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Reflections from this year’s Scottish Renewables Conference

The Scottish Government has set out ambitious targets in their draft Climate Change Plan and Energy Strategy (now under consultation), aiming for 50% renewable energy by 2030. This is in line with the Paris Agreement and is the type of commitment necessary to avoid ‘risky climate change’. This certainly makes it an interesting time and place to be doing research in the field of energy prosumption and renewables!

Last week I attended the Scottish Renewables Annual Conference and was given a window into current debates and concern facing this industry. This 2-day conference of approximately 180 attendees was primarily attended by industry (energy and renewable companies) with government, NGOs and a few researchers feeding into discussion. This blog is a short reflection on reoccurring themes from the conference presentations and conversations I encountered at this event.

1. General approval: a linked up strategy

First and foremost, there was a resounding approval of the Climate Change Plan and Energy Strategy. Of course there are concerns and scepticism on its delivery, but following Chris Stark’s (Director of Energy and Climate Change, Scottish Government) presentation of this proposal both a panellist discussion and poll of the audience applauded the Scottish Government for setting such ambitious targets. It was also noted that these documents have been backed by the Conservative party in Scotland as well, so it is a cross-party commitment to addressing climate change.

These were seen quite optimistically as providing the first joined up strategy for energy policy, which generally silos energy for heat, power and transport. However, later discussions mentioned opportunities to link up further with key policy areas such as Planning policy(reformed last year, ‘low carbon place’ is one of three key outcomes) and Transport strategy(refreshed last year, ‘greener’ is one of five strategic outcomes). Specific examples of these non-energy policies hampering the renewable agenda arose. For instance, Glasgow city centre no longer offers free parking for Electric Vehicles (EVs) and this has resulted in markedly less EVs in carparks as a result. Chris Stark was (somewhat worryingly) not aware of different local policies on EV. Negotiating a linked up local and national policy was another common theme as the draft Climate Change Plan places a great deal of responsibility on local authorities, despite other policies removing resources to do this (e.g. austerity). Furthermore, this reminded me of some interesting research by Emily Cox, Sarah Royston and Jan Selby (2016) on the impacts of non-energy policies on the energy system – it is definitely an area for further exploration. Overall this new plan and strategy were received as a step in the right direction and when approved will hopefully provide the necessary national strategy to drive local policies and practices.

2. No clear answer for how to decarbonise heat

Yet of course there were issues and many unanswered questions. For me, and many others, the elephant in the room was an absence of discussion or detail on decarbonisation of heat – which is 53% of overall energy demand in Scotland and the main demand for energy in every county. This is not an issue specific to Scotland, but reflective of discussions around renewables globally (Ellsworth-Krebs and Reid, 2016). The first day, renewable energy was essentially used as a synonym for renewable power. While renewable power becoming ‘mainstream’ is certainly something to celebrate, power only accounts for 22% of Scotland’s overall energy demand and was referred to by Chris Stark as the ‘easy bit’ of decarbonisation. In fact, this was another common theme across sessions, an emphasis that renewable power is no longer niche but well-established with onshore wind and PV being cost competitive and often cheaper than any other form of production.

The second day, heat did get more mention. One speaker commented that “it is good to see heat getting the attention that it was starved in the past”, nonetheless there was no sense of any clear plan or direction for how to decarbonise heat – and Chris Stark forwardly admitted this. In many of my discussions at ‘networking’ parts of the event we considered the complexity of this challenge and the many questions it raised.

To what extent can we ‘electricify’ heat? And if we did, can we even expect to produce enough renewable electricity to heat homes and power EVs as well as ‘keep the lights on’ (the Energy stategy proposes a 30% increase in electricity demand as a result)?

If 80% of Scotland is on the gas mains is it really feasible to decarbonise this with hydrogen? No one seemed to think that there was evidence of the possibility to shift the gas mains to 100% hydrogen – although this is being trialed in the H21 Leeds City Gate Project.

What role can district heating play? And what percentage can this actually be expected to contribute to overall heat consumption? Currently half of the district heating schemes in Scotland are from renewable energy sources but others referred to a study suggesting only 7% of Scotland’s heat could be met with district heating by 2025- due largely to the high costs of laying infrastructure for this (i.e. pipes to connect to houses or business) as well as concerns of air pollution from biomass in urban areas. Interestingly, Denmark was frequently referenced as an exemplar because 60% of their heating is from district heating. Stephanie Clark (Scottish Renewables, Sector Strategy and Development) noted the Danes had a different culture and air pollution has not been a public concern in relation to biomass in urban areas.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS), referred to by Chris Start as the ‘unicorn policy’ because it has the potential to offer negative emissions when paired with renewables, featured heavily in the draft Energy strategy. But how developed is this technology and considering over the last 2 years the UK Government has removed £1 billion investment in CCS it raises many concerns about the political will necessary to drive this agenda.The RHI was hardly mentioned at all – the first of its kind in the world, operating like a Feed in Tarrif (FiTs) hugely successful in supporting renewable power technologies and paying householders for the unit of heat they produce. The domestic RHI depends on individual installations so it is quite a small scale response.

Efficiency received perhaps the most attention in discussion of the heat sector. Yet this came across as an excuse for not offering clearer plans for decarbonising heat because this could be tackled at a later point when the housing stock is more efficient across the board. Based on a 15 year target for half the energy in Scotland coming this really cannot wait.

The variation in heat demand is far greater than for electricity (seasonal as opposed to daily rhythms) and meeting peaks is key to planning. Energy storage and a responsive energy system is key and there are no easy, whole-system solutions as yet. How to deliver renewable heat is a real challenge and at least it is being raised as a priority.

3. Who pays for this vision?

Another common topic interwoven in presentations and informal chats came back to funding: corporate Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs), upgrading the grid and the Low Carbon Infrastructure Transition Programme (LCITP), carbon pricing, full-system analysis, international pension funds, FiTs. While the Energy strategy offers a vision for decarbonisation, it is tricky to see who will pay for upgrading the grid or making the changes to infrastructure to support district heating for instance. There have been considerable cuts in government subsidies for renewable energy and there was discussion of more reliance on corporations for funding – with a mixed reception. Oil and gas companies attended, emphasising their commitment and investment in renewable energy and applying their knowledge and skills to this sector. For example, Statoil’s Hywind project off the coast of Aberdeenshire – the world’s first floating wind farm.

Overall, my take away from this conference was a realisation that Scotland is a good place to be doing research on renewable heat. There is a focus on being the ‘first’, indeed many presenters mentioned this and seemed invited on this basis. Scotland has taken the lead on renewables and has been ahead of the game on climate change for quite some time:

  • Orkney, the UK’s first smart grid
  • Renweable Heat Incentive, first of its kind in the world to support renewable heating technologies the same as the Feed in Tariff did for power
  • Hywind, the world’s largest floating wind farm
  • MeyGen, the world’s first utility scale tidal array
  • Climate Change Act (2009) 80% reduction in 1990 level emissions by 2050.

Why wouldn’t Scotland be the ‘first’ on pushing decarbonisation of heat too?

To conclude I bring this back to how this all relates to our Smarter Homes project. Notice that my summary of the conference has not mentioned the end users. These topic did come up, there was interest in the ‘topography’ of energy demand changing, but most of this fell back to typical ‘economic rationalisation’ framing of individuals’ behaviours. There is definitely scope then for starting new conversations about transforming everyday life and how a decarbonised energy system fits with this.

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