GERS and Scotland’s energy future

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OECD Eurostat data 2020 GDP per capita PPP UK comparison

By Russell Bruce

Some have argued that the Scottish statistical unit (statistics.gov.scot) should simply stop producing GERS. That isn’t going to happen as these annual statistics are produced for all the regions and nations of the UK. As such they actually provide some useful comparative data on Scotland’s relative performance within the UK. London and the South East of England are by far the most prosperous parts of the UK. The East of England is next followed closely by Scotland in fourth place. Six regions of England plus Wales and N. Ireland are much poorer than Scotland. We get charged for things Westminster spends money on and how they choose to raise most of the taxation. Westminster has told every nation that wants to leave it is too poor and would not manage without the UK. Rightly they chose to leave and none have regrets.

On a per capita PPP (purchasing power parity) basis Scotland is in a comfortable place to make strides forward but we need an updated piece of work to understand changes from the 2016 analysis.

From World Bank OECD/Eurostat 2020 data we have compiled this graphic on the current position of the UK on GDP per capita PPP compared to a selection of European countries. Heading the list are those performing better. 13 European nations do better than the UK and many of them of a similar size to Scotland. With the freedom to control our economy and the governance infrastructure of an independent country there is no reason why Scotland could not move up the chain of economic performance. We just have to believe in ourselves.

World Bank: OECD Eurostat data 2020, GDP per capita PPP UK comparison

GERS tells us nothing about output and fiscal balance in an independent Scotland and the opportunities for economic growth and the energy that would be generated by the process of setting up an independent state. Alex Salmond in his day, was rather happy with the annual publication when the revenues from oil and gas indicated an independent Scotland was clearly viable. Gavin McCrone speaking earlier this year to the FT said he explained to the UK government that they could not just go on telling Scots they were too poor. That is what they are continuing to say today. Oil and Gas changed things, just as Scotland’s renewables industry is beginning to gear up for a dramatic shift in energy generation with our unrivalled resources in clean energy.

Business for Scotland has set out clearly its issues with GERS which we broadly agree with – Another GERS report…

Oil and inflation

Since the 1970s the UK North Sea the oil and gas industry has contributed £360bn to UK treasury coffers in production taxes. These were cut when the oil price collapsed, but with oil now trading well above its 25 year average there is scope to remove at least part of the temporary help given to the industry. Brent oil on Friday was trading at around $65 a barrel. On 1st of September 1999 Brent was trading at $29.75. On Friday’s closing price of $65.18 that amounts to a 120% increase, not adjusted for inflation. Adjusting for $ inflation the oil price in 1999 would equate to around $48 today making the current inflation adjusted price well ahead by around 36%.

Natural gas and inflation

Most people are aware that there has been a recent increase in the price of natural gas. From lows of under $2.000 in the first quarter of 2020, the cost of natural gas in US$ per million Btu has risen to 3.900. In the autumn of 1999 the price was around $2.650. This indicates a very different level of long-term price increase in natural gas at market prices but doesn’t alter the price increases over last year that Ofgem has approved. This will hit low income families hard, especially now the Universal Credit £20 uplift has been withdrawn.

Going back to GERS for a moment

The Fraser of Allander Institute produced an interesting graph on Scotland’s major expenditure areas in their article on GERS 2021

Acknowledgement Fraser of Allander Institute GERS 2021

Fairly sharp increases in social provision where Scotland has introduced some new grants and health due to the pandemic are not surprising. Education and training has continued to grow at a steady pace over the last 10 years. The sharp increase in Enterprise and economic development in the last two years is particularly interesting. Some of the latest increase will be due to the additional support Scottish businesses have obtained during the pandemic but much is investment in the new industries of the future including renewable energy. There is no doubt about the emphasis the Scottish government is placing on renewables to ensure Scotland is an energy producer for decades into the future and that would be one of the reasons Westminster wants to keep us in the union because England is miles behind in developing renewable energy.

Scotland’s renewable future

We have covered Scotland’s strong energy position in recent articles and will continue to provide detailed analysis in the months ahead on the huge opportunity in renewables. Currently the largest share of wind generation is onshore wind (61% of Scotland’s renewable energy output). Wind generation is going to increase significantly over the next few years as offshore wind, including deep water ‘floating’ wind farms come on-stream.

