In his first blogpost as Regen’s associate director for Scotland, Simon Gill discusses how Scotland can begin to deliver upon its ambitious decarbonisation targets and unlock a demand-side revolution by taking a whole system approach, delivered in a coordinated way, with the support of everyone in Scotland, and to all our benefit.

Simon Gill SquareSimon Gill, associate director for Scotland

Decarbonising Scottish energy – the devil is in the delivery

After working for more than a decade in Scotland’s energy sector, one thing that is clear to me is that we are not short of ambition. Scotland has committed to reaching net zero by 2045, five years ahead of the UK, and to reduce emissions by 75% by 2030 compared with a 1990 baseline.  

In concrete terms: by 2030, Scottish greenhouse gas emissions, the majority of which are directly related to our use of energy, need to be significantly less than half of what they were in 2019. 

The ambition goes beyond technical targets to include wider societal outcomes. Increasingly, the focus isn’t just on delivering net zero but on making sure it is a Just Transition. For example, Scotland has set a statutory target to reduce fuel poverty to no more 5% of households by 2040, compared with 24% in 2021. This looks particularly challenging during the current energy price crisis, but there are indications that in the longer term a focus on renewable energy can help reduce bills. 

Whilst setting targets is easy, meeting them is hard. The 2020s must be a decade of delivery, and one where getting the details right will be critical. To understand what those details are, it is important we take a whole system approach. In this blog, I argue that there are three “whole system” actions that will substantially improve the chances of success for Scotland’s net zero pathway and for that of the UK as a whole: 

  1. Develop a whole-system, delivery-focused plan for energy system change.
  2. Much more meaningful and informed public debate on the details, as well as the strategy, for delivering net zero. This needs to raise awareness of the scale and pace of what is needed and ensure that net zero is something that everyone in Scotland can support.
  3. Stronger commitment from both Scottish and UK institutions to work together to deliver an integrated energy system, supporting ambitions on both sides of the border, regardless of any future vote on independence.  

The 2010s: successfully transforming electricity supply 

Scotland’s current ambitions build on major progress made over the past two decades, delivered through the growth of renewable electricity. Today, Scotland has more than 12 GW of renewable capacity, including 9.6 GW of wind power. In 2011, when Scotland set a target of generating the equivalent of 100% of electricity demand from renewables by 2020, there were many who felt it couldn’t be done. But final statistics show that Scotland generated 98.6% of electricity demand from renewables in 2020; not quite 100%, but close. In the process, Scottish renewable generation is estimated to have saved 151 million tonnes of carbon emissions since 2000, equivalent to three years of total Scottish emissions. 

The electricity supply revolution is set to continue and will remain an important part of our net zero pathway. The recent Scotwind leasing round has added a further 25 GW of offshore wind into the development pipeline. However, increasingly, it will be changes to the demand-side and the matching of supply and demand that we will need to focus on.   

The 2020s: delivering an energy demand revolution 

Reaching Scotland’s 2030 target will be strikingly more challenging. Decarbonising electricity was largely a supply-side challenge met through the closure of fossil fuel power stations and the development of new renewable capacity.  But heat, transport and industry are demand-side challenges where change will have a major impact on the way we live and do business. The graphic below shows the degree to which the remaining energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, and the potential for future success, are concentrated in these demand-led sectors. Electricity supply accounts for less than 6%.  


Figure 1

Figure 1: End use demand for energy in Scotland and the associated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Data is for 2019 and available from the Scottish Government Scottish Energy Statistics Hub.


Decarbonising these demand-led sectors will mean households and businesses need to take active decisions to reduce their energy consumption through energy efficiency and to change the way they access energy by moving away from fossil fuels. This can mean disruption and costs, and as Citizen’s Advice Scotland pointed out in 2021, many Scottish consumers are currently in the dark as to what net zero means for them. Ensuring that there is wider public discussion of what is needed and why will be an important part of a successful and just transition.

