With wind behind it, Scotland steps on the green gas to go the Last Mile
Last month, I found myself in Glasgow, just as the COP26 climate conference was packing up and leaving town. It had been described as a circus: with huge, raucous protests in the streets and activists gluing themselves to roads, but a charade in the official meeting rooms, with the resulting “agreement” not just failing to meet the 2015 COP26 Paris Agreement target of no more than 2.0 degrees (preferably 1.5 degrees) of warming by mid-century, but actually backsliding to 2.4 degrees – a catastrophic future for the planet. Activist Greta Thunberg pronounced it so much “blah blah blah”.
So I took a cab from the crowded city centre up to the Necropolis, the nineteenth-century landscaped cemetery built by the wealthy merchants of the town. It became the second city of the British Empire, known for trade, manufacture, shipbuilding and, of course, the emigration of Scotland’s poor from its docks. Among those destitute tens of thousands had been many people with my surname. (Among the sumptuous, carved-stone mausoleums and memorials, the few Graham grave markers I found were exceedingly modest, forcing me to conclude that my clan was not very good at making money.)
There, wandering the graves while leaning into a stiff breeze, I wondered what to make of it all.
The failure to confront climate reality squarely is partly due to the entrenched power of the fossil fuel industry and fossil fuel-dependent nations. But it must also be partly due to the inability of large numbers of people to see a clear path to 100% decarbonisation. In some places, we are making good progress on decarbonising energy, especially the electricity sector, but we are nowhere close to the ultimate goal of replacing fossil fuels in heavy transport, heating and manufacturing. The question is, how do we complete the energy transition? How do we cover the Last Mile?
Scotland’s wind prowess is fitting, since the world’s first wind-generated electricity flowed there in 1887, when James Blyth built a cloth-sailed “windmill” in the garden of his Marykirk holiday cottage to charge batteries that could run ten 25-watt bulbs and a small lathe – making it the world’s first house powered by wind-generated electricity
From mausoleum-studded hilltop, I could discern the outlines of the current challenge. To the west, I could see a forest stretching clear across the horizon – a forest of wind turbines turning in the steady westerly winds that rake across the landscape from the Atlantic. Scotland, a country of five million people, nearly surrounded by the sea, is blessed – or as some would have it, cursed – by the strongest, most consistent winds in Europe. It has taken advantage of this by building out, in little more than two decades, enough wind farms to now provide the bulk of the renewable sector’s 97.4 per cent of Scotland’s electricity consumption. On certain days, wind produces more than 100 per cent of demand, and some turbines are actually turned off, or “curtailed”.
The citizenry is on board. Scots view renewable infrastructure such as wind farms positively and they’re enthusiastically making the transition to electrification. The cab I had caught happened to be electric, identical to a regular petrol one. After telling me how there were twenty snow days a year in Glasgow when he was a boy, and now there are three or four if lucky, its seasoned, penny-wise, Glaswegian driver told me of his carefully-considered decision to invest his savings in the vehicle. Though somewhat more expensive, he told me, it was cleaner, had better performance than his old cab, and, given the whipsawing price of fuel, was pencilling out nicely.
Scotland’s wind prowess is fitting, since the world’s first wind-generated electricity flowed there in 1887, when James Blyth built a cloth-sailed “windmill” in the garden of his Marykirk holiday cottage to charge batteries that could run ten 25-watt bulbs and a small lathe – making it the world’s first house powered by wind-generated electricity.
This victory aside, electricity is just a slice of Scotland’s energy pie. According to 2019 figures electricity accounted for 22 per cent, with transport guzzling 24 per cent and heat a whopping 50 per cent, the latter two nearly all from fossil fuels. The Scottish government has decreed that, by 2030, half of total energy consumption (including heat and transportation) will be produced by renewables. Like the COP26 agreement, this number can be spun in two ways: as a noble commitment, or as an abject failure. Both may be true, but the latter is what matters for life as we know it, and it isn’t good enough. How can Scotland do better?
Fifteen miles to the west of Glasgow, Scottish Power’s Whitelee wind farm is the largest onshore wind installation in the UK, and very nearly the largest in Europe, with 215 turbines covering 80 square kilometres of rolling moorlands, producing 539 megawatts of power (MW), enough for 330,000 homes – more than the total in Glasgow (295,000 households in 2008). Along its hundreds of miles of dirt roads and paths, on any day dog walkers, joggers and cyclists meander among the swooping white blades, which spin apparently silently in the Atlantic breeze. Up close to an individual turbine, I could hear the rhythmic whistling of the blades as they fell and rose, like something out of a science-fiction space movie. Hugging one of the tubular towers, like a sci-fi version of a giant sequoia tree, I felt the steady hum of a different global economy, vibrating to the frequency of the sun’s infinite energy.
Part of the conundrum of covering the Last Mile is that the sun doesn’t always shine (especially in Scotland) and the wind doesn’t always blow (except, perhaps, in Scotland). But the key is nevertheless right in front of us: the sun runs on hydrogen and so will, in all likelihood, a 100 per cent carbon-free world.
