Tuesday 24 March 2015

Reality Rains on the SNP's Parade

Just when the SNP's tails are up and they are looking forward to dictating terms in May, along comes one of those unwelcome intrusions of cold, dull, solid reality.  The very large Longannet power station in Fife now looks set to close next year, quite a bit sooner than many anticipated and certainly much too soon for any like-for-like replacement to be built in Scotland.

A brief account of what this means in electricity supply terms.  Longannet is the biggest power plant in Scotland and it is coal-fired, meaning it can produce electricity reliably on cold, still days.  This of course is in stark contrast to the wind-power which in terms purely of theoretical capacity is what is replacing it north of the border.  There won't be much reliable power left there soon, with Peterhead's capacity (gas) much reduced and the nuclear units at Hunterston and Torness also set to close.   Despite what many imagine, there really isn't as much hydro power in Scotland as its hills and rainfall might suggest. 

The SNP's vision is a Scotland producing "100% of its electricity needs" and indeed exporting surplus to England and Wales.  They like the gullible to imagine this means self-sufficiency for Scotland, and Salmond even claims Scotland's wind power "keeps the lights on on England": but it's at best a numerical sleight of hand, at worst a downright lie.  There are times when there is indeed a surplus when the wind is cooperating, but the coal / gas / nukes have to work hard when it isn't, and indeed there will always be times when imports are required from England.  If (in the green fantasy world) Scotland went fully "renewable" (= mostly wind), there would of course be times when massive amounts of imports would be required.

This is rather like the German situation writ small; and of course it makes Scotland utterly dependent on being a fully integrated part of a much bigger and much more reliable grid.  Economically, it has an uncomfortable further implication: exports will be when the wind is blowing nicely, and will be at rock-bottom prices.  (Germany sometimes exports at negative prices, i.e. is forced to dump "must-take" wind and solar power on its neighbours.)  Imports will be when the grid is struggling and will be at top-dollar, or whatever currency Salmond imagines he'll be using.

Now although there are greens and dumb-Nats who have unthinkingly swallowed the "100%" line (lots of 'em, as a cursory reading of Scottish websites and CiF will confirm) there will be fewer of those this morning as the realities of Longannet and post-Longannet are paraded across the media.

Needless to say, the SNP have found a way to blame the wicked English for the problem - "Grid charges are set deliberately to disadvantge Scotland" which, I need hardly add, is bollocks - and Longannet's owners, the Spanish (sic) have fed them this line.  Well of course: all power generators are down at the regulator's office with their greedy hands out these days.  

The Nats will be sorely disappointing the greens in the coming days because they'll be arguing for (a) a Longannet bail-out, just as the greens are celebrating its demise, and (b) a structural bail-out for Scottish power plants in general, to encourage someone to build a big new gas-fired plant to replace the coal-munching monster.   Amusingly, the only real prospect for this is if the fiercely-opposed plans of INEOS and others for Scottish 'unconventional' gas production (i.e. fracking and coalbed methane) come to fruition.  That ain't gonna be any time soon.

We have C@W readers who can judge the mood of Scottish voters better than I.  But I can't help thinking a blunt reinforcement like this of the dependency of Scotland on being part of an integrated UK set-up is a modest dousing of cold highland water.



BE said...

I don't understand the dumping aspect. If a wind- or solar- farm is generating unneeded power, can't it be taken off the grid temporarily? Or used to pump water up a hill?

Oh well, anything to shaft a newly-independent Whineland gets my vote.

Nick Drew said...

BE - it can be taken off the grid and indeed sometimes it is made to do so compulsorily: but then compo is payable. The grid tries to accommodate all power so that it can earn market price (and receive its output-related subsidies); and mostly it succeeds, even if 'inefficiently'

same with Germany (though the rules are different in detail)

so in each case, when it's physically possible, surpluses flow to wherever the laws of physics take them and, having been generated at near-0 variable cost (in the case of wind and power) they come into the wholesale markets often at near-zero, or even in Germany sometimes sub-zero, prices

(the wind generators still get their subsidies, so they don't care)

some of this certainly pumps water uphill but the scope for doing so is (a) less than one would like - suitable sites are few and far between - and (b) in the UK's case, mostly based in Wales, so representing an 'export' for Scotty surpluses

BE said...

Aha, I see. Thanks for explaining!

Odin's Raven said...

The independent Scots will have to drink lots of whiskey to keep warm!

Oswald Thake said...

Won't Scotland be in a similar position to Denmark re wind power? There, I understand Danish consumer subsidizes electricity exports to Norway when there's a surplus of wind, only to pay again for imports of Norwegian hydro electricity - or so I'm told.
Also, what's the total capacity of the interlinks between Scotland and England? Would we be able to transfer sufficient power when the wind isn't blowing?

Nick Drew said...

Oswald - welcome: yes, somewhat similar to Denmark in those respects and, to repeat, the export prices from a wind-surplus region are generally at rock-bottom prices whereas imports are usually at premium prices (for the obvious reasons), so an apparently favourable or balanced volumetric import/export account will be horribly negative in cash terms

the interconnections are insufficient, as you imply: but they are being upgraded shortly with a big and rather dramatic new link

even that may not be enough, so more will be needed but the Grid doesn't care: they get a guaranteed rate of return on 'investments' of that kind!

Jock McJock said...

I assume this is Tartan Week at C@W.

Structural changes take time and there are costs involved. But the Longannet situation is no different from Hinckley - or any new PS in the UK given the ridiculous subsidies (Mr Barker as was) given out.

