Last week a few eyebrows were raised at the idea of drawing up underground heat from below Glasgow’s streets, and the prediction that this could meet up to 40% of the city’s heating needs. I can understand why some people were sceptical; even in this relatively mild winter, it’s hard to believe as we trudge about the streets in February that there’s a ready supply of warmth under our feet.
But the study under way at Caledonian University will be looking at the disused tunnels and mineworks under the city’s streets, which stay warm throughout the year and which could be tapped for cheap energy. Glasgow wouldn’t be the first city in the world to use geothermal energy in this way, but it would be a unique example in Scotland or the UK, and the benefits could be huge for a city where around a third of households live in fuel poverty. That statistic is only likely to get worse as energy prices rise, unless we can do two things; cut down our costly waste of energy, and develop new sources of green energy.
Achieving those vital goals, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and using energy more efficiently, will require a real transformation of our energy system. But it must be done in a way which creates a social benefit too, and I think that means much more than just changing the technology. We have the chance to change the ownership structure too. Right now we’re almost all completely dependent on a handful of vast multinational energy companies, and the sad truth is that they will always put profit ahead of public interest. The global factors driving up energy prices can’t be wished away, and it’s not all the fault of these companies, but their primary function is to make bigger profits for their shareholders, not to serve their customers’ best interests. Right now we’re in danger of missing the chance to change that.
I think there will always be an important role for the private sector, but we certainly don’t need to leave these few huge companies so utterly dominant. Some European countries have successful publicly owned energy companies too, putting the profits from the industry back into serving the public good. Some of them are even developing renewable energy in Scotland, and while I’m happy to welcome their investment I can’t understand why we shouldn’t take the same approach ourselves, and reap the rewards for the public purse. Creating a Scottish public energy company would be a tremendous legacy to leave for future generations.
We could start building it right now, if local authorities used their borrowing power to invest in profitable sources of green energy. Different technology would work in different places, and in Glasgow those underground heat pumps could be a great way to start. In other areas wind, solar (yes, even in Scotland!) and hydro power would be options. The income generated could be invested in public services, or in the housing stock to cut down on energy waste and save even more money. Ultimately, if Scotland votes for independence, we’d have the chance to put a national energy company in place.
There’s a real chance we could make green energy the people’s energy, and I don’t think it’s a chance we can afford to miss.