THE SNP-LED Scottish Government has pulled a few populist stunts in its first period of office – such as free bridge tolls and free prescriptions – and most have been relatively harmless so far, although they might have irritated the English a bit, who reckon that they are paying for such largesse in their taxes.
However the SNP’s opposition to any new nuclear power stations in Scotland is a different matter.
Scotland currently gets over half its electricity from the ageing nuclear power plants at Torness and Hunterston which have the huge benefit that they generate no greenhouse gases. Both of these stations will become obsolete during the next decade and their capacity will have to be replaced.
It is difficult to work out quite why the SNP is so opposed to nuclear power, other than the fact that they have decided that the public ‘doesn’t like nuclear’. It certainly isn’t based on any scientific advice that they might have got from energy experts.
However we will have to keep the lights on, and the alternatives to nuclear – ‘clean coal’ and renewables – are either not environmentally acceptable or not achievable in the time required.
By far the overwhelming factor leading to global warming is the burning of hydrocarbons – coal, oil and gas – for power generation and although we have huge supplies of coal, it is the dirtiest of all.
‘Clean coal’ refers to the process of treating the emissions from coal power stations to remove the nastiest gases, and then collect and dispose of these underground, perhaps in empty North Sea oil fields. The trouble with this is that the technology only exists in the laboratory and currently adds significant extra cost to the generation process. It is yet to be deployed on anything like an industrial scale.
The other hope for the future is renewables – wind, wave and tidal. Here, Alex Salmond is very bullish. He claims there is enough energy around the coast of Scotland for all the power needs of our country and then some – we should even be a significant net exporter of power to England under this scenario.
And this calculation has some credibility - in theory there are very large sources of power indeed from wave and tidal, and the SNP Government should be congratulated in establishing the 'Saltire Prize' in which competing projects from all over the world will fight to win the £l0m prize for achieving Significant power generation from renewable energy sources.
The trouble is, this stuff will certainly not be ready in time to replace Torness and Hunterston.
The world's first serious wave power generation project, deploying equipment developed by Scottish company Pelamis, should be functioning off the coast of Portugal but has failed after experiencing technical difficulties, and nobody knows when it might resume operations.
Don't get me wrong. The strong drive from the Scottish Government in favour of development and deployment of renewable energy is wholly commendable. And if this is turned into action over improving planning laws that would make it easier to build wind farms, or if it leads to the construction of extensions to the power grid that could take power from the west and northern coasts of Scotland, where all this energy is, so much the better.
But until we begin to see real practical results from 'clean coal' or renewables, it might be wiser to also consider new nuclear power stations. Otherwise we might be reduced to getting our electricity from nuclear power stations after all - in England.