For example, in the heat in buildings sector, by 2030 we need to invest significantly in the energy efficiency of Scotland’s building stock and well over 1 million homes will need to move from fossil fuel heating to low carbon alternatives (out of a total of around 2.5 million). An equivalent level of effort will be needed across non-domestic buildings. This requires both a huge delivery effort and a sustained programme to help people understand what is needed, and the details of what it could mean to them, to get their support.

Coordination across society

A second big challenge is one of coordination. Changes in how we access energy are going to lead to more interaction between parts of our energy system that have traditionally operated independently. Transport is a good example: in 2019, well over 95% of energy for transport was met using petroleum. By contrast, during the 2030s we expect that energy for transport will come from a mix of petroleum, electricity and hydrogen. Hydrogen will itself be produced from either electricity or natural gas with carbon capture and storage, and the batteries in electric vehicles won’t just consume energy, they are expected to play an important part in balancing supply and demand through smart charging and vehicle-to-grid technologies.

Change also needs to go beyond the energy system into the decisions we make about our lives and how we choose to organise wider society. For example, the target to reduce vehicle kilometres by 20% by 2030 is partly about reducing the amount of energy we use, but it is also about how we design our cities, towns and villages with a growing focus on ideas like ‘20-minute neighbourhoods’ where people can meet their day-to-day needs within a short walk of their house.

The renewable revolution has shown how difficult coordination can be, even when change is largely ringfenced within a single sector. Getting renewable generation connected to electricity networks and reimagining the operation of the wider electricity system is a slow process. Imagine how much more challenging this becomes as we draw in elements of transport, hydrogen infrastructure, carbon capture and storage among others.

So, meeting Scotland’s 2030 targets raises a pair of challenges: major demand-side change, and a need to coordinate a much more interactive system. For this we need both a detailed, specific whole-system delivery plan, and the informed backing of everyone in Scotland.

Today, we don’t have either. We do have a series of visions for the energy system, such as the one laid out in Scotland’s Updated Climate Change Plan. We also have significant public support for net zero (although given the current crisis in energy costs and concerns around energy security, that must not be taken for granted). These are good starting points, but there are significant differences between what the type of vision and support for change we have today, and the level of detail needed to deliver over the next eight years.

Scotland’s place in a national energy system

A third area where a more joined-up approach will be valuable is in coordinating the interaction between the energy system in Scotland and the wider UK. Scotland has never been an energy Island. For example, we produce around five times as much natural gas as we consume and export the rest across the gas transmission system. Interconnection on the electricity system has played a critical role in absorbing the variability created by Scottish wind generation: exports from Scotland more than doubled between 2010 and 2020 to just over 20 TWh. But, as shown in the graph below, imports into Scotland have risen fourfold over the same period to around 1 TWh. Whilst relatively small, the ability to import plays an important role in ensuring that Scotland, as part of the wider UK electricity system, has a secure and resilient supply.


Figure 2

Figure 2: Annual exchange of electricity between Scotland and the rest of the UK (Scottish Energy Statistics Hub).


The value of integration is something that will grow for both Scotland and the UK: Scottish action directly supports the UK in meeting its overall carbon budgets, whilst both geographical and technological diversity is critical to ensuring a resilient and secure energy system for everyone.

Making the most of this integration will need a concerted and coordinated effort from both Scottish and wider UK institutions. Both need to understand the other’s objectives and constraints, and both need to commit to work closely to support each other. For example, Scottish Government, Scottish energy network companies and Ofgem should have an explicit and joint focus on facilitating the decarbonisation of heating, supporting delivery of the ambition to decarbonise at least 1 million homes in this decade. In doing so, we can unlock a 5 MT reduction in emissions to put towards both Scottish and UK targets.

The devil is in the delivery

The demand-side revolution needs to be delivered in a coordinated way, with the support of everyone in Scotland, and to all our benefit. It needs to be done in the context of wider UK decarbonisation. But we don’t have long. The devil is in the delivery, and we need to get into the details quickly.


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