Scotland has the capacity to be a world leader in renewable energy. Between wind, tidal, and hydroelectric energy, surely there is no reason it should rely on fossil fuels or even entertain the notion of nuclear power.
This capacity, however, is perhaps overstated. Short of laying a spiderweb of tidal dams across its seas and flooding its valleys to set up hydroelectric dams, there is little Scotland can do to cultivate stable and renewable energy production. Scotland’s total energy consumption in 2015 was 66.4 Terawatt-hours (TWh) and its most productive hydroelectric dam, Cruachan Power Station, produced 68.4 Gigawatt-hours (GWh, one thousandth of a TWh) over the same period. A facility ten times the size of The Hollow Mountain would barely provide 1% of Scotland’s needs, which are only growing.
Even the most ardent supporter of solar energy would never advocate for solar power as the future of Scotland’s energy systems. Instead, the renewable lobby (it is important to remember that it is an industry with a lobby like any other) and the Scottish Government have invested in both manufacturing and marketing wind turbines. The total capacity of Scotland’s wind infrastructure is 6547MW, enough to produce almost 47TWh per year. Actual production statistics suggest that 2016’s wind energy production was closer to 12.5TWh, meaning that Scotland’s wind farms were running at around 24% capacity. One particularly optimistic estimate from Friends of the Earth indicates that enough potential exists that, given ideal conditions, Scotland could theoretically produce almost five times as much as it uses.
Assuming an average 25% efficiency, such a capacity could produce more than enough power to support current consumption. However, such a system would collapse if wind was lower than usual for even a few minutes and prices would fluctuate enormously on an hourly basis. The only other option would be to develop a vast energy storage capacity, which would allow the grid to store energy during times when production exceeds consumption and dispense it when the reverse is true. Pumped-water storage systems like the aforementioned Cruachan hydroelectric facility may prove invaluable in this situation, as it is capable of storing enough water in its upper reservoir to run at full capacity for 16 hours. Even at full capacity, however, this is not enough to power any appreciable portion of the country during an unusually calm day. It is theoretically possible, if incredibly expensive and time-consuming, to commission additional pumped-water facilities which could make up the difference.
In the meantime, Scotland would be forced to rely on battery storage. To say that this would be a step backwards would be a gross understatement: while it may seem like a green decision, the environmental cost of manufacturing batteries using current technology is catastrophic. Lithium and cobalt mining in particular are dirty businesses that do serious and lasting environmental damage. Adopting a battery-mediated energy storage system would improve the local environment by irrevocably compromising that of the locations where the minerals are mined and the batteries manufactured. If ever there was a valid use for the term “virtue signaling,” surely this is it: slapping each other on the back for successfully outsourcing Scottish pollution to central Africa, South America, and northern China.
The Nuclear Option
There is a way, however, to stably produce the energy required. Nuclear fission may not be the perfect solution the West has hoped for, but it represents a step forward in almost every measurable variable. Aside from the initial setup costs, nuclear plants run more safely and cheaply than fossil-fuel or wind plants and produce less pollution and toxic waste. Coal plants and cobalt mines produce substantially more waste than nuclear plants, waste which is just as hazardous and far harder to control. However, the toxicity it presents is chemical in nature rather than radioactive and so we think it less dangerous.
The public perception of radiation comes from 1950s science, superhero movies, and a constant hysterical squeal from news media, which uncritically reports hoaxes and propaganda. Shown below is a widely-circulated falsehood from the furor surrounding the Fukushima disaster. Other breathless reports surrounding the meltdown discussed claims made for radiation-induced illnesses such as “a degenerate [sic] disease in my lower back,” “digestive problems,” and “weight issues,” which no medical professional has linked to any radioactive exposure and none of which are known to be symptoms of acute exposure.
Nuclear disasters are catastrophic, but more importantly they are spectacle. Like air crashes or terror attacks, nuclear disasters create disproportionate media attention, which leads us to overestimate their frequency and severity. If car crashes and oil spills were reported with the same tragedy-porn aplomb as plane crashes and nuclear disasters, public perceptions for all four would be radically different. If the problem were simple ignorance, then the solution would be simple education, but, unfortunately, there are organisations actively working to cultivate and exploit ignorance for their own ends.
Funding information for Friends of the Earth (FoE), cited earlier regarding their dubious predictions for wind power, is a fascinating read. Initially funded by an oil man in 1969, FoE lists among its funders Intelligent Energy Europe, an EU organisation which actually ceased to function in 2013, the Ford Foundation (as in Ford Motors), and the Isvara Foundation: a shadowy Lebanese group, which is unlisted as a UK entity and funded almost entirely anonymously. Other organisations are more straightforward, at least, in their approach to propaganda. Shown below is part of a campaign waged against the nuclear industry by competitors in fossil fuels.
Nuclear power plants produce less harmful waste than any fossil fuel plants or even nominally clean tech like solar, when accounting for the damage caused by their manufacture. Furthermore, recent developments place their safety ratings above hydroelectric and only slightly below not generating any power at all. Development is continuing into small modular reactors, which can be installed quickly and cheaply, and into entirely new tech such as high-yield thorium reactors and molten-salt reactors. However, the current level of technology already outclasses conventional energy sources to such a degree that the arguments commonly presented against it can only derive from ignorance.
Setting up an SMR (small modular reactor) would cost around the same as equivalent setup costs for wind turbines: an SMR from NuScale is estimated to cost around 2.3 billion pounds for a 570MW facility for a cost of around £4m/MW, while wind turbines cost around £1–1.5m/MW of nameplate capacity (£4–6m/MW of net production). Additionally, since actually producing 570MW with a single facility would require a capacity of approximately 2280MW, this SMR-equivalent would be the largest wind-farm in the world by a factor of 2. This would require more than 2400 such turbines spread over more than 10,000 acres, while an equivalent SMR would take up just under 10. Two such facilities would more than replace the entirety of Scotland’s fossil fuel generation (excluding cars) and 10 of which would replace Scotland’s entire generation infrastructure (over a quarter of which is already nuclear anyway).
While unavoidable realities of wind’s unreliability may one day be overcome with nascent battery technology, nuclear power has already surpassed it in energy capacity, scalability, and price. Hydroelectric power provides a valuable supplement to nuclear power, providing backup energy while reactors are down for maintenance, but could not provide a viable base without causing havoc to the countryside. It may yet be the case that renewables such as wind and solar power have parts to play, using generated electricity to drive production of fuels such as hydrogen or combustible alcohols, and they should not yet be ruled out as technologies. However, if we are to end reliance on fossil fuels then we must shift focus towards nuclear power.