Scotland's Energy Future report cover

This inquiry was originally published in 2019, the information shown here is accurate to that time.

Report summary Read the full report


It has been more than a decade since the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) published its last major inquiry into energy. In this time, a huge amount has changed in the way we produce energy and the way in which we use it. Its importance, however, for the lives of the people of Scotland and for the Scottish economy is undiminished.

There are important issues about the demand for energy and the ways in which it is used; about the supply of energy and security of that supply; and about the impact of supply and demand on our environment, on the climate, and on the lives of consumers throughout Scottish society and in Scottish business.

We need to look at the opportunities that energy offers, in terms of innovation and research in areas such as supply, storage and delivery. We must also recognise the interconnected nature of supply and demand, between Scotland, the UK, Europe and, indeed, the wider energy supplying world. This thinking will illuminate the constraints and policy options that are available to those tasked with making the important decisions that will affect us all.

As Scotland’s National Academy, the RSE is in a unique position of having access to a wide range of expertise, provided by some of the foremost experts in Scotland. Furthermore, the RSE’s status as a renowned, impartial, learned society allows it to utilise this experience and knowledge to produce a considered view of the issues Scotland faces regarding energy and the options available to us.

Since the Inquiry launched in 2017, we have received written evidence from a wealth of sources, held discussions with individuals and groups from across all sectors, and held public meetings up and down Scotland to ensure this report engaged with as many stakeholders as possible. This work was only made possible with the backing of the RSE’s supporters, to whom we are immensely grateful.

We hope that this combination of expertise, evidence and engagement will allow this report, its findings and its recommendations to continue to inform public policy debate and decision making long past its publication.

It would be remiss if we did not extend our sincere thanks to the group of Fellows and academics who have served with such distinction on the Inquiry Committee, providing the invaluable knowledge, analysis and insight without which the report would not have been possible. Further information on the Committee can be found in the appendix to this report.

Finally, we would also like to acknowledge the work, and life, of our colleague Professor Paul Younger, who was involved in the early stages of this project, but sadly passed away last year.

Muir Russell

Sir Muir Russell
Inquiry Chair

Professor Rebecca Lunn looking at the camera

Professor Rebecca Lunn
Inquiry Deputy Chair

The Royal Society of Edinburgh, as the National Academy for Scotland, has a Fellowship containing great expertise across all the sciences, technologies, humanities and the arts. The Fellowship is elected from the worlds of academe, public and private service, commerce and industry. As a membership organisation, it has no political allegiance, nor does it represent any sectoral interest. As such, it is uniquely placed to offer informed, independent comments on matters of national interest.

Inquiry summary

Objectives and Approach

No energy policy, no matter how well-considered, will ever solve all of the problems and paradoxes of energy supply and use.

Those developing policy must ask how best to address the competing issues of the ‘energy quadrilemma’: addressing climate change; ensuring affordability; providing energy security; and developing energy policy which is acceptable to the public, economically sustainable and just.

Decision-makers will need to be honest with the public about what is achievable, what choices must be made, and what changes will need to occur.

Governance and Regulation

Significant progress has been achieved by the energy governance system for Scotland over the last decade, including the introduction of world-leading climate change legislation.

Scotland’s energy system is entering a challenging period of transition as the policy focus shifts towards the difficult task of decarbonising heat and transport, notwithstanding that difficult issues remain for electricity generation, and the oil and gas sectors.

Energy governance is highly complex, and while there have been significant successes, progress has been hampered by a systemic lack of transparency; weak planning, monitoring and implementation; and problems with delivering cost-effectiveness and protecting consumers’ interests.

A high level of sustained political cooperation between the Scottish and UK Governments is necessary to maximise the effectiveness of the governance structure and to achieve common objectives. The UK Government retains control of the main levers for energy governance, and so key aspects of the Scottish Government’s strategy can only be realised in full with UK Government agreement.

The energy system must be subject to a continuous process of scrutiny and reform in order to ensure effective governance and regulation. Currently, there is no one official body responsible for the independent, continuous and whole system review of all aspects of energy policy and governance.

Where We Are

The UK has historically been reliant on fossil fuels to meet its energy needs and, through its leading role in the industrial revolution, was and remains a major contributor to global carbon emissions.

The majority of Scotland’s energy consumption is attributable to heating, with electricity and transport playing smaller roles.

Energy consumption in Scotland is falling. However, despite over 89% of Scottish electricity being generated by low-carbon technologies, more than 80% of consumption is still attributable to the burning of fossil fuels, with renewables supplying 17.8%.

The UK is a net importer of energy and has several options through which to import this energy. In the event of interruptions to energy imports, the UK has very limited storage capacity, especially gas storage.

