predictably, they are also very happy to support the European Commission’s proposal to scrap renewable energy targets altogether from 2020.

A cleaner, fairer and less fossil-fuel dependent Scotland clearly does need powers over energy and ideally banking and finance, followed, of course, by campaigning and mobilisation to ensure that these powers are then used in the right way. Without these powers, we might well see Scottish energy policy largely determined by anti-wind, pro-fracking and pro-smokestack Tory MPs for many years to come.