Archive for category Energy

Time to close Longannet

5037469308_0718473d8d_bThe most recent figures on Scotland’s energy mix are a small step in the right direction, with renewables accounting for 29.8% of 2012 generation (don’t be misled by the consumption figures at the beginning there).

The same data, however, shows that coal accounted for almost 25% of Scotland’s output. That figure will be significantly reduced for 2013, because Cockenzie closed in March of this year, a plant which amounted to about a third of Scotland’s coal-fired capacity.

The remainder is almost entirely Longannet. It’s Scotland’s number one source of carbon emissions, and it’s a killer: literally. Stuttgart University did the sums for the years by which coal shortens lives, and Longannet’s annual toll was substantial.

The third key figure in there was that 26% of the energy Scotland generated in 2012 was exported, almost exactly the same amount as was generated from coal. Essentially, we’re burning vast amounts of coal at Longannet and massively aggravating climate change not “to keep the lights on”, but just to keep Iberdrola’s profits up.

This isn’t just a failure of the market: it’s entirely consistent with the dirty little misdirection at the heart of the SNP’s energy policy in their last manifesto. As I put it in 2011: “On the environment, the 100% renewable pledge looks good, until you see that for the SNP it also means retaining all the climate-busting generating capacity for sale.”

The climate doesn’t care whether coal’s burnt for export or domestic consumption. And no amount of renewable generation does a damn thing for climate change unless we use it as an opportunity to close down coal, oil and gas plants at the same time. The figures are clear: Scotland can’t afford Longannet.  It needs to be shut down as soon as possible, and proper training and investment put in to support the hundreds of people who work there. And yes, coal plants must be shut before the nukes: their time will come.

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Dunfermline athletics long game to kick off for Green goals

elephantbridgeCara Hilton is now firmly ensconced in Holyrood after what turned out to be a reasonable majority in the Dunfermline by-election. Her victory was assured using a scattergun approach to campaigning that entailed being selective about what Scottish Labour’s current policy platform says and relying heavily on ‘I’m no SNP, so I must be Labour’ identity politics.

I know this because I was responsible in part for organising Zara Kitson’s campaign for the Greens and saw it all unfold before me first hand. How do you fight half-truths with truth when nobody recognises the legitimacy of what you are saying? On that same note it would take a Scottish Labour spin doctor to dress the Greens’ result up as a victory, but neither was it the disaster some naysayers made out.

Looking at the question of legitimacy, I was rather disappointed with Brian Taylor for lending his voice to a piece beginning ‘Meanwhile, the Greens had an environmental message’. The clip took one quote from Zara Kitson and pretended it was a manifesto. Had the BBC checked their own footage they would have found hours of interviews with the Green candidate in which she talked about local democracy, the bedroom tax, community football, properly funded schools and well-paid jobs. I know because I was there when it was filmed.
Perhaps it serves the Greens right for running an honest campaign in which they attempted to talk about what needed to be talked about. Zara Kitson made no promises about bridge tolls she would never have individual control over or the policies of a council she would not sit on. Should the Greens have followed the UKIP route and ploughed money (but precious few activists) into the kind of bitter, dishonest and intellectually bankrupt reactionary politics designed to garner as many votes as possible on as little policy as can be inserted into a leaflet made on the 1997 version of Microsoft Publisher? Probably not.

UKIP’s voters will have gone and voted and then retired to their armchairs or slipped their driving gloves back on and taken a ride out in their Saab 95 to check there were still no wind turbines. The Green voters, however, were part of a planned-out process of capacity building and a strategy that went beyond securing votes and getting back on the motorway to Edinburgh or London. This was misconstrued by the BBC on election night when they quoted Zara Kitson saying ‘it had been all about the campaigning’. She did not just mean that it was the taking part that counted; this was a longer battle than the media were prepared to accept in their finite narrative.

The interesting thing about the Green vote in Dunfermline is that nobody had ever been given the chance to elect a constituency MSP before, and the group of people who did choose to vote Green were galvanised by the election into knowing that there were hundreds of people across the area like them. Were Holyrood by-elections contested using the AV system the results could have been radically different. First past the post traps people into tactical voting and creates the same two-party politics that dominates Westminster.  It is almost inevitable that the end result will be hastily printed flyers with big pictures of bridges on and wild promises that can never be kept and will never need to be kept.

