This European Country Is Set to Get Half Its Electricity From Renewables in 2016

Scotland is showing how other nations can ramp up carbon-free energy without compromising the power grid.
Wind turbines at Whitelee Wind Farm in East Kilbride, Scotland. (Photo: Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images)
Jan 28, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

Scotland is poised to generate more than 50 percent of its electricity from wind power and other renewable sources this year, according to a government report released Thursday.

The reportEnergy in Scotland 2016—confirmed that the country generated 49.7 percent of its energy from onshore wind and other renewable sources in 2014 and saw a 16 percent increase in energy from those sources between January and September of 2015.

October to December figures were not included in the report. But the trend suggests that Scotland has surpassed the government’s official target of generating half its annual electricity consumption, or about 19 thousand gigawatt hours, from carbon-free sources by 2015—averting the emission of more than 12 million tons of greenhouse gas pollution in the process.

Scotland’s renewable energy production has surged since 2013—when renewables made up 44.4 percent of the electricity supply—in parallel with three years of sustained economic growth. Four of Europe’s 10 biggest land-based wind farms are located in Scotland.

That puts the United Kingdom’s northernmost country among the top producers of renewable energy in the European Union. Norway is powering its grid almost exclusively with hydropower and is a net exporter of wind energy, while Austria and Sweden each generate more than 60 percent of demand from renewables. Germany, the world’s fourth-largest economy, produces about a third of its annual electricity supply from wind, solar, and other renewables.

Denmark last week announced that wind power supplied 42 percent of its electricity in 2015—a world record for wind.

“What we’re finding from countries like Scotland, Denmark, and Germany is that you can have a high percentage of renewable generation on your grid, and it won’t affect reliability,” said Scott Clausen, a policy and research associate at the American Council on Renewable Energy.

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Scotland has pledged to generate the equivalent of 100 percent of its electric power demand with renewables by 2020, and 30 percent of overall energy demand, including transportation and heat.

Lang Banks, director of World Wildlife Fund-Scotland, noted that Scotland’s renewable energy growth was at risk of stalling in 2016 because policy shifts in London have created uncertainty among investors.

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron last year effectively canceled government subsidies meant to encourage solar and wind power investments. “The impact has been an unnerving of the industry,” Banks said.

“That’s not the way to reassure investors who are trying to invest millions of pounds in renewable energy development,” he added. “You add to that a government that is hell-bent on imposing nuclear power on the U.K., and it’s like they’re looking two ways at the same time. They say renewables are too expensive but are willing to use taxpayer money to support even more expensive nuclear power.”

Clausen sees lessons for the United States in Scotland’s renewable power progress, as well as a cautionary tale of how shifting government policies might slow it down. The U.S. now gets about 17 percent of its electricity from renewables. Wind, solar, geothermal, and other sources generate about 10 percent, while hydropower supplies the rest.

“I think Scotland, even though they have crafted their goal in an interesting way, sent a signal that got their market going,” Clausen said. “It demonstrates the effectiveness that policy can play in encouraging renewable energy development.”

Noting that in 2015 Congress extended two important tax credits for green energy development, Clausen said the U.S. is poised for “very big gains in renewable generation.”

Renewable power is growing faster than either natural gas or coal in the U.S., with the federal Energy Information Agency forecasting a 9.5 percent increase in green energy in 2016.

With 29 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico enacting mandates for renewable energy, the costs for both solar and wind power have dropped sharply in the past five years, Clausen said. These “renewable portfolio standards” require utilities to increase the percentage of wind, solar, and other carbon-free sources of power by anywhere from 10 to 30 percent. California has set a target of 33 percent by 2020, and it aims to get half its electricity from renewables by 2030.

Efforts in state legislatures to roll back renewable energy requirements, spearheaded by conservative groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, have been largely unsuccessful, although Nevada recently slashed incentives for solar energy.

But a big expansion of solar and wind energy in the U.S. would likely pay for itself when taking into account the jobs and tax revenue created by new power projects, as well as the public health benefits of reducing air pollution and cutting the carbon dioxide emissions driving climate change, Clausen said.

“We now get to make the low-cost argument,” he said. “You want to save money? You should build renewables.”

This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction 1/29/16: An earlier version of this article misstated how much of Scotland's annual electricity demand is likely to have been met by renewables in 2015. That amount is 19 thousand gigawatt hours.