A Just Transition: Where?

As Orkney vies to have yet another first, this time in the industrial production of renewable energy as a consortium headed by TotalEnergies proposes to develop a green hydrogen hub on the island of Flotta, thousands of islanders will be facing the choice this winter of eating or heating.

Inequality is built into our UK energy systems where the places producing the most renewable energy, and exporting it south, are also paying the highest tariffs to buy back that same electricity to heat their homes and power their businesses.

View from Costa Hill where the world’s first successful grid connected wind turbine was erected

Orkney has been at the forefront of developing renewables. It was back in the early 1950s that the first grid connected wind turbine was successfully completed at the Costa Hill site, in Evie, Orkney. Today Orkney produces over 120% of its energy requirements by renewables – most of that is in wind generation.

Image credit Martin Laird

From the earliest times, Orcadians had been sustainably harvesting peat to heat their homes, only taking what they required. Many homes were still using peat well into the 20th Century until domestic heating oil became affordable.

For many islanders, due to the reliability of domestic oil heating, and the high cost of converting to electricity, this is still the way very many people keep warm. The decision by the SNP/Green Coalition Government to immediately remove the financial support for replacing oil boilers has had a devastating effect on many householders. Subsidies Ending For Oil & LPG Boilers: “A complete rethink is required” Says Orkney Councillor

Where was the Just Transition in this policy and indeed where was the Islands Impact Assessment – which is required by the Islands Act ? Decisions taken by politicians in the central belt of Scotland, in warm offices, mostly powered by renewable energy generated in the Highlands and Islands, without any consideration of how that policy will immediately affect so many citizens. No wonder many are becoming cynical of the phrase ‘Just Transition’.

Supporting people in Orkney to try and manage their energy bills or with practical aid – like extra blankets – is THAW Orkney.

Over 350 households have been helped by providing Cosy Home Packs.  These can contain::

  • Warm Blanket
  • Microwave Wheat Bag Warmer
  • Thermal Mug
  • Energy Saving Light Bulbs
  • Oil Filled Radiator
  • Thermal Hat, Socks and Gloves
  • A Damp Trap
  • Children’s Warm Blanket
  • Kuddleez Monkey Wheat Bag Warmer
  • Children’s Thermal Socks and Gloves
  • Chimney Balloon
  • Hot Water Cylinder Jacket
  • Rapid Boiling Kettles

This organisation has done much to help people in Orkney, many of whom had never had to face decisions like ‘to heat, or to eat’, before. The Covid pandemic not only meant people were in lockdown, so having to spend more time in their homes, but organisations like THAW Orkney, were also finding it difficult to secure funding for themselves. This was a a similar situation faced by many community organisations in Orkney who support people when they need it.

Fuel vouchers issued by THAW Orkney have helped many people in the short term. This is invaluable help. “I have never, ever looked back” – David Mowat, Shapinsay

THAW Orkney annual review 2021

You can see from this diagram that THAW Orkney has also been able to support the work of the Orkney Foodbank. Ten years ago it was inconceivable that Orkney would have a Foodbank. It has provided increasing numbers of working families with support.

How can a community which produces so much renewable energy be so fuel poor?

THAW Orkney annual review 2021

Not being able to keep your home warm to a tolerable level and the constant worry about being able to pay electricity bills leads to many experiencing extreme levels of anxiety and mental health issues. A report from HomeStart Orkney, another excellent local organisation supporting families in the islands, produced shocking results for what day to day life is like for many islanders. “One parent described the family as living in one room” : Shocking Report on Housing & Heating in Orkney

This is the reality for many Orcadians today who do not have the luxury of being able to turn up the thermostat when they feel it’s a bit chilly.

The consortium wishing to develop the green hydrogen hub in Flotta would use the electricity produced from a massive wind farm proposed for West of Orkney. This would be hydrogen production on an industrial scale, say the developers, and promises hundreds of jobs.

The Flotta Oil Terminal was opened in 1977, when it was realised there were vast deposits of oil offshore in Scottish waters – “Flotta remains a crucially important North Sea facility and a national resource”.