It is about the illusion of localism and the belief that constituency MSPs are local leaders, rather than parliamentary legislators. Even more so, the first past the post element of the Scottish electoral system perpetuates the kind of thinking that Holyrood was supposed to leave behind. Why it cannot be replaced with sixteen smaller regions electing lists is a question we should probably all be asking ourselves. Local government should perhaps be left to local government and we should not pretend that Cara Hilton or any other MSP has the ability to change things by themselves.

Any such reform would also present a challenge for the Greens, it has to be recognised. There is very little data showing whether people first vote Green and then opt for a constituency candidate of their choice or whether the reverse is true.  The BBC did not help, but what Zara Kitson tried to do in Dunfermline and will no doubt do again in the future was show that Green votes are not second preferences but first steps toward something altogether different. We need an election system that liberates people to vote freely and demands that smaller parties ready themselves for government.

The People’s Land

George IIIAs a socialist, I believe in the power of collective action, both through the state and through individuals and communities acting in concert. I believe society would benefit from more public assets being acquired and then used intelligently for the public good, to redistribute wealth and support sustainability and innovation. These may not be fashionable ideas at Westminster, but the Common Weal project from the Jimmy Reid Foundation seems to have gained a fair amount of traction in Scotland.

So here’s a modest proposal for a new institution in that vein. Perhaps we could call it The People’s Land.

Ministers could begin buying up land of various sorts across the country and bringing it together to be managed better, operated on a commercial basis but with an eye on the long term rather than a fast buck for shareholders, maintaining the value and environmental integrity of the assets. We could start with neglected rural estates that could be run for the benefit of the local community, the environment and the taxpayer rather than absentee landlords. This wouldn’t be a substitute for land reform and direct community ownership – but it could be a good fit for other communities alongside the pioneering work being done in places like Eigg and Knoydart.

And forestry – it’d be great to have a publicly owned forestry management body that wasn’t as obsessed with sitka spruces as the Forestry Commission is (although they’re getting better). The Forestry Commission also costs taxpayers £60m a year (2012 accounts, pdf, p38), even though they’re managing very valuable assets for us. This new body would be instructed to do the opposite, to contribute profits to public funds while also meeting stringent standards of community and environmental stewardship, like an ultra-modern cross between a social enterprise and a publicly-owned company – one that’s a help rather than hindrance. The kind of innovation the smart parts of the left and right should be able to support.

The land in question wouldn’t all need to be at the picturesque end of rural Scotland either. This People’s Land approach could just as successfully be used with ex-mining land, and ways could be found to turn around places that suffered when the mines closed. We need to start supporting local businesses and communities in these areas again. After all, neither the market nor the state has done much for the people who bore the brunt of Thatcherite deindustrialisation.

Maybe we could even start taking on land in our cities. Residential urban land is incredibly valuable, so it’ll cost a bit to get started, but right now those benefits accrue year after year to private owners. One day we’ll hopefully have a fair land value tax, but as an interim measure perhaps an initial investment in The People’s Land could even include money to buy a little of Scotland’s prime retail real estate. This may sound impossibly radical and idealistic, but with the will, it could be done.

The substantial sums this kind of urban asset would then bring in, year after year, could then be used to help protect public services (or keep taxes down, depending on your political perspective – there’s something even for Tories in this radical socialism lark). Just like the rural properties I’m proposing, this urban land could then also be managed with the local community too, with a ruthless focus on the social, environmental and economic opportunities.  It should operate at arm’s length to avoid becoming a puppet of successive governments, but should be scrutinised by and accountable to elected representatives.

But let’s be even more ambitious. Scotland has the best natural assets in Europe for offshore renewables, and it could be in all our environmental and economic interests to have those developments managed sensibly, in a way that coordinates activity and ensures a substantial return to the taxpayer (and the utility bill payer) by charging developers for use of the seabed. In fact, it’s hard to see how else we’ll get the booming indigenous marine renewables sector everyone says they support.

And what’s the alternative for developing our marine environment responsibly? Right now, twenty-five of Scotland’s thirty-two local authorities have a bit of coastline to manage. Just look at the map – even tiny Clackmannanshire has a bit of the Forth coast. Clearly they should still have a role to play locally, but how much better to have one body working with them, a hub of expertise, a central marine development body that’s kept separate from the regulating and planning functions of government to avoid conflicts of interest. Why should those twenty-five authorities all have to have every kind of expert required to protect the public interest and secure the benefits of offshore renewables? That’s a recipe for duplication and waste, and vastly different regimes for developers to have to get their heads round. This marine body could be a separate institution, but the values we’d want from it (community involvement, true sustainability, long-term planning, economic efficiency & commercial acumen) are the same we’d be expecting from The People’s Land. So why not roll it all up together?

