Brian Monteith: We need to be switched on to avoid power crisis

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I have worked in many countries where the lights have gone out without flicking the switch. At best it is irritating and you learn to get by, but for many it makes it impossible to escape poverty or plan for a hot meal, such is the impact on an economy, work and home life.

In Nigeria, it would happen in my hotel or office without warning. There, the wealthy had their own diesel generators constantly on standby. For the vast majority of nearly 150 million people it meant long delays and a reliance on other forms of energy for heat and cooking, such as stripping wood supplies from a once-green countryside.

In Pakistan, you could set your watch by the punctuality of the capital’s “power-sharing” schedule. So organised and reliable was it that you could organise the office lunch for 1.15pm and have a siesta until 4.15pm when the power came back on. For the tens of millions beyond 
Islamabad I expect it was a great deal more uncomfortable than that.

I then worked in Botswana, handling communications for the building of its new power station, the largest civil engineering project in the country’s 50-year history. Until then Botswana, a nation larger than Spain but with a population smaller than Birmingham, had relied on South Africa to provide most of its power. But that had to change.

Such was the demand from a 
growing population and economy in South Africa that the country had to give notice in 2009 that in five years’ time it would be halting electricity transfers to its neighbours. It was already forced to impose power blackouts on its own people when peak demand exceeded supply, so to become self-sufficient started building new power stations and phasing out electricity exports. Botswana had a short window to plug the gap and that’s what it resolved to do.

For the 18 months I lived or visited there I experienced regular periods of power interruption. Offices were pitched into darkness with employees being sent home; hospitals switched to their own supplies but still had to postpone operations with often tragic results; street lights and traffic lights went off, leading to fatalities from road accidents.

Normal life was curtailed and TV, internet and telephone communications were haphazard to say the least. Undernourished and therefore 
vicious guard dogs were kept to counter the burglaries that darkness and unreliable alarm systems invited.

Is that what we want Scotland to be like in ten years’ time?

I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. It’s no laughing matter and has a savage effect on the lives, economy and jobs – as well as crime. And yet that is what we face as we allow ourselves to be governed by politicians who live in another world, a place of make believe where the sun always shines on solar panels and the wind always blows at just the right speed to keep those giant turbines turning.

Well real life isn’t like that and Scotland will not be like that in 2025. Solar panels only work in daylight but we have long winter evenings when it’s cold and we need heat and light. Likewise a cold December day can often have little wind – as past experience has shown us, a cold snap can see the turbines becalmed to a halt.

It’s all very well arguing for cleaner carbon-free power, but alternative energy generation requires a reliable source of baseload power to fall back on when it cannot deliver. And that’s a great deal of the time. At the moment our baseload is supplied from coal by Longannet power station in Fife and from nuclear power stations at Torness and Hunterston, together accounting for 60 per cent of our energy consumption. All three are set to close with Longannet, worth 25 per cent, going next year.

The SNP government, with support from Labour, the Lib Dems and Greens, will not build any more nuclear power stations and coal is seen as unclean and unwanted. The Tories have called for a gas-powered station to be built at Longannet but nobody has yet agreed with their common sense. The same backward political arrogance has seen the workers of Grangemouth petrochemical plant told that fracking for gas will not be allowed in Scotland – consigning them to unemployment if we do not reverse such Luddism. Importing fracked gas from America can only be a short-term solution to keep the plant economically viable.

The SNP wanted an independent Scotland to rely on our oil reserves – only for the price to drop from $115 to less than $50 months after the referendum. Thank goodness we voted No. Fortunately remaining in the UK has protected us from the catastrophic effect of an £18 billion shortfall in public expenditure that would have seen schools, hospitals and public services close.

Now, instead of being a net exporter of power to the rest of the UK, Scotland faces having to import energy from across the Border, just like Botswana had to do from South Africa. So much for independence and self-reliance.

To paraphrase a famous front page headline, would the last person switch the lights out when leaving the Holyrood parliament.