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Climate crisis needs smart leaders as well as smart technology

By Rob Gibson

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By Rob Gibson, a former SNP MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross

A smart grid in Orkney includes electric vehicle recharging points. Picture: EMEC
A smart grid in Orkney includes electric vehicle recharging points. Picture: EMEC

COP 26 in Glasgow has sharpened the questions and helped those who will listen and act to apply more feasible answers to limit climate chaos. Think global, act local was never more apt.

Reality therapy is here for us all. Big oil is claiming to create hybrid multinational companies which pump oil and gas profits into their infant renewables operations. With huge hikes in Brent crude prices reaching $85 a barrel, where are the profits going? Mainly to shareholders, not renewables investment.

Recent news that 40 per cent of all oil-related firms in Aberdeen have yet to sign up to a ‘just transition’ is an indicator of their priorities. However, the knock-back by Tory ministers of the Acorn Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) scheme for St Fergus must make them wonder. Do they bid for part of the chosen project around the Humber estuary or back demands for CCS in Aberdeenshire?

Meanwhile, they continue to receive huge tax breaks from the UK Treasury, as their shareholders desire. But should they take off the blindfolds of ‘business as usual’ and recognise the climate crisis their actions exacerbate?

Observers in northern Scotland, and far beyond, know well that the legacy of big oil has yet to make amends for their activities on land, sea and in our air. Multinational tax avoidance has robbed the coffers of most countries of the cash they need to make public funding of clean power and end fuel poverty.

A word or two now about reducing demand. Too often we hear about a pipeline of renewable energy projects. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been a consistent supporter. But the onus on governments and on communities and households has to be to find ways to use less resources in general as we try to decarbonise our lives.

There are two sides to using less. There is retrofitting homes and businesses to reduce heat loss to a minimum and there are active uses of technology to apply the available power when it is available. A good example comes from Orkney, where the local production of electricity is constrained from exporting surplus to mainland Scotland. We’ll return to the Ofgem and the National Grid’s failure to pay for interconnectors later.

What is developing in Orkney is smart charging rather than just smart metering. Encouragement to purchase electric cars on the islands requires charging points – mainly at home. So any drop in wind that can’t be compensated by smaller tidal and wave power sources requires smart answers.

While your car is charging overnight, if you want to boil a kettle, or use the washing machine, smart charging can cut the heftiest use while the immediate needs are met.

You might say that’s an infringement of free choice. But what else is adapting to limits of resources on the planet? Remember that residents on the Isle of Eigg have a very small share of locally produced electricity. Their isolated island sources come from the community’s wind, small hydro and solar. If you exceed your quota your power is switched off. So if you choose to use your angle grinder and your washing machine at the same time, power to your home is cut off to protect the supply to other homes.

A small-scale hydro scheme on Eigg. Picture: Ronald Macintyre
A small-scale hydro scheme on Eigg. Picture: Ronald Macintyre

Local power grids are active in both Eigg and Orkney. Could that be adapted in areas of Scotland which produce a lot of electricity to create a series of manageable local grids? Or could we develop a much more proactive National Grid to meet reasonable needs?

I was shocked by an STV News report the week before COP26 opened. It took a totally one-sided view from anti-wind farm campaigners about the ‘scandal’ of constraint payments to wind power companies when the grid cannot cope.

I remonstrated with the news editor on two points. First, constraint payments for wind farms amount to 15 per cent of all such payments. Gas, coal etc. receive the bulk. Secondly, why did STV fail to pinpoint the real scandal? That is, shareholder profits in privatised National Grid plc rather than public investment in highly distributed sources of clean power.

Ofgem chooses to line the pockets of private enterprise, not serve Highlands and Islands producers and customers. Private Eye reminded us of the classification as ‘green’ of the huge Drax power station near Selby in Yorkshire. That’s because it burns mature trees to make electricity. It earns them £2 million per day in subsidies – from our electricity and gas bills and taxes!

Talking of timber, one of the best uses of our mature trees, even Sitka spruce, is for construction, not industrial immolation. We need far less concrete used and far more laminate timber. COP 26 reminds us forcefully , and Financial Times columnist Camilla Cavendish pinpointed, that if the cement industry were a country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, behind China and the USA.

I’ve often said we need to build forward better. Building back only repeats the practices and mistakes of the multinationals whose stranglehold needs broken.

Cavendish used to be head of Number 10's policy unit under David Cameron, but her target and ours has to be to get rid of the sleaze-prone inhabitants of Downing Street today. Are they blockheads or are they just proving by their actions that they should be struck off anyone’s Christmas list.

COP26 made plain who are trustworthy leaders fit to tackle this global crisis.

  • robgibson273@btinternet.com

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