In a recent article Business Insider reported on the recent offshore wind leasing programme for Scottish waters. The ScotWind leasing process looks to lease areas of the seabed around Scotland for floating wind farm developments in deep water. ScotWind estimates 10GW of new generating capacity will be built within the next decade. ScotWind is a project run by Scottish Government agency Crown Estate Scotland.

We will cover offshore wind developments in more detail in other articles in this series. For now we want to take a look at the national grid to show how offshore wind could be even more significant. Electricity does not store, although battery technology means limited short-term storage is growing. To ensure there is adequate supply to meet demand and cut off power sources in periods of low demand makes for constant changes. With the growth of wind power it will increasingly necessary to shut down at least some wind farms in periods of low demand.

Constantly shutting down and starting up again to meet grid requirements over 24 hour periods places wear and strain on the turbines and means the turbines are not earning in periods of shut down.

Seagreen is a major offshore development 27 km off the coast of Angus that will come on-stream ahead of deep water wind. A partnership between SSE and TotalEnergies, first power is expected by early 2022. When fully operational 114 turbines will be capable of producing 1,075MW, (= 1.07 GW) enough to power more than 1.6 million homes according to the developers.

This development is licensed by the UK government as it is inshore and the turbines are pile driven into the seabed. So reserved to Westminster in the same way oil and gas wells are. Deep water ‘floating’ turbines are anchored to the seabed surface and come under Crown Estate Scotland controlled by the Scottish government with licenses granted by Crown Estate Scotland and the income passed on to the Scottish Government.

Offshore deep water wind turbines are going to produce a great more energy as the sector grows, The breadth of Scotland’s renewable energy potential brings two major renewable energy opportunities with no significant limit on the period of time energy can be stored. Hydrogen is ideal to replace diesel lorries, buses and other large vehicles. Much work is being done on development to progress this green fuel, best produced by excess electricity and referred to as green hydrogen. It can also be produced from natural gas, much less environmentally friendly and known as blue hydrogen. Present high levels of demand for natural gas for home heating and England‘s dependence on natural gas for 43.8 % of generating capacity indicate an extremely slow pace of developing renewable energy projects.

Output from a 1GW wind farm is measured per Giga Watt hour (GWh). If a group of turbines runs for 12 hours to meet grid demand then 12 GWh hours is the amount of electricity generated. If the turbines run for 24 hours, double the electricity is generated increasing the returns to the wind farm owners. As these would be offpeak hours it is reasonable the cost paid would be less helping develop the production of hydrogen to scale at increasingly affordable rates to promote the displacement of diesel.

All developing technologies take time and investment to grow to become competitive with the products national strategy determines to displace. Wind energy is an excellent example where the cost of production has fallen steeply in recent years. Nuclear continues to travel in the opposite direction and is outrageously expensive, based on the UK government’s attempts to replace ageing nuclear power plants ion England.

Our graph shows the breakdown of the sources of Scotland’s renewable electricity generation as % GWh in 2020

Scotland's renewable energy output % GWh 2020

Hydro generation has been a long-term contributor to Scotland’s electricity generation. Cruachan was opened in October 1965. It can provide 440 MW of power with a capacity of 7.1 GWh. For 56 years Cruachan has been feeding into the grid in Scotland, longer than the life of any other electricity generation process, and will still be generating long into the future with proper maintenance and turbine replacement.

Pumped hydro is another option for excess generation from wind and a number of schemes to increase Scotland’s hydro capacity are on the drawing board. Hydro generation provides instant generation capacity. Scotland is not short of water so when the kettles go on and the grid needs extra generation all it takes is to press a button and the water tumbles through the turbines to keep us supplied with electricity, just when needed. Collecting and storing water for power for when needed, is another of Scotland’s very considerable generation capacities. England which can only generate, largely from fossil fuels, 82% of the electricity it needs will continue to require to import electricity.

Might that just be a reason Westminster is so determined to keep hold of its poor northern neighbour. With COP26 in just weeks the UK renewable story on the world stage would look very thin without Scotland’s contribution. Not that we would cut them off after independence. Scotland will have a living to make to earn the revenues independence will, in time, enable the people of Scotland to live in a fair and more equal society.

UPDATE 16.45 Monday: The headline image includes a screen image of the Europe section of an interactive map from the World Bank website on GDP per capita PPP. This is the link which will enable you to search for worldwide state data using the interactive options. It also includes the key showing the the level of GDP per capita PPP for the colour coded position of each nation included.