Q&A with Paul Wheelhouse on fracking, wind energy and fuel poverty

Written by Staff reporter on 10 December 2018 in Inside Politics

Q&A with the Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands on the future of Scottish energy policy

Image credit: Holyrood

How did you feel about the change in your brief during the reshuffle? We know you loved the innovation bit…

Innovation is a fantastic policy area, with exciting developments in areas like fintech and life sciences, but I very much enjoyed the whole portfolio. I have long had a particular affection for energy, so I am delighted to still be involved in the sector, which is massively important to Scotland’s economy, and literally keeping the lights on. Nothing happens without energy, after all! There is also a great deal of exciting innovation within the sector too. In my new brief, I not only have the opportunity to continue that work, but to take on some significant new challenges, such as in the rollout of digital connectivity and implementing the Islands Bill too.

Are energy bills too high?

The simple answer to that is that given there are as many as one in four of Scotland’s people who are struggling with fuel poverty, then yes, they are too high, albeit that is in part because of constrained income and not just energy prices. Energy bills remain a huge concern for many Scottish consumers, with speculation around rising prices an understandable worry for many households. The regulation of energy markets is currently reserved to the UK Parliament and UK ministers and so this places limitations on how and when Scottish ministers can intervene. That said, we do have a very legitimate interest in respect of the impact on Scotland and we are committed to using all measures at our disposal to champion the needs of Scotland’s energy consumers and to reduce their exposure to high prices through investment in energy-efficiency measures.

What has happened to Scotland becoming the Saudi Arabia of green energy?

Scotland is a huge success story for renewable energy. We have seen, in 2017 alone, more than 1GW of newly installed capacity and we know that the equivalent of 69 per cent of our electricity needs could be met from renewable sources – more than 45 per cent ahead of the rest of the UK (23 per cent). We’ve ramped up our renewable ambitions and continue to be absolutely committed to delivering clean, green energy. WWF recently noted that renewable generation accounted for 98 per cent of demand in Scotland during October – and on 16 days of the month, renewable generation exceeded demand.

After the IPCC report into the impact of global warming, is it time to step up the pace on Scotland’s Energy Efficiency Programme?

We have a strong track record in investing in energy efficiency and Energy Efficient Scotland will build on this. We are already well on our way to delivering our 2016 Programme for Government commitment to spending £500 million on fuel poverty and energy efficiency to 2021 – in the current year alone, we have committed more than £146 million. And by 2021, we will have allocated over £1 billion to energy efficiency since 2009. We are already ramping up activity – earlier this year, the First Minister launched the Energy Efficient Scotland Route Map and Transition Programme, setting out an ambitious and, crucially, credible pathway to achieve our ambitions.

What is the process for moving to renewable heat?

Decarbonising heat is a very high priority as around 54 per cent of the energy we consume is needed for heat – we want to see 50 per cent of the energy for Scotland’s heat, transport and electricity consumption being supplied from renewable sources by 2030. The Energy Efficient Scotland programme is designed to address both energy demand reduction and the decarbonisation of heat. It is right that we tackle these issues together. For the next few years, the focus will be on supporting activity on low regrets options – through improving the energy efficiency in all buildings and deploying low carbon heat solutions in off-gas grid areas and urban areas with dense heat loads. These actions make sense regardless of long-term decisions on heat decarbonisation.

Do you think there is any element of personal responsibility in terms of Scots helping to reduce energy use?

Everyone has a role to play to ensure we use energy efficiently so that we can reduce climate change emissions. Individual actions like installing energy-efficiency measures or better heating management can help to reduce Scotland’s emissions. Energy Efficient Scotland, for example, will help to transform our buildings so that they are warmer, greener and more efficient by 2040. This includes putting a framework of standards in place to help make it the norm to invest in energy efficiency. We will also continue to support homeowners by providing grants and low cost loans.

Why does Scotland purchase shale gas from other countries when we’re opposed to using our own?

The Scottish Government does not purchase shale gas and Scotland already produces six times as much natural gas annually than we consume.

