A fossil fuel free Scotland is not only technically achievable but could prove a cheaper and safer option than pursuing fossil fuel-based development, according to a new WWF-backed report.
The study by consultancy giant DNV-GL tested the viability of the Scottish Government's current policy goal of decarbonising the country's electricity generation by 2030, setting a target of bringing carbon intensity down from 271 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour to 50g CO2/kwh. The target is separate to the goal of providing 100 per cent of electricity demand from renewables by 2020, which still allows for coal and gas to remain on the grid.
The 2030 decarbonisation policy assumes carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology will be operating at scale, fitted to 2.5GW of gas power plants. WWF deems this a risky strategy considering there are no commercial-scale CCS operations in the UK and the government has yet to decide a winner for its 1bn commercialisation competition for the technology between the Peterhead CCS project and the White Rose project at Drax.
However, the report says CCS is not needed to decarbonise Scotland's electricity sector and concludes "a renewables-based, efficient, flexible, electricity system is perfectly feasible by 2030" given Scotland's abundance of wind and wave energy resources and strong tradition of engineering innovation.
While electricity production accounts for around a third of Scotland's emissions, renewables are already the country's biggest electricity generator - outstripping nuclear, coal and gas - and in November wind turbines alone produced more than 100 per cent of the country's domestic electricity needs.
WWF says the current pipeline of renewables projects will be "more than adequate" to hit the decarbonisation target, while allowing for substantial electricity exports to the rest of the UK - particularly if Scotland makes progress on energy efficiency and pumped hydro energy storage.
Furthermore, the report calculates the cost of meeting the 2030 goal with a renewables-based system is 663m a year - substantially cheaper than the 1.85bn price tag of a system with CCS-fitted thermal plant - because the cost of new wind power is deemed cheaper than CCS.
"Our technical analysis shows that a system with an extremely high proportion of renewable electricity generation located in Scotland can be secure and stable," said Paul Gardner, lead author of the report for DNV GL. "There is no technical reason requiring conventional fossil and nuclear generation in Scotland.
"Scotland has plenty of renewables in the pipeline to cut the carbon from its power supply by 2030, particularly if we see progress on reducing electricity demand. And crucially, Scotland can continue to be an electricity exporting nation."
However, the report outlines a number of policy recommendations needed to attract the investment needed to realise the vision of a renewables-powered Scotland. These include a "clear regulatory signal" that the government will not incentivise coal by tightening the emissions performance standards for existing coal plants and setting a UK-wide decarbonisation target to match that in Scotland.
The report goes on to argue that the amount of funding remaining for clean energy projects under the government's levy control framework budget is only enough to support one additional large renewables project through to 2020 and as such more funds will need to be released to boost growth in the sector.
Greater joint efforts between Westminster and Holyrood will also be required to support initiatives reducing demand for energy, the report states, as well as initiatives to provide more timely grid connections for projects in outlying areas and boost investment in wave and tidal energy technologies and pumped storage.
Gina Hanrahan, climate and energy policy officer at WWF Scotland, said that CCS should still remain part of the government's plans, but given the slow progress of the technology ministers should be looking to explore alternative paths to reach their 2030 goal.
"The report shows that not only is a renewable, fossil-fuel free electricity system perfectly feasible in Scotland by 2030, it's actually the safe bet," she added. "Pursuing this pathway would allow Scotland to maintain and build on its position as the UK and Europe's renewable powerhouse, cut climate emissions and continue to reap the jobs and investment opportunities offered by Scotland's abundant renewable resources.
"We need to see the phasing out of conventional generation in Scotland, clarity about the future market for renewables across the UK and more emphasis on demand reduction and storage in Scotland so the vision can be achieved."
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