The analytical and political challenges of integrated energy policy making in Scotland

This is the first blog in the Energy & Society Network’s series responding to the Scottish Government’s Energy Strategy.

 By Dr Mark Winskel, Chancellor’s Research Fellow, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh.

We are in an intense period of consultation on the Scottish Government’s draft energy strategy, and it’s proving to be a testing time for those academics seeking to offer ‘independent’ advice (both  constructive and critical) to policymakers.

The publication of the draft Energy Strategy and Climate Change Plan mark significant steps in policy formation in Scotland. Even though energy policy is still largely a reserved matter for the UK Government, and energy infrastructures are largely integrated at the GB-scale (socially as well as technically) the Scottish Government has had ambitions for an ‘integrated’ energy policy for some time, working across power, heat, transport and industry. To support this, the Government recently commissioned a whole energy systems model, known as ‘Scottish TIMES’ (TIMES being a widely used model type for energy policy support).

While whole systems energy modelling is a departure for Scotland, it has a long track record in research and policy communities elsewhere. In the UK as a whole, for example, TIMES-type models have been used in research and policy groups for well over a decade, and were instrumental in analytical support for the UK Climate Change Act, through work carried out by the UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC) and the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC), among others.

The track record of whole systems modelling for policy support is mixed. As the Scottish Government notes in its draft Climate Change Plan, whole systems models are valuable because they force systematic consideration of the most affordable way of meeting policy targets across different sectors. In principle this should promote a more transparent, robust and publicly accountable form of policy making, but the Scottish Government has been criticised by the Scottish Parliament for a lack of transparency and detailed analysis, even compared to earlier versions of its climate plans.

There are two big (and interrelated) problems here – one ‘technical and analytical’ and one ‘policy and political’. TIMES is the standard choice of energy policy support models because it combines breadth (economy-wide) and depth (it includes a detailed set of alternative technical options for meeting energy needs). This means it is also highly complex and difficult to understand, even for those closely involved. (I spent around three years working on a UKERC whole systems research project called ‘Energy 2050’ which used an earlier version of TIMES. Much of that time involved probing the inner-workings of energy system models and understanding the links between input assumptions and pathway outcomes).

The Scottish Government has had only around half that time, from receiving the model from the consultants commissioned to build it, to publishing its draft plan and strategy. It has also faced the additional policy and political challenges of gaining agreement on its plan and strategy across different parts of government and numerous sectoral interests each keen to minimise disruption and maximise benefit, and of reconciling climate policy ambitions with other imperatives (the draft energy strategy’s list of policy drivers are – in order – growth, security, affordability and decarbonisation).

Perhaps as a result the draft policy documents – while they affirm the Scottish Government’s high overall ambition on decarbonisation and low carbon technology deployment – are thin in terms of analytical detail and consideration of uncertainties and alternatives. The Climate Plan offers a single decarbonisation pathway to 2032, while the Energy Strategy wholly avoids integrated pathway analysis, instead highlighting ‘the range of technologies and fuels that will supply our energy needs over the coming decades’ (the focus here on supply-side technical matters is itself a stepping-back from a holistic view).

I wrote elsewhere about some of my more specific concerns about the Climate Change Plan. Here I note some more general challenges for independent researchers in seeking to contribute to energy policy debate and formation in Scotland. (By ‘independent’ here, I mean those of us working in the academic sector, whose research is supported mostly by public money; there are many other interest-groups feeding into the policy process, but as independent academics we have a particular role to consider the range and balance of evidence on difficult policy areas).

I often describe myself as an independent academic, and my main research organisation over the past decade, UKERC, defines itself as a centre for independent research, as does the CCC. Fulfilling that role has become harder recently, as energy policy has become increasingly contested and political consensus weakened in some countries. Offering an independent voice means being prepared to ask difficult questions to policy makers, and testing-out and challenging knowledge claims held by others seeking to influence policy. There is evidence that this challenge role is important for good governance, but alongside confident advocates of solutions it can feel like a pessimist’s version of the future. (Though a recent UK Parliament Committee pointed out the high cost of appraisal optimism in recent energy policymaking).

This all suggests the need to consider the institutional arrangements for research-policy exchange. Effective policy is unlikely to emerge from opaque deals – we need robust exchange and challenge, even on difficult areas. The UK Government currently stands accused of policy opacity, as energy policy seemingly becomes a branch of industrial strategy and clean growth, with a ‘policy gap’ between where an evidence-based energy policy should be and the reality, yet the CCC has proven a largely effective means of independent analysis and advice to government since 2008.

The CCC has a less formal advisory role in Scotland, and there is a lack of strong independent and integrative analytical capacity on energy and climate change in Scotland, despite recent efforts by ClimateXChange, among others. The draft Climate Change Plan suggests setting up a new expert advisory body. Evidence-based whole systems policymaking will always be frustrated by the realities of political and other interests, but as Scottish energy policy and research communities mature, a strengthened independent analytical base will be essential to meet the technical and political challenges ahead.

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