On 22 and 23 March 2018 a panel discussion and a workshop have marked the end of a fellowship funded by the Scottish Government, on the topic of ‘Scotland and the European Energy Union’, carried out by Dr Ronan Bolton, Dr Peter Zeniewski and Dr Mark Winskel, University of Edinburgh.
This blog is Peter Zeniewski’s reflections on the project.
Our project started in 2015, before the spectre of Brexit began to haunt Europe. The initial focus was on the technocratic and bureaucratic elements of integration that were working behind the scenes, in European committees and forums, to build a common energy system. A lot of this was dry, procedural and uneventful – thinks like network codes, market coupling, the conditions for accessing European loans for infrastructure investments, and so on. Even the word we used to describe some of what was going on – ‘technocratic internationalism’ – was hardly an explosive academic concept.
But the day after the referendum in June 2016, our project was quickly swept up in the politics of Brexit. From that point onward we were chasing our tails trying to make sense of it all. What would Brexit mean for the energy markets in both the UK and Europe? Will cross-border flows of oil, gas and electricity continue as usual? How will it affect investments in low-carbon technologies? Will Scotland get more or less power to determine its energy future? Suddenly we were victims of the daily vagaries of politics, under a thick cloud of uncertainty, trying to stay on top of energy-related developments emanating from statements made by Holyrood, Westminster, and Brussels.
The complexity remains fairly daunting: Brexit is like placing a bunch of moving parts atop an energy system with a bunch of moving parts. In Scotland and the rest of the UK, the challenges around decarbonisation will require huge investments, stable regulation, resilient infrastructure, and a deep and skilled pool of labour, and dare we say a hint of luck and good fortune. This is particularly relevant for Scotland, which happens to have introduced arguably the world’s most ambitious climate change targets at a time when the UK as a whole is leaving the European Union, and with it much of the institutional, commercial and political arrangements that have underpinned the drive to decarbonise Europe as a whole.
As consumers we might not feel much change to our energy services in the immediate aftermath of Brexit. As Keith Anderson, the CEO of Scottish Power, repeatedly assured us, “the lights will stay on.” But there are differing views about just how disruptive Brexit will turn out to be for the energy sector. Certainly, there may be fewer challenges than in other sectors such as chemicals, automotive or financial services. Energy – whether fossil or low carbon - may not command as much attention in Brexit negotiations as wider political and trade-related issues, but a stable, well-functioning energy system remains one of the crucial basic building blocks to an affluent, modern society. It is in this context that we will continue to monitor Brexit developments to ensure that Scotland in particular is well-placed to effectively deal with the many uncertainties it has engendered.