The good news is we don’t have to set up The People’s Land. It already exists, and we already own it. It’s just got an unfortunate name: The Crown Estate. It does most of those things already. Through it, we own 37,000ha of rural estates from Glenlivet to Whitehill in Midlothian, 5,000ha of forestry, around half the foreshore, the seabed out to 12 nautical miles, and even some of George Street and Fort Kinnaird retail park in Edinburgh.

Each year, all its profits go to the UK exchequer. Last year, the Crown Estate put £250 million into the public coffers this way. Over the past ten years the total profit to us, the taxpayers, was £2.1 billion: a tidy wee sum for Ministers to spend on our behalf.

Disastrously for its reputation, though, it has a name which makes it sound like the Royals run it. They used to, but that ended in 1760 when George III (pictured above) handed his assets over to the state in perpetuity in exchange for being given Civil List payments. For 252 years the Royal involvement was purely nominal, until some utter idiot called George Osborne decided that annual payments from Government to our bloated monarchy (i.e. the Sovereign Grant, the successor to the Civil list etc) would be set at 15% of the Crown Estate’s profits.

Plenty of left radicals oppose the Crown Estate altogether, but it seems like a misunderstanding to do so. Even prior to Osborne’s changes, I wouldn’t say it’s perfect. In particular, there’s definitely room for more local democratic involvement in their activities, and like any other public body, they haven’t always made the right decisions. The stuff about maintaining the value and environmental integrity of the assets they manage isn’t formalised in law, and it should be, although in practice that’s already part of the thinking.

But overall, it’s a first-class seed for one of the most radical and progressive institutions we could ever devise. An independent Scotland shouldn’t scrap the Crown Estate: instead we should retain our share, boost community involvement (especially around ports and harbours), and break the link with the monarchy forever. Oh, and rename it to avoid confusion.

Pic from here.

Disclosure: when I worked for a private PR consultancy the Crown Estate were one of their (and my) clients. 

Fracking is not just an issue for a small corner of England

As I write this Caroline Lucas MP is being detained in the back of a police van and likely making her way to a charge desk for her part in the anti-fracking protests in the sleepy English village of Balcombe. If you’re in any doubt as to the pros and cons of fracking, this piece by the Northern Irish green researcher Ross Brown should set you straight

Caroline will be the first MP arrested this year for reasons other than fraud, sexual assault and perjury. This alone is a feat to be applauded. What will be interesting is how the rest of the Commons reacts to one of their own being detained when they have previously shuffled uncomfortably in their shoes and looked the other way.

Caroline Lucas is no George Galloway, and bundling one of Britain’s more popular MPs into the back of a police van is unlikely to make the government’s support for fracking any less dubious than it already is.

The reason that Caroline was the only MP at the protest is that she is, at present, the only English Green MP. That may well change at the next election if people suddenly find gas wells popping up at the ends of their gardens and draw a blank when writing to their local parliamentarian. Rather shamefully, every single other English party has refused to properly assess the risks of the technology. The Lib Dems and Conservatives are all on board because their energy policy is such a woefully inept compromise of ill-informed dogma and private interest, and Labour have offered some typically non-committal assurances that they will look at the impact of fracking once it is underway. They tried the same with PFI ventures and we all know how that ended.

So it has been left to Westminster’s solitary Green to stand up for what any right-thinking MP should be and protect the energy bills, water supplies and integrity of the English public’s landscape.

How and where fracking might happen in Scotland is less clear cut. The Scottish Government currently exercises control over planning but not over energy. What’s more, the Scotland Act means that the Westminster government could feasibly overrule Holyrood if push came to shove. This might sound unlikely, but the dash for gas is so great that speculators will be looking longingly north. As we all know, there is pretty much nobody in Scotland to complain anyway. It was at least easier in the old days when you could just force people off of their land if you fancied using the natural resources.

Neither should we rely on the benevolence of the SNP in safeguarding Scotland’s communities and natural resources. As Trumpgate has shown, the modern-day SNP behemoth is no more a friend of the small man than Labour or the Conservatives when money is being waved about. The biggest challenge will be to appeal to Alex Salmond’s past as an oil economist – hopefully even black-eyed Alex will see that the sums don’t quite add up.

If the SNP or, in the future, Scottish Labour decide that fracking is a good idea they’ll be met with all sorts of opposition from Greens and non-Greens alike. As the German Green Party have shown in Stuttgart and elsewhere, riding roughshod over the rights of communities and public opinion does not make those pesky environmentalists go away. It instead leads to them having a workable majority in the local state parliament. MPs and MSPs all across the central belt would be wise to do a bit of research before they do as much as invite Dart Energy and the rest of Scotland’s fossil lobby around for a cup of tea and a slice of Dundee cake.

