Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The shape of things to come.
Last Sunday, Scotland reached a milestone. For the first time ever, the autonomous region (and possible future independent state) generated all the electricity it needed for an entire day solely from wind turbines. This huge level of production could mark a turning point for Scotland, proving a harbinger of things to come.
By 2020 the Scottish regional government expects all of the area under its jurisdiction to get 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources, meaning that one of the most developed, oil-producing regions in Europe will soon be able to provide itself with power almost entirely without carbon emissions.
Admittedly the circumstances of Scotland’s recent wind power surge were special. Last Sunday, stormy weather across the country saw northern Scottish cities battered by winds of up to 60 miles per hour, during a summer period when electricity consumption is on the low side. The figures are still impressive. According to World Wildlife Fund Scotland, the country’s wind turbines generated 39,545 megawatts of energy that day, which exceeds the amount Scotland actually used by 2,000 megawatts. Given that the power was actually fed into the U.K.’s national grid, this is good news across the country. It nonetheless bodes well for Scotland’s future energy autonomy should it eventually vote to secede and become an independent state.
The high wattage was generated through a network of wind farms that is already highly developed, but nonetheless leaves many gaps for future expansion. Scotland already possesses the world’s most northerly offshore wind farm and is planning more, despite attempts to scuttle one major project by none other than Donald Trump. The territory’s potential for tidal power, meanwhile, is huge. It’s estimated that, if fully exploited, the fast waters in the Pentland Firth between Orkney and the Scottish mainland could meet as much as half of Scotland’s electricity needs. If Scotland fully develops these opportunities, it could slash the U.K.’s collective carbon emissions drastically.
This might sound like smoke ring fantasy—even if, for once, no smoke is actually involved. Another current U.K. energy story nonetheless suggests that, across Britain, the wind is indeed blowing (forgive me) in the direction of renewables. Last month, Prime Minister Theresa May decided to postpone construction of a new nuclear power plant at Hinckley Point in Southwest England. One reason suggested for the delay is Chinese partners in the project stand accused of nuclear espionage against the U.S. Another, more immediate practical reason emerged Thursday, however. A new government report suggests that if constructed, the nuclear plant’s electricity could be a third more expensive to produce than that generated by renewables by the time the plant would be actually finished. The cost of generating power with wind in the U.K. has already dropped slightly below that of generating it from fossil fuels. A modal shift may thus already be underway in which renewables become a power source sought out less for their relative cleanness and more for their simple affordability.
It’s true that, taken as a whole, the U.K.’s renewable power generation capacity is not as developed as it is in Scotland. Southeast England may contain the world’s largest wind farm—the so-called London Array—but during this year’s first quarter, renewables generated just 25.1 percent of the country’s electricity. Similarly exposed coasts and equally impressive proposals for tidal power mean that the rest of Great Britain has the potential to match Scotland’s fitness for renewable generation. For people living across the British Isles, this as yet not fully tapped resource also could also pleasantly reboot attitudes to the challenging weather the archipelago experiences. Britons have been complaining about grey weather and stormy coasts since at least Anglo-Saxon times—now that we know that drizzle-tinged wind we often experience will help us live greener, cleaner, possibly even less expensive lives, we may be able to accept it with more grace.