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The race to net zero: What’s driving change on Scotland’s carbon front line?

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With a large amount of renewable generation and a government committed to reaching net zero carbon emissions, Scotland is a country moving towards decarbonisation in leaps and bounds.

The country has a target of 2045 to reach net zero, meaning it's moving into a period of vast change. Glasgow is set to be first, having laid out plans to becoming the first carbon neutral city in the UK. But what is Scotland’s strategy to achieving a goal that will require a complete overhaul of transport, heat and energy?

Some of the answers to this question were presented by industry experts and government officials at All-Energy in Glasgow last week. Of course, no answers are set in stone yet. There are a number of options for how to decarbonise Scotland and debates to be had over which will dominate, however there were several key points that reoccurred throughout the event.

Government support in a climate emergency

With a handful of different ministers and Scottish government representatives in attendance at the event, there was no shortage of talk about the government’s role in the energy transition. In particular, there were mentions of Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg, with Paul Wheelhouse, minister for energy, connectivity and the islands for the Scottish Government, calling it a “compelling” movement that issued the government with a “wake up call”.

Wheelhouse added that the British government needed to “accept the scale” of the challenge and “raise your game”.

And Leigh Rafferty, head of electricity markets and regulation for the Scottish government, said: “Our climate change ambitions are clearly challenging and rightly so.”

Meanwhile, Andy Robinson, head of ULEV infrastructure at Transport Scotland, said that technology is “leaping” ahead of government understanding but that it’s the government’s job to “create the environment to let it flourish”.

Battery EVs: The only way forward for transport?

It’s no secret that in the race to decarbonising transport there are two horses: battery electric vehicles and hydrogen. Whilst the role of battery EVs is very much being welcomed in Scotland, with ScottishPower’s £2 million investment into public charging and battery storage just one example, there is increasing interest in the role of hydrogen.

There is certainly the feeling that, regardless of which wins out in the rest of the UK, there will be a role for hydrogen in Scotland’s transport. But Bill Ireland, Logan Energy CEO, said there is room for both hydrogen and battery electric vehicles.

“These people that say hydrogen is the only answer are wrong- it’s part of the mix.”

There are currently 10,000 ultra-low emission vehicles in Scotland. Not every car should be replaced with EVs, however, said Andy Robinson, head of ULEV infrastructure at Transport Scotland. Robinson continued to advocate for greater utilisation of public transport and car sharing to support the decarbonisation of transport and ease congestion.

The impact decarbonisation of heat will have on the grid

Heat is arguably the most challenging sector to decarbonise, partly due to the high costs associated with electrification of heat in particular. However, it is clear that decarbonisation of heat in Scotland is a must if the country’s target of 2045 is to be met- and soon.

The challenge we face in transport and heat can’t be underestimated

Frank Mitchell, SP Energy Networks

Frank Mitchell, CEO of SP Energy Networks, said: “The challenge we face in transport and heat can’t be underestimated.”

One of the challenges is the extra strain electrification of heat would put on the grid, with Rafferty stating that if decarbonisation takes that route, the UK will “need a bigger transmission network to help manage that flow”.

Much like the debate surrounding electric vehicles, there is a large emphasis being placed on the role of hydrogen in decarbonising heat in Scotland. As part of the announcement to make Glasgow the first net zero city in the UK, ScottishPower revealed it will trial all options for decarbonising heat, including hydrogen.

How flexibility can be used for alleviating grid constraints

The need for flexibility to relieve grid constraints and allow more renewable generators to connect was a topic continuously popping up from attendee to attendee. Whilst there may be some debate as to how it will happen and how much of it the UK will need, there was no doubt that flexibility is going to be an integral element of its energy system going forward. With numbers of electric vehicles increasing, and the pressing need for decarbonisation of heat looming, flexibility will be a key component to avoiding huge investment into infrastructure.

Jonathan Brearley, executive director for systems and networks at Ofgem, said: “If we don’t find ways to make the system more flexible... we risk a decarbonisation pathway that is much more costly than it needs to be.”

Vehicle-to-grid (V2G) and smart charging were also presented as viable options to providing flexibility, with car batteries stepping into a storage role. However, it was acknowledged that V2G technology could not be a replacement for large-scale battery storage but would work in tandem towards providing flexibility.

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