The Scottish Government has set targets for reducing carbon emissions, which have been met for the past two years. Further, more ambitious, goals have also been set.

Total global energy consumption continues to increase, although the types of energy consumed, and the profile of this use, varies significantly by region.

Understanding Trade-Offs

Future Scottish energy policy will rely on various decisions made by a number of actors, including government, industry, communities and individual members of the public.

Under all scenarios, Scotland will require energy. Difficult choices, which will inevitably have consequences, must be made.

All of the choices available to Scotland to meet its energy needs require trade-offs. In reaching an informed decision on Scotland’s energy future, it is imperative that the compromises that need to be made are understood, discussed and accepted.

Options for Meeting Scotland’s Energy Needs

The options below are not listed in order of merit. They represent a range of sources of energy generation and other ways of meeting Scotland’s energy needs. Some are more advanced than others and may provide a greater or lesser contribution to meeting demand.

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)

  • CCS could potentially facilitate the use of other fuels and technologies while limiting damage to the climate.
  • It would require a very high level of continued investment.
  • Many geological and technological challenges still exist though, and CCS may be some distance from being viable at scale.

District Heating

  • District heating has high up-front costs that would require significant investment.
  • Its use provides various social benefits, including the potential to play a role in alleviating fuel poverty, improving quality of life and utilising local sources of warmth in deprived areas.
  • For district heating to be economically viable, a longer-term policy and a regulatory approach would be required.


  • The electrification of transport and heat could significantly reduce carbon emissions, but only if the electricity used is generated from low-carbon sources.
  • A move towards electrification would require a significant increase in generating capacity. This increase could potentially be as high as 145% on current peak demand value by some estimates.
  • Substantial new infrastructure would be required to facilitate electrification.

Energy Efficiency & Demand Reduction

  • Reducing Scotland’s energy demand could play an important role in meeting many of its energy goals, and improved energy efficiency will be key to achieving this.
  • Reducing demand for energy could assist in significantly reducing Scotland’s carbon emissions.
  • Improved energy efficiency would require substantial investment and faces a serious obstacle in Scotland’s ageing and varied housing stock.

Onshore Gas

  • There is a significant amount of geological uncertainty over the size of potential shale gas reserves and uncertainty over the viability of the deposits which exist.
  • Continuing to burn substantial quantities of gas will exacerbate the problem faced by climate change and runs counter to the goal of reducing carbon emissions.
  • A domestic onshore industry based on shale gas reserves is challenged but, if viable, could improve security of supply.

Offshore Gas

  • Significant reserves and resources of gas are estimated to remain in the UK Continental Shelf.
  • Continuing to burn substantial quantities of gas will exacerbate the problem faced by climate change and runs counter to the goal of reducing carbon emissions.
  • Domestic production of gas to replace UK imports would make Scotland overtly responsible for health and safety and for minimising the industry’s environmental impact.

Domestic Oil and Gas Production

  • Significant reserves and resources of oil and gas remain in the UK Continental Shelf, albeit in ever diminishing levels. Production of this oil and gas could continue to provide a secure energy source.
  • Continuing to extract and burn substantial quantities of oil and gas will exacerbate the problem faced by climate change and runs counter to the goal of reducing carbon emissions.
  • Enhanced Oil Recovery and conventional oil and gas exploration and production would make Scotland overtly responsible for health and safety and for minimising the industry’s environmental impact.


  • Geothermal energy could play an important role in providing a practical, local source of ground-sourced, low-carbon energy to those in areas most affected by fuel poverty.
  • When used domestically, geothermal energy has a minimal carbon footprint.
  • Hotter geothermal sources are often sited away from the areas where heat is needed and challenges remain with storage and transportation.


  • A move from natural gas to hydrogen on a mass scale is technically feasible, but would require significant investment.
  • For the use of hydrogen to play a major role in reducing carbon emissions, Scotland would also have to substantially increase its renewable energy output, or be able to rely on CCS.
  • Hydrogen production and use could improve Scotland’s energy security, but would require the importation of methane and considerable additional storage capacity.


  • Importing energy from abroad does not allow Scotland fully to take responsibility for the impacts of its production and use.
  • Importation is currently able to meet fluctuating demand and so plays a role in ensuring security of supply, although it does leave the UK reliant on foreign countries.
  • The long-term availability of electricity for import may be impacted by the implementation of similar electrification policies across Europe.

Large-scale Nuclear

  • Nuclear energy provides Scotland with a significant amount of secure, reliable generation.
  • Nuclear power has zero carbon emissions at the point of generation and could play a major role in helping Scotland meet its climate targets.
  • Replacing the current generation of nuclear power stations would have substantial up-front costs, in addition to the significant investment needed over the longer term for decommissioning and waste management.
  • The future of deep geological disposal would be a significant challenge, as would the viability of continuing the current policy of sending spent fuels and certain waste from Scotland to England.