You might want to point to another situation e.g Germany and Russian Gas. Would reunification of East Germany with Russia be in their best interests given (West) Germany's dalliance with the Greens.

Your points make no sense in the overall picture of a much needed European power grid including the need to increase the intercontact with France.

Get rid of Scotland and you can bask in your own nuclear glow.

John miller said...

We're all Communists now.
The two big fuels of Capitalism, finance and energy are run in a Communist environment; the socialising of losses.
Every experiment of Communism has failed. Some still exist because of the power of the gun,but these will also ultimately fail.
Europe is now like the Egyptian and Romanempires, a hollow shell, built on sand, waiting for reality to crush it.

DJK said...

ND: Thanks for the Western Link link --- very interesting. I note that whereas Longannet in the 1970s was built with GEC equipment, now it all has to be imported from Siemens.

Re. the SNP: Facts are, of course, irrelevant to a cult. The whole appeal of the SNP --- and they share this with 1970s Irish republicanism --- is that any situation can be blamed on the English. Unfortunately, they tap into a chip-on-shoulder, "support anyone but England", grievance culture, that is one of the less attractive aspects of comtemporary Scotland.

CityUnslicker said...

At least in scotland they still have grangemouth. They can make D2Diesel there and thus scots can go buy some generators for themselves to keep their own power on.

Nick Drew said...

welcome to you too, Jock - draw up a seat alongside our Scottish regulars

Your points make no sense in the overall picture of a much needed European power grid

How so? Greater interconnection (and the inter-operability to go with it) is broadly a Good Thing, certainly, although note that Germany's neighbours are contemplating measures to prevent them 'exporting' (i.e. dumping their random wind-power surges: it's not the low prices they obbject to, it's the grid disruptions the surges cause

in the putative world of unconstrained interconnection, sure enough a Longannet here or there is of lesser consequence

my point however is that the SNP, + Scottish WWF et al insist on talking about "Scottish electricity" in ring-fenced rhetorical terms

never mind that all the windfarms are dependent on 'UK' (i.e. predominantly English) subsidies

(we'll be happy to withhold the £££ if anyone wants to press the point about 'self-sufficiency')

of course if we elevate our gaze the empty parochialism appears for what it is: but they won't!

John M - a strongly-stated diagnosis but the point is well made! we've been make essentially the same points about socialisation of finance & energy for a long time around here, if not quite in those words

Elby the Beserk said...

Odin's Raven said...
The independent Scots will have to drink lots of whiskey to keep warm!
Whisky. Us Irish drink Whiskey. And were making before the Scots :-)

Y Ddraig Goch said...


Going back to the original title for
a moment, are you sure that reality
is raining on the SNP's Parade? You
are describing a fairly technical
issue. Most voters will either never
hear about it or not care. Even if it
somehow became an active political
question, the SNP has obvious ways
to handle that ...

a) If there are power cuts, or some
other clear cut problem in real
peoples' lives, well that's the
result of Westminster deliberately
neglecting Scotland, so - "Vote SNP!"

b) If no actual problems occur, well
that just proves that this was
another scare story from those
dastardly Westminster politicians,
so - "Vote SNP!"

I'm not arguing with the facts that
you presented. I just don't see how
they are bad for the SNP, when the
SNP can so easily blame Westminster
politicians no matter what happens.

K said...

I think one of the reasons the green energy line flies well in Scotland is because most of the country gets their bill from SSE under the "Scottish Hydro" brand. So people think their energy is already renewable.

Nick Drew said...

Y Ddraig Goch - I agree the SNP will hatch a lie (sorry, a 'line') to suit all eventualities, but I am suggesting that subliminally the whole episode reinforces what must be a nagging suspicion among more thoughtful voters that some things only really make sense on an integrated basis

indeed, the Scottish WWF, while claiming 'Scotland can be 100% self sufficient using only renewables (and not even nukes)' admit in the small print that this depends on being part of a wider grid that is actually *ahem* reliable

(see page6 of this - http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/pathwaystopower.pdf?_ga=1.47209191.1191771682.1424867249)

rwendland said...

Re "imported from Siemens". Siemens have bought out a number of UK firms - the Siemens UK website goes as far as saying "Siemens ... has been active in the United Kingdom for over 170 years"!! So maybe not an import.

Looks like they bought Parsons' steam turbine generator business in Newcastle, still employing 700 there. And they have a "Transmission and Distribution " business in Hebburn.

This is the way it goes in the globalised markets. Just like UK firms bought companies around the world.

Y Ddraig Goch said...


Thanks. I looked at that page. The wording is instructive. If I hadn't read
your piece first, I would have read that page 6 as saying that occasional
Scottish peaks and troughs can be smoothed out with exports/imports to the
rest of the UK that are a net zero (or maybe even favourable to Scotland) and
that would have seemed plausible to someone like me with no special knowledge
of the topic. Of course, once we add in your observation about differential
pricing the picture changes, and I can figure out for myself that Scottish
shortfalls might well co-incide with English shortfalls. However, this sort of
reinforces my point - that sort of insight won't reach many voters.

I glanced through the rest of the document and noticed -

"Scotland does not need any fossil fuel power stations operating by 2030 so
the Scottish Government should not consent new plants as CCS-ready"

so it seems you are mistaken and the early closure of Longannet is all good!

This sort of thing reminds me of a quote I heard years ago - "The best way to
show a fool he's wrong is to give him his own way", which brings me back to -
why on earth is the Conservative party opposed to Scottish independence?