Scotland faces difficult and costly decisions when it comes to securing its future energy supply amid ongoing efforts to fight climate change, a new report has found.
The Royal Society of Edinburgh said there is “no silver bullet” that will create jobs and keep costs down while limiting the impact on the environment.
It comes as the sector prepares for the closure of Scotland’s two remaining nuclear power stations, Hunterston B in North Ayrshire and Torness in Dunbar, by 2030.
This is expected to result in a shortfall of electricity generation at a time when demand is set to rise, and potentially coincides with the first wave of offshore wind farms coming to the end of their life.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Government wants to slash greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2045, with major energy companies continuing to plough millions into alternative sources.
However, the RSE said “no energy policy, no matter how well considered, will ever solve all of the problems and paradoxes of energy supply and use”.
Its report, which follows a two-year investigation, called for the establishment of an independent expert advisory commission on energy.
It noted: “The reality of where we find ourselves…is that the planned closures of both of Scotland’s remaining nuclear power stations by 2030 will see Scotland lose the source of generation for almost 43 per cent of its electricity, going into a period where it is widely expected that demand for electricity will increase.
“This is occurring alongside a Scottish Government commitment to generate half of overall energy consumption from renewable sources by 2030. This target is laudable, but very ambitious. In 2015 over 87% of Scotland’s total energy consumption could be attributed to fossil fuels or nuclear power.
“Difficult decisions must be made on how to address this future shortfall, which was around 37% of consumption in 2015. Either significant additional generating capacity will need to be built, an unprecedented reduction in demand facilitated, or the amount of energy imported from outside Scotland will need to rise markedly.”
More than half (51.7%) of the electricity generated in Scotland in 2017 came from the renewables sector, with nuclear power accounting for more than a third (36.6%). Meanwhile, 10.5% came from fossil fuel sources, while hydro power made up the remaining 1.2%.
The RSE report examined the advantages and drawbacks of different methods of generating electricity.
It said “significant reserves and resources of oil and gas remain” but continuing to extract these would exacerbate the climate crisis.
Nuclear energy, meanwhile, has zero carbon emissions at the point of generation but would incur significant costs and present other challenges.
And while Scotland has “considerable” wind energy resources, the variable nature of the resource means significant investment in large-scale storage, or another form of generation, would also be required.
Elsewhere, the electrification of transport and heat could slash carbon emissions but may require more than doubling Scotland’s electricity generating capacity and substantial new infrastructure.
The report said: “No silver bullet exists that will vastly reduce carbon emissions, have no environmental impact, and create jobs, all while remaining affordable and allowing the public the freedom to live their lives as they choose.
“Difficult choices must be made, and these choices will inevitably have consequences.”
It contuned: “A decision that provides ample energy at a low cost could also result in irreparable damage to the environment, and hence to viability of life and the stability of societies.”
The RSE report stressed the need for timely investment decisions by the Scottish and UK governments, as well as the prioritisation of climate protection targets. It also recommended investing in low-carbon energy generating capacity and cutting energy demand, and called on the Scottish and UK governments to improve political cooperation.
Sir Muir Russell, chair of the inquiry, said energy is a “highly complex area of policy”.
He said: “The reality is that no energy policy will ever solve all the problems and paradoxes of energy supply and use.”