Green Interlude 2 – The Green Surges and the UK Shrugs those ‘Broad Shoulders’

As some of you might be aware, the SNP were not the only post-Referendum ‘Yes’-beneficiaries: from their 1,700 members in September, they achieved 9,000 by the end of January, quite possibly making them a larger political party than Scotland’s secretive Labour membership figures. In spite of this, STV took Ofcom’s advice and did not allow them to participate in their Scottish Leaders Debate (although the BBC, the following night, presumably acting from the same Ofcom advice, did). This has also meant a huge demographic change for them, with 40% of the party being under 30. Consequently, they are fielding their largest ever number of candidates, standing in 32 out of 59 Scottish constituencies, and polling ahead of the LibDems 3%. A Survation poll for the Daily Record in February also showed them riding high for Holyrood next year, as prospectively the third largest party, with 13% regional or list MSPs (the same poll in June last year showed them on 10%), which could equate to an increase from their current 2 to 15 MSPs, ahead of the Conservatives on 14 MSPs.

They have a broad range of policies, of course, not ‘simply’ a narrow vision of the environment (which is more what other political parties tend to have, with the environment neatly boxed off from other policy areas, not seeing it as interconnected). The Scottish Greens are proposing a wealth tax not that contentious, as many European countries already have such a tax in place, eg Spain, Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, and 48% of Scots think that taxes and spending should increase, and that the government should redistribute money from the rich to the poor. Similarly, they argue for a 10 pound an hour minimum wage. These policies are, of course, designed to address the UK’s horrendous equality deficit: of the 34 members of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), the UK has 13th highest level of average household income, but is also the 7th most unequal country of the group.

Aside from this, they act as a very valuable conscience to the SNP government, particularly when it comes to managing the energy mix transition, changing from still supporting fossil fuel industries (in particular coal) towards something sustainable. This is not all about ‘doing the right thing’, either – as Scotland pushes more into the greener energy sectors, it develops international world-leading expertise to put as at the forefront of the next global energy phase.

This came sharply into focus recently, with the fate of the Longannet coal-powered station. Run by Scottish Power, it is scheduled to close in March 2016, after failing to get a contract for 15 million from the National Grid. This has grim consequences for the local economy, with 270 jobs lost and an additional 1,250 jobs supported. As the average age is 50, and there are few local opportunities, it is highly likely that this will mean another thousand adding to the jobless total. Longannet was not going to last forever – it already looked as though it was going to fall foul of new EU regulations in 2020, but the loss of this contract means that its life expectancy has suddenly been cut brutally short by 4 years. In 2013, Scotland’s other coal-fired power station (also owned by Scottish Power) at Cockenzie was closed. Although Scottish Power retains the rights to build a replacement, it seems likely that neither Longannet nor Cockenzie will be replaced – primarily due to the charging costs that have to be paid for connecting to the National Grid.

Despite a recent overhaul of these connection charges, Scottish energy generators produce 12% of the UK’s energy supplies, but pay 35% of the charges, despite in 2013 exporting 28% of their output. The reason for this is that the National Grid bases its connection charges on proximity to ‘centres of demand’ – which actually means ‘London’. As – apparently – the central belt of Scotland is actually a barren wasteland devoid of people. So, located in Scotland, Longannet has to pay 40 million a year (it would have been 50 million, without the recent pricing overhaul) to keep Longannet connected. In contrast, a similar power station in the south of England only pays 4 million, and power stations near London are actually paid a premium TO connect to the National Grid.

This charging system is a UK framework, with the transmission charging methodology primarily introduced to Scotland by Labour in 2005, that penalises Scottish generators and discourages investment. Keith Anderson, CEO of Scottish Power, has argued that the current charging system was a major barrier for future investment in Scotland, for either renewing Longannet or replacing Cockenzie: “No other country in Europe has this unfair locational-based charging system for power stations, and we need a fairer system for Scotland…Scotland needs a mixture of generation types, but there needs to be a fair and level playing field with the rest of the UK in order to develop new power generation in Scotland”. As Douglas Chapman, SNP candidate for Dunfermline and West Fife, put it: “The question is where are these ‘broad shoulders’ [of the UK Government] when the workers at Longannet need them?”

It can be argued that this closure is not without national implications. Built in 1970, Longannet at the time was the biggest power station in Europe. Longannet produces about a quarter of Scotland’s power, which has raised concerns that this closure may require importing electricity, as it now leaves the UK operating on only a 2% extra capacity for the coming winter. The imported coal that produces almost 40% of Britain’s electricity comes from Russia – a country that we are not exactly on the best of speaking terms with, right now.

However the Scottish Greens see this clearly as part of the transition from dirty energy to clean energy, as we enter what appears to be the last year of coal-powered energy in Scotland. Energy capacity in Scotland itself is 11GW, while peak capacity is only 5.4GW – which means we can well afford the loss of fossil and nuclear plants that are scheduled to be decommissioned over the coming years.

A bitter irony is that the closure of Longannet was announced in the month of the 30th anniversary of the end of the miners’ strike (NUM, SCEBTA, COSA), with only 100 members left in the National Union of Mineworkers in Scotland today. Thatcher’s approach to the coal industry put 600 years of coal out of reach through crippling the industry, purely to curtail union power. It has been argued that it was the failure of the trade union leadership to support the miners that led directly to the ease of privatisation of so many basic services under Thatcher’s government. This means that the UK now has the most expensive provision costs of transport, water and energy across the whole of Europe.

Which, with the failure of privatization of utilities to deliver those much-promised ‘cheaper prices’, sort of leads rather naturally to another Green policy.

Nationalisation of utility ownership.

 

“We have the green surge [in England]. They’ve got the green tsunami up there [in Scotland].” Natalie Bennett, Leader of the Green Party of England and Wales)

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