With little need to expand power production, Whitelee is currently adding five new turbines, not for electricity consumption, but to make hydrogen gas as a means of storing electricity. The five new turbines will generate ten MW of power by 2023, later to be joined by five more. These will be converted, through the electrolysis of water, to four tonnes of H2 gas, which can be stored and later reconverted to electricity through fuel cells. The gas is already spoken for – Glasgow will use it to power its electric bus fleet, helping it meet its “net zero” target by 2030 – a line it hopes to be the first UK city to cross. Scottish Power says that the completed facility will power as many as 225 hydrogen buses travelling the equivalent of the 67km journey from Glasgow to Edinburgh and back again every day.
The key is that the hydrogen produced at Whitelee will be carbon-free, “green” hydrogen, in turn used to produce carbon-free electricity. Currently, most hydrogen is produced by the oil and gas industry, by reducing methane (“natural”) gas, making so-called “blue” hydrogen, so that the resulting electricity has a huge carbon footprint. Objections to the use of hydrogen as an energy carrier rest on this fact, and on the fact that making even green hydrogen through water electrolysis requires more electricity than is liberated at the other end of the cycle when the hydrogen is reconverted to power. This is done either through a room-temperature fuel cell or by burning the hydrogen gas in a gas-fired power plant or a conventional internal combustion engine. The first objection dissolves when the original power source is renewable; the second when it is excess electricity from renewables. This is the case when more power is produced than can be used – “curtailment” – which is increasingly the case around the world (whether from wind on the Scottish grid or daytime solar power on California’s grid). As the world moves towards the build-out of renewables in excess of daily demands, using hydrogen to store and move energy appears the best option for covering the last mile of the energy transition.
The electrification of transport thus far has relied on lithium ion batteries, like those in a Tesla car. But beyond small vehicles, batteries have compounding disadvantages: they are expensive, heavy, require increasingly problematic rare-earth metals, and take a long time to charge. For heavy transport, these are self-defeating. No battery-powered aircraft could fly far. Ships with sufficient batteries to cross oceans are unthinkable. Long-distance truck journeys would take twice as long with recharge times. A city bus fleet powered by batteries would require two to three times as many buses as it has routes because of recharge times and inefficiency, especially on long-haul or hilly routes. Hydrogen, on the other hand, has the advantage of being light, stored in tanks and refillable in minutes, just like diesel and petrol. It also has a higher energy density than batteries, allowing for far longer ranges between refuelling. Crucially, it emits nothing more offensive than pure water. It is no surprise then, that hydrogen fuel cell-powered electric buses are rapidly becoming the choice of fleet managers worldwide, including in Glasgow and Aberdeen, which has already launched hydrogen-powered double-deckers. Heavy-duty trucks, freight trains, and ferries are undergoing trials in many countries. A Japanese shipping giant has announced plans for a 200-metre-long hydrogen cargo ship. Airbus has announced progress on a hydrogen-powered passenger jet.
Combined with the growing excess capacity of renewables in many locations, building a green-hydrogen infrastructure beckons on the horizon as the not-so-far-off solution to the energy transition, like the spinning turbines on Glasgow’s western approaches.
On the Orkney islands, off Scotland’s northern tip, this future is close to becoming a mundane reality. Even more than the mainland, Orkney is lashed by wind, rain and tides. So much renewable power generation has already been installed there – 50 MW thus far – that the islands have been a net exporter of energy since 2013. But the limitations of its grid mean that 30 per cent of wind energy is lost, since it’s in excess of local demand. With facilities often owned by local communities, a strong push is being made to turn that excess into hydrogen, which can then be used to power integrated systems of electricity, transport and heat. Their compactness and scalable size mean that small electrolyser and fuel-cell or combustion systems can be affordably installed even on small islands. Orkney’s cars, ferries, lights and boilers may soon all be powered by the sea and sky. A large ferry, the Hyseas III, developed in conjunction with a California firm and being built at Port Glasgow, is slated to go into service in Orkney imminently.
Additional renewable capacity, which is seemingly unlimited, can be tapped for export, thereby replacing the islands’ and mainland’s reliance on selling fossil fuels to the rest of the world. Indeed, the Scottish government eyes its tremendous renewable capacity – possibly double-current-installed wind capacity if deepwater offshore wind farms become feasible, as expected – as a huge opportunity. Not only can the country meet its own climate goal of net zero emissions by 2045, but it can also become a European renewable energy giant. The private sector has bought in, investing billions thus far in perfecting and building out this vision.
And it is not just Scotland dreaming of hydrogen. Iceland, with its abundance of wind, tide, hydropower, and geothermal heat, has similar plans. Australia, with its surfeit of solar insolation, is planning, in close cooperation with Japan, to supply that country with enough H2, (and potentially ammonia, another molecular energy carrier), to replace fossil fuels there entirely.
It will then not just be the cabs and buses of Scotland’s cities, but its homes and businesses that will be 100 per cent carbon-free and Scottish-powered.
Wade Graham is the author of “American Eden, a cultural history of gardens in America”, “Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas That Shape the World” and “Braided Waters: Environment and Society in Molokai, Hawaii”. He is a trustee of Glen Canyon Institute in Salt Lake City and lives in Los Angeles. wadegraham.com