Alex Salmond’s vision of a Scotland powered entirely by renewable energy by 2020 has been dismissed as “nonsense” by one of the UK’s leading energy economists.
In an interview with The Times Dieter Helm, professor of energy policy at the University of Oxford, insisted it did not make economic sense for Scotland to be reliant on renewable energy — and nor would it help in the battle against climate change.
Professor Helm said: “Salmond has talked about 100 per cent renewables for Scotland. Well, it’s nonsense. Wind is intermittent by definition. You have to ask a very simple question: even if you wanted to do this, what are you going to do when the wind doesn’t blow?
“The truth is Scotland relies on baseload nuclear power, coal and gas to balance its system and it will have to for a very long time to come. Full stop.”
Professor Helm, a member of the economic advisory committee to the UK secretary of state for energy and climate change, accepted that renewables had their place, particularly in helping to power remote island communities. However, he insisted the government should embrace a balanced energy policy as opposed to the notion of Scotland as “the Saudi Arabia of renewables” which Mr Salmond has helped to popularise.
Mr Salmond, who will stand down as first minister next week, raised Scotland’s renewable electricity target to 100 per cent by 2020 during the last election campaign. Figures released in July showed that in 2013 renewable electricity generation was equivalent to 46.6 per cent of gross electricity consumption compared with 16.9 per cent in 2006.
But as the amount of electricity generated from renewables has grown so has Scotland’s reliance on millions of pounds of subsidy, factored into energy bills across the UK, warned Professor Helm. He questioned whether it made economic sense for Scotland to pursue a strategy that relied predominantly on English consumers to pay the costs of systems and interconnections.
Tracing energy policy back a decade and more, he said Mr Salmond — who in other ways appeared “a rather good economist” — had fallen in with other European politicians by promoting green technologies, which seemed to offer a competitive investment, against an anticipated rise in oil prices.
This had proved a fallacy, said Professor Helm, particularly in light of the 25 per cent fall in the oil price over recent weeks.
He added: “If only we were about to run out of fossil fuels, we might address the problem of climate change more quickly, but the truth is we have enough left to fry the planet many times over. Salmond’s energy policy is economically dependent on the rest of the UK and it is pricing Scotland out of the world market as the price of fossil fuels falls away.”
Professor Helm is the author of The Carbon Crunch, a powerful polemic arguing that governments around the world are failing in their efforts to tackle global warming. He argues for a more urgent response including a transition from coal to gas, carbon pricing and investment in new energy technology.
He reserves strong criticisms for wind power — “disaggregated, diffuse and intermittent” — which in Scotland is despoiling “some of the most beautiful wild open landscapes in the world”.
Pointing out that northern Europe is prone to high pressure climatic conditions in mid to late winter, when there is little or no wind, Professor Helm notes that in addition to thousands of turbines a “complete non-wind system” is required to cover those periods of calm — “two sets of electricity capacity rather than one”.
He went on: “Thus the next time you hear a politician — like Alex Salmond — claiming that ‘by generating all of Scotland’s electricity needs from renewables by 2020, we will be well placed to go further and become a leading exporter’ you will know it is nonsense.”
Last night, the Scottish government maintained it was committed to delivering its 2020 target from renewables “as part of a wider, balanced electricity mix” and said renewables were going from “strength to strength”.
A spokesman added: “This should be another record year for renewable electricity generation in Scotland, with 30 per cent higher generation in the first half of 2014 compared to the same period last year.”
Despite his apparent commitment to renewables during this year’s independence campaign, Mr Salmond often set himself at odds with his Green allies by stressing the importance of oil to Scotland’s economy.
“When you take the rhetoric away, he is as keen as mustard on fossil fuels,” said Professor Helm. “Weren’t fossil fuels meant to pay for the entire Scottish economy? If he genuinely wanted to be zero-fossil fuels and low carbon, he should have closed down the North Sea.”