Small Modular Reactors (SMRs)

  • SMRs could provide many of the benefits of large scale nuclear energy, but in a form that may prove more acceptable to the public.
  • There is a high level of uncertainty over how long this technology will take to sufficiently develop.


  • Relying on bioenergy to produce a significant amount of generation would require mass importation of biomass, or a vast area of Scotland’s land being dedicated to energy crops.


  • Increased use of solar power could play a role in helping Scotland reach its climate targets.
  • In order for solar energy to play a significant role in generation, a very significant amount of space for solar panels would be required.

Onshore Wind

  • Scotland has very considerable wind energy resources, but attempting to harness these onshore requires significant areas of land and local support.
  • Further onshore wind development could play a significant role in helping Scotland meet its energy demand, while simultaneously reducing carbon emissions.
  • The variable nature of wind energy means that large-scale storage, or another form of generation, would likely be required in tandem.

Offshore Wind

  • Developing Scotland’s extensive wind resources offshore would allow Scotland to generate electricity without many of the social concerns surrounding onshore development.
  • Offshore wind could play a significant role in helping Scotland meet its energy demand, while simultaneously reducing carbon emissions.
  • The variable nature of wind energy means that large-scale storage, or another form of generation, would likely be required in tandem.

Wave and Tidal

  • Scotland has some of the best wave and tidal resources in the world and utilising them could help Scotland meet its climate targets.
  • Development of wave and tidal energy would require high levels of investment.


  • Hydropower has played an important role in helping Scotland achieve its climate change targets in the past and, with development, could continue to do so in the coming decades.

Smart Energy Systems

  • Scotland has the recognised research base in energy, technology, data science and wider informatics to capitalise on a move to smart energy systems.
  • Greater local renewable generation capacity could play an important role in helping Scotland meet its climate change obligations.
  • Smart local systems could facilitate greater community involvement in energy, planning and building community resilience.

Battery Storage

  • Development of large-scale battery storage could be transformative in facilitating the increased use of renewable energy.
  • Developing this to the scale required, however, is likely some way off and may ultimately prove prohibitively expensive.

Pumped Hydro Storage

  • Increased pumped hydroelectric storage could provide an important level of flexibility to the system, particularly in hours of peak demand.
  • Increasing capacity would, however, require substantial investment and have very significant impacts on the local environment.

Gas Storage

  • Increasing gas storage capacity in Scotland would improve energy security and may prove necessary to facilitate the use of other options such as hydrogen development.

Guiding Principles and Recommendations

There is no technological or regulatory solution that will meet all objectives, without hard and generally costly choices being made.

If correctly grasped, the challenges we face around energy could prove an enormous opportunity for Scotland to invest in the country’s prosperity and wellbeing, and position itself as a global innovator.

Difficult decisions need to be made by government and delaying making these will have consequences.

Emerging technologies may not reduce the cost of energy; indeed, the best solutions may be significantly more expensive in the short term than the energy upon which we currently rely.

It is vital that governments rely on robust scientific evidence when developing and implementing energy policy.

There is a need for significant additional research, development and training in the energy field across all levels of education.

The report makes the following recommendations

  1. An independent expert advisory commission on energy policy and governance for Scotland should be established under statute.
  2. Decisions on how and in what to invest must be made, and the most effective timeframes for investment activity and the potential nature of returns on different types of investment must be properly considered, by both the Scottish and UK governments, in a timely manner.
  3. Scotland requires a clearly articulated position on security of supply and must decide whether domestic energy-generating capacity should be increased.
  4. Scotland should look to improve its energy security by increasing the capacity, and diversifying its range, of storage options.
  5. Achieving our climate protection targets can be made easier by reducing overall demand for energy and achieving this should be a priority.
  6. Enforcing higher standards of energy efficiency in new-build housing and infrastructure should be a regulatory priority.
  7. Building regulations around energy efficiency and their enforcement should be regularly reviewed to ensure they are both more responsive to R&D and consistent with policy targets.
  8. The Scottish Government should review the need for R&D investment and skills development:
    • in energy-related areas in which they also consider there to be strong opportunities for economic growth;
    • to pilot community energy schemes;
    • into low-carbon technologies for the future;
    • into energy education throughout the school, college, university and general skills curricula.
  9. Serious consideration should be given to how best to socialise the costs of transition to address issues of social justice.
  10. All levels of government must be prepared to review and change existing policies where these policies are at odds with, or variant from, the overriding goal of carbon reduction.

Read the full Inquiry Report:

Scotland’s Energy Future