Scotland's energy transitions past and future

Scotland: 400 years of energy transitions since James VI

Scotland has ambitious plans to become a world leading low carbon economy. But to deliver on this ambition will take some clear thinking about how we will genrate energy in the future. More importantly, we need to learn from our past and recognise that we have been decarbonising our economy for nearly 400 years.

Energy crisis? We've been here before

Energy crisis of the 1970s? Nothing compared to the 1570s

Through the production of cheap energy the British Isles had seen swaths of its natural environment blighted and was running short of easily accessible carbon rich fuel. In response, the state made attempts to constrain resource use through law and energy efficiency measures were actively encouraged. Progressives advocated a way forward by gearing up the production and exploitation of a potent new energy dense fuel. However, some environmental thinkers viewed the impending transition to the new low carbon technology as quite simply an affront to nature. This was a very real national energy crisis. It took place some 400 years ago.

Is sustainability a dangerous idea?

Hydrocarbons replace carbohydrates on the road to prosperity

Sustainability was defined by the 1987 Brundtland Commission as the ability to “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Few would argue with this. However, the response to the need for sustainability has evolved into a modern orthodoxy with three key messages; the release of carbon dioxide due to human activity has been a catastrophe; we need to prioritise energy efficiency over energy production; we need to curtail energy intensive long haul travel. However, the thinking behind each of these ideas while well meaning, is misguided, ultimately damaging and quite often misanthropic.

We need new energy to power the future

Methane: 4 hydrogen bonds and only 1 carbon atom

Ambitions are at an all time low for this week's climate talks in Cancun. It's not hard to see why. At last year's Copenhagen climate summit president Obama made the telling observation that "these international discussions have essentially taken place now for almost two decades, and we have very little to show for it". He is of course absolutely right. Carbon emissions have continued to rise year on year.

Era of cheap energy is only over if we choose so

Generation III: Compact, clean and carbon-free, what's not to like?

Surprisingly, the substitution of coal for wood during the Elizabethan era was the first transition to a low carbon economy. Coal is a low carbon fuel since, per unit of energy produced, it releases less carbon than wood. This decarbonising of energy production continued through transitions from coal to oil, gas and now nuclear fission. Each new fuel has a higher energy density and lower carbon content than the last, particularly so for carbon-free nuclear energy. Over 400 years, these improvements in energy density have led to better energy utility, falling energy costs and, wonderfully, greater energy use.

Is local the new global?

Earn feed-in-tarrif income from micro-wind? First buy a roof

My two youngest sons spent an enjoyable, if wet, summer tending to a pair of potted tomato plants. Growing some of our own food was an interesting distraction, illustrating the connection between food and the soil on which we all depend. But now that we are in the depths of winter, the cultivation is of minds in the classroom rather than plants in the garden.

A solution to the power struggle

UAE 5,600 MW energy park - equivalent to Scotland's peak load

The United Arab Emirates and Scotland have much in common. Both are small nations whose economies have been geared to the production and export of oil and both are rich in future renewable energy potential. The empty deserts of the Emirates have the capacity to produce vast quantities of clean solar energy, while the coastal waters of Scotland could generate copious wind, wave and tidal energy. However, while the Emirates have just awarded a contract for four nuclear power plants, in Scotland we are in the process of winding down our nuclear capacity.