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Reaching the 100% renewable target is now possible, but sustaining it might be trickier

Talk of a 100% renewables Scotland by 2020 is more than just hot air. Kara Allyson/Flickr

When the Scottish Government set itself the target of generating 100% of the country’s electricity from renewables by 2020 many people scoffed. Now that goal is only six years away. Is it reachable?

Remember that commitment is only for electricity. On the surface the target is ambitious but achievable. In 2010 Scotland generated just short of 50,000 GWh of electricity, of which 19% came from renewables - mostly large scale hydro and wind power. A necessary increase of 80% in 10 years sounds a lot, but even though the future potential for large-scale hydropower is very limited, Scotland could do it.

Studies show that the trend is going in the right direction, and the signals from Holyrood are generally positive. Scotland’s geography also helps: it has some of the highest wind and wave potential in the world, and significant untapped potential for small-scale hydropower. All that’s needed is investment and political will - but don’t expect to see every power station shut down. Some will still be needed for export and back-up.

Meeting the electricity target is easy while the real target, demand, is falling slowly and predictably, in part because of the economic slowdown. What would happen if that target were to start increasing?

Between 2008 and 2009 Scotland’s total energy consumption fell by 7.4%, which is 9.6% against the 2005-2007 baseline. But that says little about the long-term trend – because of the impact of the recession. It’s likely that demand is actually falling more slowly. Reducing demand through energy efficiency and behaviour change is a key part of meeting the target, but those aren’t the only challenges. Scotland’s per capita energy consumption has historically been higher than that of the rest of the UK due to the demand from industry, commerce, and Scotland’s poorer-quality housing stock - and herein lies the real problem. Rather conveniently, that problem is more likely to kick in after 2020.

In order to meet the emissions reduction targets set out in the Climate Change (Scotland) Act and insure the country against rising gas prices and fuel poverty, the Scottish government will need to oversee a nationwide shift to electric and renewable (ie, not electric- or gas-powered) heating for both homes and industry - no small task. Households are responsible for around one third of Scotland’s total energy demand, while services use around 16%, and industry takes around 21%. But the difficulties in converting transport away from fossil fuels mean these sectors will need to contribute more than their share to emissions reductions.

Now, consider the fact that building and water heating makes up on average around 60-70% of total household energy demand (figures for services and industry are similar but vary more) and that 76% of Scottish homes use gas central heating. So in order to meet the emissions targets most of that heating demand will need to be met by renewable energy.

Although Scotland also has ambitious and innovative plans for renewable heat, some experts are concerned that the new proposals for beyond 2020 do not go as far as has been recommended. What can’t be met by renewable heat will have to be met by renewable electricity. And while Scotland is now home to a growing number of community energy projects, its geography, climate and building stock all pose barriers to microgeneration. There also are serious concerns over the sustainability of large-scale biomass power.

Now recall that date. It is certainly possible to achieve 100% renewable electricity generation by 2020, but for how long can it be sustained? Suddenly it starts looking like a very different problem, one that in the longer term will require a lot more than new wind, wave and hydro.

The biggest problem beyond 2020 will not be so much about how Scotland - and indeed, most places in high latitudes - generates its electricity, but how it generates and distributes heat. Here again there is hope that community-led solar thermal and small scale biomass could make significant contributions to meeting demand, particularly in rural areas. But meeting demand in Scotland’s dense urban areas will need significant and costly new infrastructure. As the people of the capital can attest – thanks to the Edinburgh trams debacle – infrastructure projects have a nasty habit of over-running time and budget, and getting cut.

That’s the real problem, and that’s why experts and climate groups have criticised the Scottish Parliament’s Second Report on Proposals and Policies, in which the key item for Scotland’s 14 year climate change plan was to spend £2m on low energy bulbs for streetlamps.

A 100% renewable electricity-powered Scotland by 2020 is possible - but will it still be possible in 2021, and 2022, and for years into the future?

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