Caroline Lucas’ arrest is a sign of the seriousness with which we should be taking Britain’s worrying energy politics, but also a concrete illustration of the commitment which Greens across the board have to doing as much as talking. You can pass as many climate change acts as you like, but when push comes to shove there is apparently only one group of parties in the British Isles and across Europe that has the courage to stand up and be counted. Hopefully there’ll soon be a lot more of them to count.

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Scotland 2.0, or why the nation needs a new operating system.

Today a guest post from Lee Bunce, a Green with a keen interest and academic expertise in the relationships between information, democracy and technology. 

Whitelee wind farm creative commons

Scotland is uniquely placed to take advantage of the new technologies that together will shape the future of our planet. It is both geographically and technically well-positioned to place itself at the forefront of  renewable energy and information technology. But to make the most of these new technologies it most avoid repeating old mistakes. Rather than handing the benefits, and profits, over to a handful of corporations Scotland should direct its efforts towards its communities.

Scotland’s renewable potential is well understood. It has some best resources in wind, wave and other renewable energy sources of any country in the world. Perhaps less appreciated is Scotland’s potential to be a leader in technology. Scotland’s ICT industry already directly employs around 40,000 people (according to ScotlandIS ), compared to 11,200 in its whisky industry for example, and its games industry in particular is thriving. Government support combined with access to a highly skilled workforce, as well as geographical advantages such as proximity to both the rest of Europe and America, and indeed its renewable energy sources, could help make Scotland a world leader in the field in much the same way that Iceland is to the north.

Development of these industries has so far been carried out along traditional corporate lines.  Scotland has hugely ambitious targets for renewable energy, aiming for 100% of Scotland’s electricity to be produced by renewables by 2020 . The majority of this energy will be produced by large scale top-down onshore wind projects, which largely means a continuation of the trend whereby the ‘Big Six’ energy companies provide around 99% of UK energy. The Scottish government meanwhile envisages  that around 500MW of this renewable capacity will be community owned, or just around 3% . It’s a start, but nowhere near ambitious enough. In Germany around 65% of its turbines and solar panels are community owned, and Scotland could aim even higher.

Community owned renewable energy comes with a number of benefits. It creates local jobs, keeps money circulating within local economies and builds community cohesion. Projects that are community owned are also more likely to be supported by the communities they serve, which is important at a time when resistance to wind-farms is prevalent. By taking a more ambitious approach to community energy, Scotland reap these benefits on an enormous scale.

Likewise, the way in which information technology works sometimes holds back innovation and progress due to commercial monopolisation. Technology is primarily about knowledge, in particular using knowledge for the benefit of society. Again, development in technology has so far followed the traditional route followed by the rest of the UK, whereby this knowledge economy is built on classic conceptions of private enterprise which commodify knowledge using stringent intellectual property legislation that restricts the use of knowledge and information to those who can afford to pay for it. Again, Scotland could benefit by adopting a more community based approach.

Community here means something different of course. It might mean online communities developing free and open source software that is available to all, or building useful applications based on free and open data. It might even mean communities of artists and musicians using information technologies to make their work freely available under ‘copyleft’  licences, or scientists sharing data and collaborating online. The benefits of adopting this ‘open’ philosophy could be substantial. Relaxing intellectually property laws could stimulate a boom in innovation in technology and beyond as ideas are able to freely spread and developers are able to build on the ideas that came before them.

Supporting free software and open data does not mean being anti-business, as is often claimed. It just means being rejecting business models that do not benefit society in favour of other models that do. Taking free software specifically, this might mean that instead of making a profit by selling expensive licenses to use software while keeping the source code hidden programmers can make money by offering their expertise as a service, providing support or bespoke modifications. The result is that the technological benefits can be spread far and wide (the classic example of this is the GNU/Linux operating system, though there are countless others).

Both these approaches towards new technologies, energy and IT, mean doing something quite different to the economic default.  They mean discarding policies and practices that benefit the few in favour of quite radical new ideas that can benefit the many. Given that the future of these technologies and industries will likely shape the future of Scotland, and indeed the planet, any method of distributing benefits as widely as possible deserve to be taken very seriously.


Lee is one of the two founding editors of the Edinburgh green journalism project POSTmag. The text published here is available for reproduction under a creative commons licence with attribution to the author.

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