In October 2017 I announced the Scottish Government’s ‘preferred policy position’ of not supporting the development of unconventional oil and gas reserves in Scotland. We are, as promised when I made my statement, now fulfilling our commitment to consult on both a Strategic Environmental Assessment of that preferred policy position and a partial business and regulatory impact assessment – exactly as I said we would. In developing our preferred policy position, we carefully considered all the evidence on unconventional oil and gas, including a report from the UK Committee on Climate Change, who highlighted the significant additional impact its production would have on Scotland’s greenhouse gas emissions – and the challenge it would raise for achieving Scotland’s ambitious climate-change targets.

The Scottish Government acknowledges the significant economic and strategic importance of the Grangemouth industrial complex to Scotland, and we want to see a sustainable future for both the refinery and petrochemical business. The sourcing of chemical feedstocks for these operations is a commercial decision for the operator, and while we have no powers to intervene, we stress our desire that operators ensure feedstock supplies of ethane are sourced responsibly from sources that are well regulated.

You’ve said you want Scotland to export oil and gas. How does that fit with your ambitions on  climate change?

 The energy systems of Scotland, the UK and member states of the EU are all on a transition to a low carbon or, indeed, decarbonised future. Like Scotland, most Northern European states are currently dependent upon hydrocarbons for the overwhelming majority of their energy needs in respect of transport and heat. The Scottish Government has recognised the positive role that the oil and gas sector and its supply chain can provide during and beyond the transition, and we are seeing increasing evidence of collaboration between the sector and renewable energy. 

It is worth stating that Scotland is well on its way to meet and exceed the 2020 greenhouse gas emissions targets set out in the Climate Change Scotland Act 2009. As recognised in Scotland’s Energy Strategy, a strong domestic oil and gas industry can play a positive role in supporting the low carbon transition as the sector continues to be a key component of our energy system and economy. In the context of an effective, managed transition, we strongly believe that maintaining our domestic production can lead to lower net global emissions, rather than entering a scenario where, although Scotland is currently more than self-sufficient, the UK and Europe would become ever more dependent on imports from basins that do not operate to as rigorous standards or where this may pose security or supply concerns. By contrast, while we must maintain vigilance on environmental compliance, the North Sea industry is highly regulated, with some of the most advanced and comparatively least polluting production methods in the world. 

People are getting excited about the potential of tidal power. How do we support it to meet that potential?

Scotland is home to the world’s leading wave and tidal test centre, EMEC in Orkney, the world’s first tidal stream array, the world’s largest planned tidal stream array and the world’s most powerful tidal stream turbine. These achievements can be attributed to consistent and committed support from the Scottish Government and its enterprise agencies, together with the passion, investment and innovation of the industry.

Despite a number of high-profile successes, the path to commercialisation remains the key challenge for the industry. The investment climate has been made far more difficult by the UK Government’s decision to remove a commitment to ring-fenced subsidy for marine energy. By contrast, Scotland’s Energy Strategy includes a commitment to continue to support the research, development, innovation and demonstration that will maintain Scotland’s competitive advantage in both wave and tidal energy.

How does Brexit change Scotland’s energy priorities?

Brexit doesn’t change our priorities for energy – it just adds complexity and unnecessary uncertainty, and it means we’ll have to work harder to achieve our ambitions. It’s a fact that being in the EU has provided long-term certainty for energy industry and investors, and we in the Scottish Government have had great success by marrying EU frameworks and funding with our national energy policies. Leaving the EU is the UK Government’s project – that the people of Scotland voted overwhelmingly against – and we expect the UK Government to ensure there is no loss of momentum in decarbonising the economy, by maintaining participation in the internal energy market and keeping in step with the EU and putting in place arrangements that properly respect devolved competence and the importance of the sector to social and economic development.

Wind turbines. Beautiful or an eyesore?

I can honestly say I find them beautiful and majestic, and in my view, they move in a graceful and elegant way. Not only that, these projects are very impressive feats of engineering and physical examples of our commitment as a species to our desire to leave the planet in a better state than how we found it. So, when located in the right places, I would argue wind turbines can be beautiful and not an eyesore, but I wholly accept that this is not a universally held view and this is why I respect the views of others. We must always ensure that we strike the right balance, but I note that in the 2017 Rough Guide, readers voted Scotland the most beautiful country in the world, even as we broke records for the amount of renewables capacity that was installed. 

You’re now islands minister. What’s your favourite island? 

That feels like an impossible question to answer – rather like asking a proud parent which of their children is their favourite. I have 93 to look after now, and perhaps I had best wait to identify my favourite until after I have visited them all.

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