Orkney Islands Council benefits through an oil reserve fund which is used to maintain public services supplementing Scottish Government funding. Hundreds of jobs were also promised with the opening of the terminal, which did happen, but that was then and this is now, and with a much reduced workforce, jobs are at risk. Trade Union Disappointed at Proposed Risk of 14 Jobs at Flotta Oil Terminal

Rendall Doocot with wind turbine in the background Credit Bell

There’s not a vista in Orkney free from wind turbines today, many of which are small ones located on private land but there are also windfarms and proposals for more. Marine renewables are tested at the EMEC site but the huge potential of generating power by tidal and wave energy has still a fair way to go before it becomes a reliable source and continued investment is always an issue.

Speaking at the TED international Countdown Summit in Edinburgh, the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, commented about the power of Scotland’s renewables sector.

She said:

“These are all extraordinary feats of technology and engineering, but they also demonstrate how Scotland – a relatively small country – led the world into the industrial age, and is now helping to power the world into the net zero age.”

And she continued:

“In recent years, Scotland, this small country, has decarbonised faster than any G20 country.

“We have just become the first nation in the world that is not an independent nation – yet – to publish an indicative nationally defined contribution – showing how we will meet the objectives of the Paris agreement.

“So we pledge to cut emissions by three quarters by 2030, and to be net zero by 2045.”

These are admirable targets to set for we are in the midst of a climate emergency – but to get there we cannot do so by plunging thousands of Scots even further into poverty.

Patrick Harvie of the Scottish Greens, now  Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights in the Scottish Government, announced £1.8billion (over 5 years) of investment in plans which require over a million homes and the equivalent of 50,000 non-domestic buildings to convert to zero emissions heat by 2030.

He said:

“As we take these bold steps to reduce emissions from our homes and buildings, we must do so in a way that leaves no-one behind. This Strategy sets out the guiding principles that will ensure our actions to decarbonise heat do not have a detrimental impact on rates of fuel poverty and instead serve to tackle social inequalities.

“This is a huge transition, affecting communities, businesses and households all across Scotland and we must work collaboratively – across public and private sectors, across parliament, and across governments, to deliver it.

“Our Strategy also makes it clear that, to deliver the transformational change required, the UK Government must take urgent action in reserved areas to support the just transition to decarbonised heating. Our Strategy commits to phasing out the need to install new or replacement fossil fuel boilers, and to consult on introducing new legislation and regulations to underpin this transition and ambitious investment programme, but equivalent action from the UK Government in reserved areas, such as on energy pricing, will be essential to deliver these commitments.

“It is essential that homes and buildings achieve a good standard of energy efficiency and by 2033 we want to see all homes meeting at least an EPC band C standard where feasible and cost effective. This will help ensure energy costs in future are affordable and that our actions continue to remove poor energy efficiency as a driver of fuel poverty.”

This plan also promises hundreds of jobs. It includes a commitment to “ develop our approach to heat in islands and remote rural contexts in our forthcoming Islands Energy Strategy.”

It commits to establishing a National Public Energy Agency – the remit of which is not yet developed but which is proposed to include: “coordinating the delivery of investment, as well as coordinating national, regional and local government delivery of heat decarbonisation and energy efficiency rollout, working closely with public, private and third sector partners.”

The Future Energy Plans have much to commend them and I look forward to being able to read the Islands Impact Assessments of the strategies being proposed so that islanders are not negatively affected by them causing even more hardship to working families and the most vulnerable.

But here is the key point – Scotland is a devolved part of the United Kingdom. It has some ability to make the changes it requires to fulfill the ambitious targets set forth by the First Minister in her TED Talk prior to COP26. It is the UK Government, however, that has retained the power over Energy which would address the fundamental issue which will arise – that of a Just Transition.

We reiterate our call for the UK Government to take urgent action to rebalance energy prices so that the running costs of zero emission systems are comparable to fossil fuel incumbents.

Heat in Buildings Strategy

This call is made repeatedly throughout the Heat in Buildings Strategy. It’s a plea from a resource rich nation which on one hand boasts of its internationally recognised renewables developments, but on the other hand , ultimately does not control its Energy sector. It is extremely difficult to see how there can be any Just Transition in Scotland whilst 1. decisions are taken in Edinburgh without thought to how they affect islanders and 2. control rests with the UK Government which desperately needs the energy supplied from Scotland to keep homes warm and lights on in the South.

To read more about THAW Orkney – Link to Annual Review 2021

Fiona Grahame

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